Electionpocalypse, Part II: The Mythical Jewish Vote

[Part I of this two-parter, the Christian edition, is here. –Eds.]

Possibly one of the most ludicrous corrections published this election season was appended to a BuzzFeed story that ran under the headline, “Romney’s Pro-Palestinian Wing Riles Israel Supporters.” I’ll get to the substance momentarily, but first here’s the correction:

Correction: This article originally quoted Nick Hawatmeh as saying Romney supports a six-state solution—he actually said he supports a two-state solution.

Any reporter who thought that her source might have said “six-state solution” while speaking of the Israel-Palestine conflict should probably not be writing a story on the topic.

But in Rosie Gray’s and BuzzFeed’s defense, she was merely doing her job of generating some clicks after “Pro-Israel Democrats… complained to BuzzFeed Thursday that Romney was paying no political price for associating him with Israel critics at a time when Obama has been pounded constantly on alleged breaches of faith with the Jewish State.” The story even quoted “one official with a Jewish organization,” too chicken to be identified by name (and aided in this regard by Gray), pulling a conservative tactic, claiming that conservative activist Grover Norquist has ties to terrorists. (Norquist’s wife is Palestinian-American.) And we are supposed to conclude what from this? That Jewish Democrats can engage in Islamophobic guilt-by-association tactics as well as Republicans?

This was a clumsy attempt at pushback against Republican charges that Obama is insufficiently “pro-Israel.” But the out-Israel-ing each is the stagecraft of self-preservation for an audience that has other things on its mind.

There is no “Jewish vote.” Jews vote. A small number of them vote for Republicans. Most of them vote for Democrats. Every cycle the Republicans try to improve on their last performance, but Jews are overwhelmingly liberal. So Republicans try to draw them in by talking about Israel, an issue very few of them vote on, but an issue that has the added benefit of helping Republicans shore up their evangelical base.

Jews make up 1.7% of the American population, but are overrepresented in some sought-after swing states like Florida, Ohio, Nevada, and Pennsylvania. Memories of hanging chads and an election decided by 537 votes have prompted a frenzy of Yiddish: from the Republican Jewish Coalition’s “Oy” billboards in Florida to the pro-Obama “Call Your Zeyde” video released this week.

The historian Jonathan Sarna has chronicled the trajectory of the Jewish vote since Reconstruction and notes any contemporary Republican lean reached its apex with Ronald Reagan’s 1980 victory (40%).

Since 1988, when George H.W. Bush won 35% of the Jewish vote, no Republican has done better than John McCain, who won 26%, according to data compiled by the pollster Jim Gerstein and presented at the Democratic National Convention. Obama won 78% of the Jewish vote in 2008.

Sarna maintains, though, that 30% of Jews might be considered swing voters—and that’s what the Republican Jewish Coalition, fueled by Sheldon Adelson’s casino money, is hoping to capitalize on in swing states with relatively large Jewish populations.

At the heart of the Republican outreach is an effort to portray President Obama as anti-Israel—and worse. The defense from “pro-Israel” Democrats, though, is to defend Obama as being just as “pro-Israel” as any Republican, rather than to ask, “what does it mean, exactly, to be ‘pro-Israel’?” As a result, the quest for the “Jewish vote” is based on the presumption that all Jews define “pro-Israel” as “pro-Likud” and that it’s the singular issue driving their vote.

During the presidential foreign policy debate, both candidates tried to outdo the other with their love of Israel, and Palestinians were only mentioned—in passing—once (by Romney). Afterwards, Open Zion columnist Emily Hauser wrote, “What is destroying Israel is the occupation. What is threatening Israel’s future is the occupation. What will bring an end to the Zionist dream of a democratic, Jewish nation is the occupation.”

That, though, is not a topic of discussion in the campaign.

Peter Beinart—whose book The Crisis of Zionism and Open Zion blog at The Daily Beast have helped generate more discussion of these issues—recently castigated the American Jewish establishment for turning a blind eye to the rise of Avigdor Lieberman’s ultra-nationalist, racist Yisrael Beiteinu party. (It’s now slated to merge with Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, which was horrible enough before such a worrisome marriage.) Beinart is anathema to said American Jewish establishment, and he’s been slandered as anti-Israel. But as Shaul Magid noted in a review here, Beinart’s “critics, it appears, care far less about Israel than they do about what American Jews think about Israel.” 

The notion that Jews vote reflexively on Israel suggests that Israel, for them, is like abortion is for evangelicals: a make or break issue. Yet for all the strenuous “pro-Israel” utterances of both candidates, there’s little evidence that’s true.

The 2012 American Jewish Committee Survey of American Jewish Opinion found that just 4.5, 4.2, and 6.1% of respondents ranked U.S.–Israel relations as their first, second, and third top issue in the election, respectively. (Besides, 61% of respondents approved strongly or approved somewhat of the way that President Obama is handling the US relationship with Israel. Whatever that means.)

The New York Jewish Week, which is quite conservative on such matters, drilled down further into these figures in an editorial last month:

Those statistics might come as a shock to those who list Israel as the most important issue. The political divide in the Jewish community between Orthodox Jews and the rest of American Jewry is reflected in the fact that Orthodox Jews support Romney over Obama by 54 to 40 percent, while Conservative, Reform and “just Jewish” voters favor Obama by between 64 and 68 percent.

Orthodox Jews made up just 8.3% of the respondents to the AJC poll. The rest: Conservative, 26.6%; Reconstructionist, 1.6%; Reform, 32.2%; and “just Jewish,” 27.4%. So while the Orthodox are more Republican, they are a minority of the minority.

The Jewish Week also noted, “Obama is favored by Jewish women 69-19 percent, with concern about abortion legislation a major factor.” That must be why Romney surrogate, former Minnesota Senator Norm Coleman, recently misled a Republican Jewish Coalition gathering in Ohio—in direct contradiction of Romney’s own position—that the GOP candidate had no intention of overturning Roe v. Wade.

Perhaps Jews are also skeptical of efforts to portray Obama, who is still pretty popular, as a malevolent figure, a tactic that can have a whiff of birtherism. According to a report by Peter Stone for the Center for Responsive Politics, the Republican Jewish Coalition, funded in part by Sheldon Adelson, aims to spend $6.5 million before Election Day questioning Obama’s commitment to its version of being “pro-Israel.”

The RJC’s nine-minute web video, “Perilous Times,” ominously declares, “things have changed” in the US relationship with Israel “since Barack Obama became president.” But even the Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman told Stone that quotes used in “Perilous Times” were “skewed, selective, and frequently out of context.” Indeed if one watched the video (part of the RJC’s “my buyer’s remorse” campaign) in a vacuum, not knowing or ever talking to any actual Jewish voters, one might conclude that all American Jews—and, similarly, all Israelis—view Obama as an almost villainous character. “No Jewish American,” the American-born writer Barry Rubin says in the video, “should vote for Obama on the belief that he’s a great friend of Israel.” You should think about, the narrator tells you, “whether Obama will really have Israel’s back when the chips are down.”

Mark Zell, co-chair of Republicans Abroad-Israel, recently told reporter Roee Ruttenberg, “in the United States, the Jews don’t have a clear picture of their own interests, they get clouded by all kinds of other concerns, including their traditional inclinations towards liberal social and economic policies. In Israel, we focus on what is good for the Jews.” Zell told the Global Post, “Jews in the U.S. have got their heads up a particular cavity. We’re trying to get through to them that they have been deceived as Jews. But then, they’re not voting as Jews—they are voting as liberal Democrats. It’s just irrational.” Zell isn’t just “pro-Israel.” He’s a conservative, using Israel as a tool to berate Jews voting for Obama.

A recent report shed light on the activities of the 501(c)(4) group ivoteIsrael, which is decidedly pro-Romney and is helping Americans living in Israel (who vote Republican at roughly the same rate that Jews living in the U.S. vote Democratic) obtain and send in their absentee ballots. iVote Israel is now claiming, according to the Times of Israel, that 85% of the 80,000 Americans living in Israel who used its services voted for Romney. Of course that doesn’t prove that Jews are voting in greater numbers for Romney this year, just that Jews who used iVoteIsrael’s services did.

Certainly there are Jews in the U.S. who hold this view (the RJC, after all, is not supported by Adelson alone). Detroit Free Press religion reporter Niraj Warikoo reports on Twitter that hundreds of Detroit-area Jews have signed a multi-page advertisement by Michigan Jews for Romney/Ryan to run in the Detroit Jewish News. It declares, “Four years of failed economic and anti-Israel policies demand we choose a new direction for our country.” And Roger Cohen reported in the New York Times that the group Jews for Israel 2012 ran an ad in the Cleveland Jewish News that asked, “Are you willing to bet the life of the Jewish people on this president?” Robert Goldberg, a former chair of the Jewish Federation, told Cohen, “Jews just don’t trust Obama on Israel… The president has no sympathy for Israel. His sympathy is for the Muslim world he knew as a child.”

Jews responding to the AJC survey, though, not only largely support Obama on Israel, but they take a dim view of Romney’s running mate, known as the Republicans’ whiz kid on economic issues. Forty-one percent of respondents told the AJC they “disapproved strongly” of Romney’s selection of Ryan as his running mate, and 21.9% said they “disapproved somewhat.” That, I would think, add up to a much harsher Jewish indictment of the Republican economic agenda than of the Obama administration’s stance on Israel.

One tragic—and actually preposterous—meme that emerges from all this anti-Obama campaigning is that the country’s first black president, who is not at all anti-Israel, is hostile to Jews. Or, as framed by Romney’s evangelical supporters, that another Obama term would risk God’s judgment on America. Meanwhile, Jewish Democrats push back by strenuously insisting that that Obama is very, very pro-Israel (as defined by the Republicans). Maybe someday we’ll have an election with an honest discussion about Israel, the occupation, and the Palestinians without fearmongering about what’s “good for the Jews.”

Sarah Posner, author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, covers politics and religion. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The American ProspectThe NationSalon, and other publications. Follow her on TwitterRSS feed Email