Sunday, January 25, 2009

Why did the Jews vote for Obama?

Australian polymath JR started our ongoing (if desultory) colloquy by wondering, here, why the Jews, in America, continue to support their political enemies and eschew an alliance with their real friends.

Shmuel Rosner analyzes the 2008 election results at Commentary
, here, and provides I think a fairly good if detailed explanation.

A few highlights:

Once again, Republicans and politically conservative Jews find themselves engaged in wrenching discussions about why the Jewish vote is so unyieldingly Democratic when the GOP can honestly claim it is a far better friend to Israel and the Jewish people than its rival. In fact, its support for Israel has earned it so little in the way of credit from the American Jewish community that it can only be seen as a matter of underlying principle.

The answer may be that there is a continuing, and fundamental, misunderstanding of the political issues that motivate American Jews. According to the American Jewish Committee’s 2008 edition of its annual survey of Jewish opinion, conducted in September, a majority of Jews, 54 percent, wanted the presidential candidates to “talk more” about the economy. By contrast, only a tiny fraction, three percent, wanted to hear more about Israel. Similar evidence of the relative electoral unimportance of Israel comes from a survey taken by J Street, which asked likely Jewish voters to check off the two issues, from a list of thirteen, “most important for you in deciding your vote for President and Congress this November.” Fifty-five percent chose the economy, 33 percent the war in Iraq, 15 percent energy, and 12 percent the environment. Just 8 percent chose Israel.


Obama and his campaign understood they had a weakness they needed to confront, and he began to court the Jewish vote. Speaking regularly to Jewish groups, and giving interviews to the Jewish and Israeli press, Obama emphasized his strong support for Israel’s security (“sacrosanct”), his determination to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons (“no option is off the table”), and even his opposition to the division of Jerusalem (a position from which he almost immediately had to backtrack).

This pattern—of Republican hopes swelled by apparent Jewish concern about Democratic softness on Israel soon dashed by a savvy Democratic response—is now a recurring one. Prior to the 2004 presidential election, some Republican strategists believed that President George W. Bush was likely to outperform his Republican predecessors by receiving a Jewish vote similar to the record share (38 percent) Ronald Reagan received in 1980. In December 2001, a survey by the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) went so far as to conclude that “If the election were held today . . . more Jews would vote for Bush—42 percent—than for former presidential candidate Al Gore, who received 39 percent support.”


The fact that Republicans have repeatedly been unable to play the Israel card is not solely due to the fact that Israel is no longer the central issue on the Jewish-American agenda. In the 2008 American Jewish Committee poll, a large majority of Jews still claimed that they felt “very close” (29 percent) or “fairly close” (38 percent) to Israel. The inescapable conclusion is that if a candidate claims to be a friend of Israel, the claim will be accepted and believed, so long as his positions on other issues are deemed acceptable. And given the extent to which the bar has been lowered, all one has to do to qualify as “pro-Israel” is not actively agitate for the country’s demise.


The question now is whether Republicans have any hope of winning the Jewish vote at any point in the future. The answer is: Perhaps. In a generation. If certain demographic trends hold firm. In November, the Orthodox Union compiled a list of precincts “with high-concentrations of Orthodox Jewish voters,” from which it was clear that the Orthodox tend to vote Republican in much higher numbers than the Jewish community overall. Indeed, it is even possible that the Orthodox constitute a majority of the Jews who vote Republican. Given that the Orthodox are younger than the Jewish average, and are proportionally growing much faster, over time one might expect the share of Jews who vote Republican to increase.

This is not to say that the efforts of politically conservative Jews and Jewish organizations to win support for candidates on the Right are of no value. There is a danger, in fact, that if such efforts decline in intensity, Democrats will be freed to take Jewish support entirely for granted whatever the positions they take on Israel and no matter what risky policies they are willing to experiment with that place Israel in peril. Following the Obama landslide among Jews, Republican activists such as Matthew Brooks, the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, argued with some justification that by pressuring Obama on Israel-related issues, his group and others had forced Obama’s hand, leading the Democratic nominee to speak full-throatedly on Israel’s behalf and put himself on record before taking the Oval Office as a President who has committed himself to ensuring Israel’s safety at a uniquely perilous moment.

The entire article is worth reading.

(Having completed an initial reading of Martin Goodman's Rome and Jerusalem, I next propose to present his thesis as to how the Flavian dynasty's need for military credibility inadvertently set in motion 2,000 years of anti-Semitism. Perhaps later today.)

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