It’s not about Israel, stupid

The American Jewish allegiance to the Democratic Party is not as strong as it once was, nor as invulnerable as it may appear in the wake of Obama’s victory. Republicans can undermine it, but only if they revamp their party and realize that Israel is not the only issue that American Jews care about.

By Dov Waxman

They had the money (thanks to Sheldon Adelson), they had the belief, and they had the attack lines (“Obama throwing Israel under the bus”), so what went wrong? Why did the Republican Jewish establishment—led by the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) and the Emergency Committee for Israel—fail to siphon off significant Jewish support from the Democratic Party? Despite spending millions of dollars on political advertising and targeted outreach, despite incessant scare mongering about Iran’s nuclear program, and despite Prime Minister Netanyahu’s not-so-subtle support for Republican candidate Mitt Romney, American Jews once again voted for Obama and the Democratic Party. However hard the RJC tries to spin it, the facts speak for themselves—more than two-thirds of American Jews cast their ballots for Obama and for Democratic candidates in congressional elections. The American Jewish commitment to the Democratic Party endured in 2012.

There are plenty of reasons why American Jews voted for Obama and continue to support the Democratic Party.  Many of them remain staunchly liberal, especially on social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. This fabled liberalism is not, as some would claim, rooted in the Jewish tradition. After all, the most traditional Jews—the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox—are actually the least liberal. Liberalism is, however, an integral part of the ethos and identity of secular American Jews, whose collective memory is that of being the descendants of victims of persecution and discrimination in Europe and destitute immigrants in America.

But it is not only American Jewish memory and identity that lends itself to liberalism.  It is also American Jewish interests. As members of a minority, American Jews are acutely sensitive to anything that could endanger their status and security in the United States. Right-wing Christian nationalism—the kind embodied in the Tea Party movement—is exactly the kind of thing that Jews have learned to fear and almost instinctively recoil from. No matter how much the Christian right professes its die-hard support for Israel, most American Jews will remain extremely wary of it.  And with good reason. Simply put, the more powerful the Christian right becomes in the United States, the less comfortable American Jews will feel.

As long as the Republican Party is in thrall to the Christian right, therefore, it will struggle to attract significant Jewish support; and as long as the Democratic Party is the champion of minorities (Blacks, Latinos, gays and lesbians, etc.), most American Jews will feel more at home in it (that is, at least as long as they continue to identify themselves as a minority).

The Republicans’ strategy to overcome this problem has been to appeal to American Jews on the basis of their support for Israel. They have desperately tried to pander to the pro-Israel sentiment of American Jews by flaunting their absolute commitment to Israel and trying to paint Democrats, especially President Obama, as unreliable allies for the Jewish state.

The problem with this strategy, and the reason why it has failed again in 2012, is two-fold. First, very few Democrats, and certainly not President Obama, can credibly be described as anti-Israel. Whatever President Obama’s much-publicized disagreements with Prime Minister Netanyahu, it’s hard to convince most American Jews that a president who has strengthened defense ties with Israel, increased military aid for the country, and supported it in international forums is not really a friend of the Jewish state. Most American Jews simply didn’t buy this argument.

The second, and bigger problem, with the Republicans’ Israel-centered strategy is that it rests upon a fundamentally false understanding of American Jewry.  It assumes that American Jews have a kind of atavistic attachment to Israel that supersedes their other commitments and loyalties.   If you can convince them that you love Israel more than your opponent, according to this logic, then you’ll win their vote. American Jews, however, are not single-issue voters.  Although the vast majority of them care about Israel and want the United States to support it, they also care about many other things. In fact, Israel is not the most important issue to them. Not even close. In this election, the economy, healthcare, Social Security, Medicare, the deficit and government spending were all more important issues in influencing the ‘Jewish vote’ than Israel. Only a small minority of American Jews, around 10 percent, vote with Israel foremost in their minds.

Until the Republican Party and its operatives in the Jewish community understand that most American Jews are not so obsessed with Israel that their vote will be determined by who they consider to be its strongest supporter, they will continue to fail in their efforts to woo Jewish voters.  Instead of trying to exploit Jewish anxiety about Israeli security, Republicans would be far better off trying to shed their image as a party largely run by and catering to white, Protestant Americans, particularly men. If they succeeded in this, not only could they attract more Jewish support, they could also—and much more importantly—attract more Hispanic and African-American support. Perhaps by the time of the next Presidential election in 2016 they will have managed this, although such a makeover seems unlikely in the space of just four years.

Democrats should not gloat too much however. While they prevented a significant defection of Jewish voters to the Republicans in this election, there is still a slow, continued erosion of Jewish support for the Democratic Party.  The Republican share of the Jewish vote has steadily increased over the last twenty years, from just 11 percent in 1992, to 19 percent in 2000, to 30 percent in this election. This trend is likely to continue as the American Jewish population gradually becomes more Orthodox over time—surveys show that Orthodox Jews are much more likely to vote Republican. Unlike the changing demographics of the American population in general which favors the Democratic Party, therefore, the demographic trend in the American Jewish community favors the Republicans.

The American Jewish allegiance to the Democratic Party, then, is not as strong as it once was, nor as invulnerable as it may appear in the wake of Obama’s victory. Republicans can undermine it, but only if they revamp their party and realize that Israel is not the only issue that American Jews care about.

Dov Waxman is an associate professor of political science at Baruch College and at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York (CUNY).  He is the co-author of Israel’s Palestinians: The Conflict Within (Cambridge University Press, 2011) and the author of The Pursuit of Peace and the Crisis of Israeli Identity: Defending / Defining the Nation (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).  He is currently a visiting research associate at St John’s College, Oxford University, and a visiting scholar at the Oxford Center for Hebrew and Jewish Studies.

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