THE BLOG

Are American Jews About to Follow the Canadian Pattern?

07/05/2011 05:58 pm ET | Updated Sep 04, 2011

When it comes to the American Jewish community and Israel, hysteria seems to be the requisite emotion underlying and conditioning policy ideas and commentary, at the expense of more reasoned and careful thinking.

Take, for example, Politico's story on the decline in support for Barack Obama among Jewish Democrats. Many seasoned Jewish analysts don't think much of the argument. They note that most Jews don't vote on single concerns, including Israel, and that they are more liberal on social issues anyway, in sharp contrast to the Republicans.

And the story, including the anecdotal evidence that seems to support it, needs to be put into its proper context. As I've argued, Obama hasn't done anything to disrupt relations with Israel. The tiff between him and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is certainly not the worst in the relationship between the two countries: anybody remember the loan guarantees dispute between George H.W. Bush and Yitzhak Shamir?

Somewhat surprisingly, nobody seems to have pointed to the Canadian case as potentially being replicated here. After all, there are many similarities between the two Jewish communities, including shared community institutions. Not to mention the regular personal, institutional, and geographic links tying Canadian and American tourists, businesspeople, artists, and others.

In Canada, voting patterns among the Jewish community do appear to have shifted right, away from the Liberal Party (where they have long been anchored) and toward the Conservative Party (the Canadian equivalents of the Democrats and Republicans, respectively). Data indicates that more Canadian Jews voted for the Conservatives in the May national elections than ever before, including in "safe" districts with a high concentration of Jews and where the Liberals had long been able to count on Jewish support but which they lost in May.

And similar to Republican strategy, in Canada Conservative leader Stephen Harper and his party have made very explicit efforts to reach out to different ethnic groups to pry them away from the Liberal Party, where minority voters tend to go.

At the same time, Harper has taken a very "moral" and "principled" stance on Israel. By that I mean he genuinely believes that the right thing to do is to support Israel no matter what -- as a fellow democracy against authoritarian and terrorist states and groups. In international affairs Harper has defended Israel even when Canada's close allies, including the U.S., did not: In the 2006 Lebanon War and the 2008-2009 Gaza campaign he blamed Hezbollah and Hamas for the violence. At the recent G8 meeting in France, Harper alone prevented the leaders from issuing a statement on the peace process that referenced the 1967 borders and land swaps as the basis for negotiations, which Obama was pushing for.

All this has taken place during a period when the Liberal Party under leader Michael Ignatieff --seemingly like the Democrats under Obama -- appeared to be at best equivocal in its support for Israel, at worst hostile toward it.

We can apply lessons learned from the Canadian example to United States, by looking more closely at the key differences between the two communities. First, the Canadian Jewish community is founded on a more conservative and traditional outlook; Reform Judaism, for example, is not nearly as strong in Canada as in the U.S..

Second, the Canadian Jewish community has historically been much more Zionist -- in terms of emotional attachments, financial contributions, and political support -- than has the American one.

Third, the current slate of Republican candidates is unlikely to appeal to most American Jews, who tend to be very liberal on social issues. Tea Party, evangelical, or small government Republican candidates have little in common with most Jewish voters. Indeed, the current crop is trumpeting policy ideas that are anathema, if not downright scary, to many Jewish voters.

Probably a few Jewish votes will shift from the Democrats because of Israel. Obama has already been saddled with a perception as "anti-Israel" or at least as more "pro-Palestinian." But these differences indicate that the American Jewish community, despite some dissatisfaction with Obama and his foreign policy, won't move right. There are too many other structural forces at play.

This is why we need to think more cautiously about the Jewish community and Israel, instead of making overly-broad statements with shallow explanations. We cannot assign too much causal significance to this one brief period in American-Israeli relations.