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American Jewish Voters: A Study In Contrasts

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Year after year, members of Congress and American government officials tell J Street activists to provide political cover for them to advocate for what has been official U.S. policy for decades. This policy holds that the only equitable and realistic solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is to have two states based on the 1967 borders of Israel, to be finalized after mutually agreed upon land swaps. Integral to this position is the view that the continuing construction of Jewish settlements in occupied territory threatens that vision for peace.

The "pro-Israel, pro-peace" lobby group J Street was founded for the express purpose of supporting this existing American government policy, and it is the central founding belief of J Street that it most accurately represents the attitudes of the American Jewish community on Israel.

Jewish "establishment" organizations that do not advocate active mobilization for a two-state solution, J Street says, neglect the central threat Israel faces without a resolution to its conflict with the Palestinians: the forfeiture of its democratic Jewish future.

The "Future of pro-Israel" campaign, launched before 2,500 people the weekend of March 23 at J Street's third annual national conference in Washington, D.C. was dubbed 'Making History.' With hundreds of grassroots community activists and students from around the United States attending, it aimed to do just that. Over the past several months many have submitted video clips to FutureOfProIsrael.com, confidently proclaiming why they are the future and why more traditional advocacy positions are that of the past.

The nationwide campaign seeks to highlight the central importance of implementing a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is essential at a time when the Iranian issue is a highlight of the Republican presidential primaries and when concern over Iran's nuclear program dominates headlines internationally. Among the thousands watching the launch were almost 700 participants, including students; grassroots activists from around the country; Israeli Members of Knesset and officials, including the deputy chief of the Israeli mission to the US; Israeli and American security officials; up to 60 members of Congress; and two members of the Obama Administration, including the President's close friend and personal adviser Valerie Jarrett.

J Street and its activists believe they are the future, and surveys of the American-Jewish community seem to support that claim given that they continue to support President Obama to the tune of 62 percent, according to the Public Religion Research Institute, despite tensions over the settlement issue between his administration and that of Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu.

Not only is the pro-peace, pro-Israel movement growing every year, but a poll commissioned by J Street in July of 2011 shows that the American Jewish community not only overwhelmingly backs the US government playing an active role in resolving the conflict (83%), but that it believes this even if it means the U.S. government publicly disagrees with both sides (81%), and less so, with Israel (54%). This shows that a majority of American Jews not only disagree that Obama "threw Israel under the bus," as characterized by Mitt Romney, but also dispute the claims of certain members of Congress that [Israeli-Palestinian] disagreements should be resolved privately.

And in contrast to the proclamations from national media regarding September's 9th Congressional District race in New York, where Jews were said to be turning on Obama -- and his local Democratic proxies -- because of his Israel policy, just 15 percent of 9th District voters listed Israel as a priority in casting their votes. Jim Gerstein, a pollster who also serves on J Street's board of directors, said at the conference that only 7 to 10 percent list Israel as their top two priorities.

"The economy and healthcare are their top two priorities, and they like what Obama did," he added.

Additionally, said Gerstein, stories are written in the media every election cycle about the impact of the "Jewish vote," despite the fact that Jewish voters and donors consistently break with the Democrats, year after year, and their swing vote is consistently overrated.

In 2008, 16 percent of American Jews said they gave to Obama, while 4 percent said they gave to McCain, Gerstein reported, adding such donors have a return rate of 80-percent, consistent with their Republican rivals.

The American Jewish community is a study of contrasts between a more conservative organizational establishment and liberal constituents. In light of the research of UC Davis sociologist Ari Kelman, indicating a decline of attachment to Israel from one generation to the next among non-Orthodox Jews, it would seem that a new approach to t his voter group is warranted.

Iran's nuclear program shows the dichotomy between the views of long established organizations such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and those of newer lobby groups such as J-Street. In contrast to the gleeful suggestions at AIPAC's conference from every Republican candidate besides Ron Paul that the U.S. should bomb Iran, most speakers at the conference, and in the organization itself, supported President Obama's more vigorous diplomatic approach.

American and Israeli officials participating in the conference, including former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. In his keynote address at the gala dinner, Olmert said that military action should be used "as a last resort, not as a first one."

"I don't have access to the latest intelligence," said former Israeli Military Chief of Planning and Knesset member Amram Mitzna, "but I'm listening to [Israeli security officials] Dagan and Ashkenazi. I don't believe there is a real military option."

Referring to Iran, Mitzna added, "They have not made a decision to build a bomb," and said that economic sanctions on Iran could help the situation.

Tony Blinken, an adviser to Vice President Biden, agreed with that assessment.

"Loose talk of war is incredibly counter-productive," he said, arguing that as even the Iranian president himself said U.N. imposed sanctions were the toughest yet, military action was far from an immediate necessity.

Foreign affairs analyst Robin Wright said that after her most recent trip to the region, Iranian officials reported that Iran was "beginning to feel the squeeze," but even that won't change government attitudes as diplomacy would.

"It would take three years to get a weapon at this point, and attacking them would cause them to restart their program," said Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, chief of staff to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, expressing support for the Obama administration's policy.

"The reason [Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin] Netanyahu focuses on Iran is to distract from the problem of the Palestinians, and this is dangerous for the future of Israel," Wilkerson said on a panel presenting A U.S. military perspective.

"What J Street will try to do is to make the point that it shouldn't be a tradeoff, that it is not an either/or situation," said J Street founder and President Jeremy Ben-Ami recently to the Jewish Forward newspaper.

J Street activists spent the day following the conference making that very point to members of Congress: that the threat of Iran is real, but should be addressed by American diplomacy at the same time as engaging the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, an imperative that grows stronger with every year that passes without a negotiated settlement.

"We've been dancing around this for 80 years," said former ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer, emphasizing that while the parameters of an agreement have been known for decades, political will is lacking.

"In the absence of leadership from the region, we can, and should expect leadership from Washington," he said, commenting, "An Obama visit to Jerusalem should have taken place before now."

Kurzter argued that the "Obama parameters" mean bridging differences creatively. Both sides should adhere to their agreements, especially those to freeze settlements, allow Palestinian movement, destroy the infrastructure of terrorism and build the Palestinian state, he said.

Contradicting statements made by Netanyahu at last year's AIPAC conference that the 1967 borders were indefensible, former member of the Knesset Mitzna argued that "NO borders in the Middle East are defensible without security agreements with neighbors!" He added that the only solution available was to create two separate but cooperating states.

J Street U, the student arm of J-Street, recently launched several new campaigns to improve conditions for Palestinians in the occupied West Bank. They also hope to pressure the U.S. government to prioritize a solution to the conflict. They asked student leaders to sign a letter showing their support for vigorous American leadership to bring about a two-state solution, in order to create an independent, secure and economically viable Palestinian state alongside Israel.

While many noted that responsibility for peacemaking does not lie solely with the Palestinians, and tough issues such as Hamas' role remain sticking points, many, including Blinken, Kurtzer, and especially Olmert, agreed on one point that was crystallized by the final speech of the conference, given by the former Israeli Prime Minister: "Don't tell me there is no partner," he said bluntly. "In Abu Mazen [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas], Israel has a partner for peace!"

Ryan Simon is a journalism student at San Francisco State University. If you would like to contribute as a citizen journalist to The Huffington Post's coverage of American political life, please contact us at www.offthebus.org.