THE BLOG

Democrats Still Need Jews, and Vice-Versa

02/12/2013 04:10 pm ET | Updated Apr 14, 2013
  • Shai Franklin Senior Fellow for United Nations Affairs, Institute on Religion and Public Policy

Even before President Obama delivers his State of the Union address Tuesday night, campaigning for the next round of Congressional elections is in full swing and the political classes are buzzing about 2016 Presidential hopefuls. And the GOP's appeals to Jewish voters have barely missed a beat since November.

Does the Jewish vote matter anymore, and is it even up for grabs? Despite a significant influx of Republican cash and commercials demonizing Barack Obama among American Jews, a Democratic President still won re-election by an impressive margin.

The President won in Florida, though he would have kept the White House even without that state's 29 electoral votes. And he won Florida's Jewish vote by a 2:1 margin, though the statewide totals were close enough that 40,000 more Jews voting Republican could have lost him the state. Florida's Jewish vote is definitely vulnerable to Republican appeals, but by 2016 the GOP's Jewish demographic window will have closed somewhat, nationally if not yet in Florida.

Across the country, the "Jewish vote" is being eclipsed by a rising tide of Democratic-leaning interest groups, including other ethnic minorities that were previously less politically engaged. For Democrats, any decline in Jewish support will likely be offset by the corresponding rise of Latinos, African Americans, women, and youth.

If Jews will continue to vote 65-75 percent Democratic regardless of Republican attempts to paint Obama and his team as Israel-haters, and they probably could survive without Jewish support anyway, then why should Democrats care, and why should Jewish Democrats bother trying?

No matter how well Democratic candidates do in local precincts and statewide, every vote still counts. And so does every dollar: Jewish and Israel-focused fundraising remains critical not only through 527 "super PACs" but also to individual campaigns, as candidates like to control their own funds rather than rely primarily on independent expenditures from afar. The massive political fundraising by American Jews is about evenly split between both major parties, though an objective study would be both complicated and controversial.

More importantly than the Democrats, it's Jews who should care, and not just those of us who identify with the Democratic Party.

For many Jews, the Democratic Party -- and President Obama -- carry the mantle of social justice and mutual responsibility so evident in our religious and cultural heritage, and evoked by the experience of our immigrant forbears. For most of us, the Jewish future points in that direction rather than the Republican promises of smaller government, bigger business, and "Christian" values.

Given our legacy of dispossession and persecution, and our deep attachment to the State of Israel, it is especially important for the American Jewish community to be seen as politically relevant and influential. This is much easier when the major parties see us as potentially in play. It also helps if Jews on either side are useful and loyal to their political allies. Whenever community leaders visit the White House, we are expected to convey Israel's perspective, but it's nice if we have also political standing on our own merits.

Beyond those White House visits, it is important for Israel to have explainers within the Democratic ranks. Because many Democrats actually believe all the rhetoric about human rights, equality and self-determination, peer-to-peer advocacy is critical. The past few years have seen Israel expand settlements, declare the West Bank is not "occupied territory," and serially threaten to attack Iran. For many Democrats, these kinds of policies will not generate automatic sympathy.

Republicans are still hoping to pull away more Jewish support, most recently by keeping the heat on Pentagon nominee Chuck Hagel, whom they depict as anti-Israel and anti-Semitic. In the process, as I previously blogged, they reinforce the dubious and polarizing message that Israel is exclusively a GOP issue. Compounding this, some of the most prominent American Jewish organizations -- which used to reflect mainstream Jewish attitudes on many issues including bipartisan support for Israel -- now effectively mirror U.S. Republican and Israeli Likud/Beteinu notions of what makes a politician either "pro-Israel" or otherwise.

Jewish Democrats have their work cut out for them, within both the Democratic Party and the Jewish community. But the work remains useful to the former, critical to the latter, and indispensable to the Jewish State. And it's time we stopped apologizing to Israel's right-wing government and to our Republican friends.

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