THE BLOG

Are American Jews Becoming Republicans Over Israel? Don't Bet On It

The belief that American Jews may flip to the Republican Party out of concern for Israel is not new. For example:

In 1981, Milton Himmelfarb (who happens to be Weekly Standard editor William Kristol's uncle), wrote in a piece for Commentary titled "Are Jews Becoming Republican?" that the 1980 presidential election may prove to be a watershed election in which Jews begin to turn to the Republican party, largely because of Israel.

In 1999, at a convention hosted by the Republican Jewish Coalition, Republican pollster Frank Luntz told the audience that "The magic word is 'Israel.' Pro-life Republican candidates, if they use less divisive social language, can win a significant portion of Jewish support if they are vocally and unconditionally pro-Israel."

In a 2003 report for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, titled "Are American Jews Becoming Republican?," Professor Steven F. Windmueller, questioned whether the event of 9/11 and terror attacks in Israel "could impact on Jewish political consciousness and even voting patterns."

The answer, at every turn as we now know, was no. But old and bad arguments have a funny way of creeping back into conservative talking-points.

Last month, Windmueller wrote a piece for The Jewish Week, familiarly titled "The Politics of Anger: Are American Jews Becoming Republican?":

"The emerging cohort of angry Jewish activists has taken on the political characteristics of "red-state voters" ... In particular, this group has sought to critique the Obama administration for what it perceives as its less than full support of Israel within the international community.

Now Bill Kristol has gotten into the act. Kristol cites a poll commissioned by the "Emergency Committee for Israel," which he chairs, as demonstrating that Democrats are losing touch with Israel, and that pro-Israel advocates (read: American Jews) should turn to the Republican party. "...is it time for pro-Israel liberals to rethink their attachment to liberalism?," Kristol questions.

The answer, yet again, is no.

American Jews indeed deeply care about the security of Israel and the U.S.-Israel relationship. But when it comes to voting, they also care about - and tend to base their votes on - other stuff, namely: the economy, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, health care, unemployment, and foreign policy in general--all of which were listed above Israel as issues determining American Jewish votes in the upcoming election according to the American Jewish Committee poll released this week.

This fact has in the past vexed Republicans and it continues to do so. (See Norman Podhoretz's book Why are Jews Liberals?)

But their denigration of American Jews' traditional political leanings can't help matters.

For example, Irving Kristol (Bill Kristol's father) wrote a paper in 1999 titled "On the Political Stupidity of the Jews," in which he stated that "A people whose history is largely a story of powerlessness and victimization, or at least is felt to be such, is not likely to acquire the kinds of skills necessary for astute statesmanship."

Kristol, the son, himself wrote for Commentary in June that "Fortunately, neither American nor Israeli foreign-policy need be guided by the head-in-the-sand political views of much of the American Jewish community." In the piece, he argued that:

"If the U.S. does act to prevent the Iranian regime from acquiring nuclear weapons, it will be due to a drumbeat of criticism of the Obama administration's lack of a serious Iran policy. That criticism is coming from American hawks, most of whom are not Jewish, more than from American Jews. So if the Obama administration is shamed into doing something effective with respect to Iran, perhaps the Jewish community will one day thank the Christian hawks. But I wouldn't bet on it."

Neither would I.

Earlier this month, Eric Cantor -- now the lone Jewish Republican in Congress today -- told the Wall Street Journal that the Jewish community is largely democratic because they "are prone to want to help the underdog." In a five-part series of posts on the Huffington Post -- and prominently promoted on the Emergency Committee for Israel's website -- Richard Chesnoff and Edward Klein argue that President Obama has a "Jewish problem" and cite as evidence their conversation with the Wall Street Journal's Bret Stephens, who essentially boils down American Jewish support for Obama as a case of Jewish guilt:

"The black-Jewish alliance was shattered in the late 1960s, and Jews have yearned ever since to restore it. Jews felt good about voting for Obama, for not only were they voting for a guy they agreed with and liked, but they were also voting for their own personal redemption."

The truth is that American Jews -- like their Democratic representatives -- care about Israel, but also progressive values and goals, like universal health care, valuing science and research, openly serving gays in the military -- ya know, just like Israel.

Polls showing dwindling support among American Jews for President Obama mirror national trends. 'Only' 57 percent of those polled in the AJC survey said it would be better if Democrats controlled Congress after the November election. This has a whole lot more to do with the struggling economy and the other issues listed above than with support for Israel -- and I wouldn't count on synagogues nationwide to begin hosting tea-party meetings anytime soon (albeit, with some exceptions).

It is indeed true that worrisome developments within Israel which threaten its democratic values have American Jews, and progressives broadly, deeply concerned. A stalled peace process and potentially nuclear Iran do as well. Conservatives are wrong to think they can exploit these concerns for electoral gains for two reasons.

First, the fear-mongering about President Obama's supposed lack of support for Israel just doesn't hold water. The issue of Israeli settlements in the West Bank has proved to be a significant point of disagreement between the administrations in Washington and Jerusalem... for the last 40+ years. Obama is not the first president to raise the issue of settlements (that was Lyndon Johnson -- and every president since), nor has he been the toughest when it comes to pressuring Israel to halt them (that would be the first President Bush). In fact, President Obama has reportedly offered Israel a plethora of unprecedented diplomatic and security guarantees from the United States for just a two-month extension of the settlement moratorium.

The United States' relationship with Israel has strengthened, not waned during the Obama administration, particularly concerning the threat from Iran. In addition to the Obama administration's leading a global effort to pass significant international sanctions against Iran, The Wall Street Journal reported that "U.S. aid to Israel has increased markedly this year." Following the report, AIPAC spokesman Josh Block stated that "Clearly the Obama administration remains deeply committed to the U.S.-Israel alliance, and supporting aid to Israel and deepening our military cooperation is just one aspect of that."

This is all a far cry from "the most anti-Israel administration in the modern history of the state of Israel and our relationship with her," as House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence recently told Christian Broadcasting Network in describing the Obama administration.

Second, conservatives aren't doing American Jews -- or Israel -- any favors by trying to use Israel as a tool for scoring political points. Instead, they should focus on the issues of genuine disagreement. But don't take my word for it. As Brandon Griefe of the College Republican National Committee wrote in April:

"Republicans must be careful not to create public controversy where none exists solely because they believe it is a winning issue with their own voters and a chance to appeal to traditionally Democratic Jewish voters. Likewise, Democrats would be foolish to waiver from their pro-Israel stance in order to induce concessions from Prime Minister Netanyahu in Palestinian bargaining talks. In an era when peace is at a premium, in the halls of Congress and in the Middle East, both parties would be wise to remember their agreement over Israel."

Is Griefe wrong? I wouldn't bet on it.