08.22.10

Obama's Silent Jewish Majority

Pundits claim Jews are abandoning the president. But the truth is, he remains more popular with Jewish voters than any other ethnic group, save blacks. Eric Alterman on the perpetual myth of the Jewish rightward shift.

Times columnist Charles M. Blow was apparently light on ideas for his weekly column the other day and so he decided to wade into the “Is Obama Good for the Jews” waters. He should have stayed on dry land.

The thing about Jews is that you can find one willing to say just about anything. Do Jews support the Park51 Community center? Yes, they do. Do they oppose it? Sure. Do they oppose Israel’s settlement policy? Absolutely. Do they support it? Damn straight they do.

On what authority does Blow have it that most American Jews decide their vote purely on the issue of Israel, or that Obama’s policies toward Israel are particularly unpopular with Jews?

To make his case, Blow turns to John Bolton, one of the most radical members of the Bush administration who has called for an Israeli attack on Iran the day before yesterday at the latest. When Bolton calls Obama’s June 2009 Cairo speech “most radical anti-Israel speech I can recall any president making,” he is probably not trying very hard. George H.W. Bush and James Baker were much tougher on Israel than Obama was, or could imagine being. And Ed Koch, well, come now. The former New York City mayor is so crazy in matters relating to the Tribe, he once demanded that the U.S. boycott France (and Woody Allen). And is it really news that Rep. Mike Pence, the Republican Conference chairman, told the Christian Broadcasting Network, “I believe the Obama administration is the most anti-Israel administration in the modern history of the state of Israel and our relationship with her.” I think it would be news if he didn’t. The people who are complaining about Obama at the top of their lungs are, like Bolton, largely the ones who didn’t want him elected in the first place. You can find 31 or so of them collected here.

Casting a slightly wider net, Blow cites the Pew Foundation’s recent survey that Jewish Republican support now “stands at the highest level since the data have been kept,” though he doesn’t say when that was. The figures presented only go back to 2006, when everybody’s support for Democrats was way higher than it is today. Blow insists that “This is no doubt a reaction, at least in part, to the Obama administration having taken a hard rhetorical stance with Israel, while taking special time and care on our relationship with the Muslim world.’"

Oh, really? Well, I doubt it. Barack Obama, like pretty much every Democrat before him, remains more popular with Jews than with just about any other ethnic group in America, save blacks. His approval rating among Jews, steady in the low 60s, is about 15 percent higher than it is with the goyim. Neoconservatives have been predicting a Jewish turn toward the Republicans since George McGovern only got about two-thirds of the Jewish vote—that’s right, only two-thirds—and yet it never happens. (See for instance, “Milton Himmelfarb, “Are Jews Becoming Republicans?” Commentary, August 1981. Having lost patience, they started complaining about what Irving Kristol not so fondly called “The Political Stupidity of the Jews.”) Even so, on what authority does Blow have it that most American Jews decide their vote purely on the issue of Israel, or that Obama’s policies toward Israel are particularly unpopular with Jews? Blow may be without doubt on these points, but he is also without any reliable evidence.

According to a spring 2010 survey conducted for J Street, the “pro-peace, pro-Israel” American Jewish lobby, American Jews support the policies undertaken by the Obama administration on Middle East peace by margins of three or four to one, depending on how the question is asked. They are pretty much evenly divided about whether it’s a good idea for the U.S. to openly criticize Israel—as Obama has done in response to the Netanyahu government deliberate thumbing its nose in America’s eye over settlement policy—with a small plurality of 40 to 44 percent agreeing “that the United States should publicly express our disagreements and request Israel to change certain policies.”

Douglas Schoen: Why Obama's FailingBlow falls back on the columnist crutch, leaning on Times reporter Helene Cooper, who noted, “It remains unclear whether Mr. Obama’s latest outreach will reassure American Jews and the general public in Israel, where Mr. Obama’s approval ratings have plummeted.” Yes, all things futuristic “remain unclear,” particularly when one refuses to define one’s terms. Amazingly, Blow, like Cooper, does not appear to distinguish between American Jews and “the general public in Israel” even though the two are citizens of two entirely different countries, only one of which Obama is president. Second, Blow pretends that the issue at stake is Jewish votes, but adds, cryptically, that “their influence outweighs their proportion.” Interestingly, Blow does not bother stating why. I don’t disagree, of course, but I don’t see the point of playing footsie about it either, unless you happen to work for Abe Foxman.

The fact is one can make a case that Obama is a great president for Israel and for American Jews just as easily as one can make the opposite case. One can even do it on the very terms these “pro-Israel Jews” use to define the terms of the debate. He was just about the only world leader anywhere to go along with Israel’s crazy argument for why it had to raid a peaceful aid mission to Gaza and ended up killing nine people, for one. And as The Wall Street Journal reported last week, “U.S. military aid to Israel has increased markedly this year. Top-ranking U.S. and Israeli soldiers have shuttled between Tel Aviv and Washington with unusual frequency in recent months. A series of joint military exercises in Israel over the past months has included a record number of American troops.” Even AIPAC is on board, at least when asked a direct question. Asked for a comment by Think Progress, spokesman Josh Block said, “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.” Does Charles Blow really want to go to his grave being more “pro-Israel” than AIPAC?

Look, it’s Obama’s job to prod and push Israel toward peace, no matter how recalcitrant the right-wing government there might be. It’s good for Israel, which needs peace more than anything, and it’s good for America. As Gen. David Petraeus told Congress in March, the continuing conflict is a key driver of instability and anti-Americanism in the region. It is therefore in the interest of U.S. national security that the conflict be resolved.

Last week Obama succeeded, somehow, in convincing the Palestinian Authority to agree to restart peace talks without agreeing to any of their demands whatever. Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator, told the Times: “Abbas wanted a clear reference to the 1967 lines; instead he was given 12 months to continue making his case in the hopes that the Americans will intervene decisively.”

Far more worrisome for all of Israel’s well-wishers than this alleged conflict with Obama is the fact that, as Blow accurately (this time) notes, “Recently, the Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg and the Israel Project, a nonprofit in Washington, conducted a poll that they said found American support of Israel was dropping like a rock.” Maybe the problem is less in Washington than in Jerusalem. After all, it’s Israel that needs America’s support to survive, not the other way around, boychick.

Eric Alterman is a professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College and a professor of journalism at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He is the author, most recently, of Why We're Liberals: A Handbook for Restoring America's Important Ideals.