11.05.10

Jews Snub the GOP. Again

The right painted Obama as anti-Israel, hoping to pry Jewish voters from their Democratic roots. Nice try. Maybe the scare tactics were meant for conservative Christians instead

Remember New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow's worry, expressed here, that President Obama's alleged unpopularity with Jews was going to (finally) undo the more than 80-year association between Jews and the Democratic Party? How'd that go, Mr. Blow?

If ever there were an election in which Jews could be expected to abandon the Democrats, this was it. I mean just about everybody did, save blacks and young people (who largely abandoned him by not voting). The Republicans had a Jew ready to assume the No. 2 position in the House and people like William Kristol, Rachel Abrams, and their friends on the "The Emergency Committee for Israel," who were working like hell to scare up a ton of gelt to scare some more Jews into voting Republican by insisting, in the words of Gary Bauer, one of its founders, that Barack Obama was presiding over "the most anti-Israel administration in the history of the United States."

In its first ad, the group attacked Democrat Joe Sestak for signing a letter criticizing Israel's blockade of Gaza and asked, "Does Congressman Joe Sestak understand Israel is America's ally?"

Interesting, while Sestak could not squeak out a victory, he did even better with Jewish voters than did most Democrats, which was pretty damn good. Sestak polled 71-23 percent among Pennsylvania Jews over his Republican opponent Pat Toomey, according to a J Street poll; the same one that showed Jews, nationally, embracing Democrats by a 66 to 31 percent margin.  Now compare this to 37 percent Democratic vote for white voters in general in House races, according to a CNN exit poll. What's more, the polling also demonstrates that the scare tactics vis-à-vis Israel were a non-starter for most Jewish voters, as it was identified as the most important issue in determining which party to choose by only 7 percent of voters, well behind the economy, health care and government spending. Not only that, these same Jews told pollsters that they preferred Sestak's pro-administration focus on pushing both sides on peace talks to the more hawkish view that sought to punish the Palestinians by a margin of nearly two to one. (Nationally, 83 percent of Jews polled say they want America to play "an active role in helping the parties to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, roughly the same number who agree that a "two-state solution is necessary to strengthen Israeli security."

Going more deeply into the material, J Street's pollster, Jim Gerstein, found that the concerted attack by Kristol and company proved a total bust, failing to move a total of 86 percent of Jewish voters who indicated that they were either unaware of the criticism (70 percent) or that it made no difference in their vote even if they were aware of it (16 percent). The remaining voters were split, with 8 percent more likely to vote for Toomey and 5 percent more likely to vote for Sestak as a result of the attacks.  Given the fact that most of these voters were stalwart Republicans or Democrats, the entire exercise appears to have been a bit pointless.

In light of all the wasted resources, one wonders if the smart folks behind all these tactics knew what they were doing, or perhaps had another goal entirely in mind. Perhaps they were fooled by the fact that "professional Jews"—those associated with Jewish organizations—spend a lot of time kvetching about Obama. As Democratic pollster Doug Schoen put it, "what we've seen at the elite level, where there has been a move away from [Obama], is not necessarily fully reflected in mass public opinion at this point."

 Or perhaps the entire effort was a kind of bluff. As Helene Cooper noted in The New York Times,  while Obama's "domestic agenda may end up being stalled for the next two years, national security remains his domain, no matter how unfriendly Congress may be. And the United States' relations abroad, political and foreign-policy observers say, may be the broadest avenue left for Obama to accomplish anything during the remainder of his current term." The neocons and Christian fundamentalists behind the alleged "emergency" facing Israel may not be aiming their commercials at voters, whom, as we noted earlier, don't put Israel at the top of their agenda. Rather these groups could have intended to intimidate Obama himself into dropping all this hassling of Israel about its illegal settlements and endless occupation with the threat of these endless attacks in the future. That would not explain the misguided arguments of Mr. Blow, but it would do just fine vis-à-vis the machinations of the pro-torture ex-Bush aide-turned-Washington Post-pundit, Marc Thiessen.

As Adam Serwer of The American Prospect argues, given the basement-level approval ratings that both the Republican Party and particularly the Tea Party activists earn from Jews, "Israel-oriented attack campaigns aren't really aimed at Jewish voters so much as they are aimed at conservative Christians anxious about terrorism and who imagine themselves as having some kind of religious/cultural kinship with Jews. They also blur relevant distinctions between violent Islamist groups in a way that negatively affects policymaking." Then again, the attacks may have been about nothing but the fact that these people-—like the commies of yore—enjoy founding emergency committees.

The polling also demonstrates that the scare tactics vis-à-vis Israel were a non-starter for most Jewish voters, as it was identified as the most important issue in determining which party to choose by only seven percent of voters,

In any case, Kristol, Blow, Thiessen and company may now join the ranks of the late Milton Himmelfarb, who asked in a Commentary article now nearly 30 years old, "Are Jews Becoming Republicans?" Perhaps, but it sure does appear to be taking a very long time. And given the shellacking those Democrats took from just about everybody else, I feel certain that if Hillel the Elder were walking among us today, he would ask the age-old Jewish question: "If not now, when?"

Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College, a senior fellow of the Center for American Progress and media columnist for The Nation. His newest book, Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama, is available for preorder.