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09.15.11

Don't Sweat the Jewish Vote

Pundits are pointing to the Republicans' capture of Anthony Weiner's seat as a sign that Jews will abandon the Democrats in 2012. Eric Alterman on why it's nothing but wishful thinking.

Here we go yet again. Democrats lost a heavily Jewish seat in Brooklyn and Queens that they’ve held for almost a century, and just as they have done now for over 30 years, neoconservatives are predicting an exodus of Jews away from the Democrats into the Republican party.

Most enthusiastic on this point is former Bush administration official Dan Senor. Writing in The Wall Street Journal, he insists that “New York’s special congressional election on Tuesday was the first electoral outcome directly affected by President Obama’s Israel policy,” and he blames this on the fact that the president has “a record of bad policies and anti-Israel rhetoric.”

Actually, not true.

Senor is a Republican partisan who publicly considered—and then backed away from—a run for Kirsten Gillibrand’s Senate seat. To say that he is rather heavily invested in an analysis that relies more on propaganda than evidence is to state a truism. So, too, Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, who argues, “It’s very easy to extrapolate to the 2012 election and say Obama is going to have trouble with Jewish voters in battleground states like Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania.” These two are hardly alone in their views, which threaten to cement into conventional wisdom any minute now. The reporter Ben Jacobs, writing in the Jewish magazine Tablet, insists that “the issue on voters’ minds was Israel” and that this accounts for the Democrats’ loss.

Reporters always say this kind of thing. But if they stopped to think about it for even a moment they would realize that a) they cannot read people’s minds, and b) when tens of thousands of people undertake, individually, to decide between a set of choices, it is foolish to ascribe a single motivation to all of them. (Remember, most of the eligible voters decided to stay home. And let’s not forget furthermore that a significant percentage of the district’s voters are in fact, Catholic.)

Though he dismisses their significance, Jacobs actually does a decent job of explaining some of the reasons Israel may not have been on some voters’ minds. He notes, for instance, that at least some of them might have voted for Bob Turner because David Weprin, an orthodox Jew, supported gay marriage, something that virtually no other orthodox Jews do. Weprin was, moreover, Jacobs admits, a lousy candidate, who missed a debate with a phony excuse, did not understand the debt limit debate, and did not even live in the district in which he was running.

And remember, during that entire Anthony Weiner penis-photo mishegas, who were the only folks who actually thought the congressman ought to be allowed to keep his job? That’s right, the voters in his district who elected him in the first place. Might they be a little pissed off at the national Democratic leadership that forced him out against the wishes of his constituents? The Daily Beast quoted one Weprin volunteer observing, “Some people say he’s not charismatic enough. Well, you know what the situation is. We liked Anthony Weiner.”

Then there’s the fact that it was widely reported that if Weprin won the seat, Democrats planned to eliminate it when New York is forced to give up seats in the next redistricting round. That was actually one of Weprin’s big selling points, according to reports—that he promised not to challenge anybody else. (And the Queens boss he promised, Joe Crowley, happens to live in Virginia.) So if you voted for the Democrat, you were voting to get rid of your district—not a really strong selling point in a campaign, I’m guessing.

But let’s grant that I’m wrong about all of the above and that this really was a message from the district’s Jews to Obama and the Democrats to get with the Israeli program. Does that mean that we can expect Jews to abandon the president and his party in significant numbers in 2012? Again, not so much. In the first place, most American Jews are secular and extremely supportive of both gay marriage and liberal reproductive-choice laws, unlike their orthodox counterparts. They vote on a multiplicity of concerns, of which Israel is a part, but hardly, for most of them, the determining factor. Second, despite what you might read in the harrumphing columns of neoconservative Jewish pundits, most Jews are not really so verklempt about Obama’s policies toward Israel. The pro-peace, pro-Israel group J-Street did a poll last year and found that 71 percent of American Jews questioned supported the U.S. “exerting pressure” on all parties in the Palestinian conflict, including Israel. A clear majority supported the belief that an American administration should publicly disagree with the Israeli government when it felt it had a different view. And to top it all off, Israel came in a mere seventh among concerns of American Jews in determining their votes in 2010.

Most Jews are not really so verklempt about Obama’s policies toward Israel.

Typically in a district with a preponderance of old Jews, Democrats are able to play the “he’s going to cut your Social Security and Medicare” cards, but in this case, with Obama reportedly offering to do those things himself, the issue was lost. This brings us to the proverbial elephant in the room: the economy, which, in case you haven’t noticed, is pretty lousy. The president’s approval ratings just hit an all-time low with only 41 percent of American adults approving of his job performance, according to a recent Gallup poll. So the fact that Democrats polled 47 percent in a special election—where, don’t forget, only the truly motivated bother to show up at all—does not say much of anything.

As unpopular as Barack Obama may be with some Jews, remember that New York City Republicans are not a lot like “real Republicans,” those nutty folk who keep debating one another about whether America should let sick, poor people die or give them the death penalty. And for those Jews who might think of straying next year, Democrats have two words for them: “Rick Perry.”