Jewish Voters Will Stay Democratic, Despite Obama’s Rocky Ties With Israel

Republicans hope to pry Jewish votes from the president in 2012. Dream on. By Zev Chafets

J. Scott Applewhite / AP Photo

On Thursday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the United States is opening a dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood. This news coincided with a spate of media speculation about a possible decline in Jewish support for President Obama in 2012.

Such speculation precedes every national election, but this time the Republican case against Obama seems, at first glance, unusually promising. The president is on chilly terms with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Obama is committed to a negotiating stance that moves America from the barely qualified support for Israel of the Clinton and Bush administrations to something closer to diplomatic neutrality. And Obama’s web of friendships and connections to figures like Jeremiah Wright, Rashid Khaladi, Bill Ayers, and other harsh critics of Israel are well known. Despite this, in 2008, Obama got 77 percent of the Jewish vote—more than any ethnic bloc except African-Americans. But his Israel problem will cost him votes and donors, right?

Wrong. No Republican presidential candidate since 1924, no matter how pro-Israel, has won more than 40 percent of the Jewish vote. Usually it is closer to 20 percent. Barack Obama is not going to break that record.

Jews are less than 2 percent of the American population, but they are major players in the Democratic Party. Debbie Wasserman Schultz is the chairwoman of the national committee. Steve Israel heads the House reelection committee. The party’s intelligentsia and pundit class have a higher bar mitzvah quotient than the average B’nai Brith bowling team. Three of the four Supreme Court justices appointed by Democratic presidents are Jews. So are a quarter of the members of the Democratic Senate Caucus and 45 congressmen (all but one, Eric Cantor, are Democrats).

The Washington Post has estimated that Jews provide 60 percent of the party’s major individual contributions. The actual stat, according to a Democratic insider privy to unreleased research, puts the figure closer to 80 percent. In 2004, when so-called 527 organizations provided the biggest contributions, four Democratic donors—George Soros, Peter Lewis, Steven Bing, and the Sandler family—coughed up $73 million, more than the next 20 contributors, Republican and Democratic, combined. Jews are not simply supporters of the Democratic Party. They are stakeholders.

Like all stakeholders, Jews—and their interests—are taken seriously. Some are professional: academia, the entertainment industry (which depends on a good U.S. image abroad for much of its income), the high-tech sector, the legal establishment, financial institutions, teachers' unions, and liberal NGOs are all disproportionately run and staffed by Jews.

So is the party’s activist base. Perhaps the most salient Jewish voting issue is the protection of abortion rights, which is supported by close to 90 percent of all Jewish women. In other words, American Jewish support for the Democratic Party is not a decision made by a Sanhedrin in some imaginary bunker in Boca Raton. The Democratic Party is the emotional home of most Jews. The Reform Movement, America’s largest Jewish denomination, has been called “the Democratic Party with holidays." Many of the secular Jewish national organizations are simply cogs in the party machine.

Most Jewish Democrats are fans of Israel. When the team is doing well, they are glad to join the parade. Democratic lawmakers were happy to stand and cheer a pro-American speech by Prime Minister Netanyahu in Congress. After all, Israel is popular in the U.S. But some Americans like it more than others. A recent Gallup poll tells the story: asked where their sympathies lie in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, 48 percent of Democrats chose Israel; 85 percent of Republicans did.

This year Republicans intend to turn their unconditional support for Israel into a campaign issue. Any conceivable GOP candidate, with the exception of Ron Paul, will be far friendlier to Israel than the current administration. Michele Bachmann says she spent the most meaningful summer of her life as a post-high-school volunteer on a kibbutz (Barack Obama was famously influenced by a youthful trip of his own, to Pakistan). Sarah Palin came back from a recent trip to Israel sporting a Star of David. American Jews place a very high premium on sophistication, and many are uncomfortable with the love of people they regard as bumpkins.

In any event, Republican Zionism is not aimed at the Upper West Side. Its intention is to solidify and animate the Christian right, attract Reagan Democrats, and appeal to the broad swath of Middle America that instinctively sees Israel as a friend and ally. The Gallup poll found that 60 percent of independents prefer Israel to the Palestinians. Democratic Jews may, too, but they aren't going anywhere. If and when the Obama administration seriously clashes with Israel—over the “peace process,” recognition of Hamas, Iranian nukes, or outreach to Islamist enemies of Israel like the Muslim Brotherhood—the president will have nothing to fear from his Jewish base. Hell, a lot of them would rather join the Muslim Brotherhood than vote for a Republican.