The Myth of an Israel-Centered "Jewish Vote" and its Negative Consequences for Mideast Peace

As the 2012 presidential election campaign gets under way, Republicans and Democrats alike are doing their best to appeal to what many perceive to be an Israel-centered "Jewish vote"–”as if millions of Americans of the Jewish faith cast their ballots on the basis of criteria different from those of their Protestant, Catholic or Muslim fellow citizens.

In August, the Obama campaign appointed veteran political strategist Ira Forman, a former legislative liaison at AIPAC, as its director of Jewish outreach. Forman is a former Clinton administration official who managed the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) for nearly 15 years. "The fact that Ira is one of the first employees hired by the re-election effort speaks to the importance the campaign places on Jewish outreach," said William Daroff, the Jewish Federations of North America’s chief lobbyist and a former Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) official.

The New York Times reported in September that, "It is no surprise that the Democratic National Committee meeting in Chicago…included briefings on jobs and health care, issues critical to President Obama’s re-election. But the third topic presented to top party donors and fund-raisers was perhaps more surprising: ‘Jewish messaging’…Matthew Brooks, the executive director of the RJC, said that the need to focus a discussion on Jewish outreach, alongside major national issues like jobs and health care, suggested the depth of skepticism Mr. Obama faced among some Jewish donors."

According to The Forward, "The potency of Israel as a wedge issue for Republicans going into 2012 was on full display when Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu invited a small group of Democrats and Republicans to a first-ever joint meeting at Blair House one day before his May 24 speech to Congress…what was meant to be a show of bipartisanship ended as a war of words between heads of the NJDC and the RJC…Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the newly appointed head of the Democratic National Committee, suggested at the meeting that both parties pledge not to raise the issue of Israel in a partisan manner. But an angry Matt Brooks, executive director of the RJC, responded the following day in a letter to Wasserman Schultz that her request, made in front of a foreign leader, was politically motivated."

Both Democrats and Republicans seem to consider Jews not as members of a religious community but as a special interest group to be appealed to on the basis of U.S. policy toward a foreign country, Israel. While there is a National Jewish Democratic Coalition and a Republican Jewish Coalition, we do not see similar groups aimed at other religious denominations. There is, for example, no Republican Presbyterian Coalition or Democratic Roman Catholic Forum.

National Jewish organizations, from the American Jewish Committee to the Anti-Defamation League to AIPAC, encourage the view that the dominant interest of Americans of Jewish faith in the political arena is Israel and U.S. Middle East policy. In a sense, Republicans and Democrats cannot be blamed for taking these Jewish groups at their word and appealing for Jewish votes on the basis presented to them.

The reality, of course, is that these Jewish organizations which pretend to speak for millions of American Jews, in fact speak only for their own small membership–”if that. All available evidence indicates that there is no such thing as a "Jewish vote," and that Jewish voters cast their ballots on the basis of precisely the same issues as other voters.

A recent Gallup Poll indicates that Jewish voters are less happy with President Obama because of the nation’s economic decline, not his policy toward Israel. Washington Jewish Weekreported that "Gallup’s monthly trend in Jewish approval of Obama continues to roughly follow the path of Americans’ approval of the president, more generally as it has since Obama took office in January 2009." Gallup found that "The 14-percentage point difference in the two groups’ approval ratings in June–”60 percent among U.S. Jews vs. 46 percent among all U.S. adults–”is identical to the average gap seen over the past two and a half years."

This tracks with polling done by the American Jewish Committee (AJC) for a number of years which has shown that Jewish voters consistently prioritize the economy over Israel when they enter the polling booth. A poll in the fall of 2010 showed Obama with an approval rating of just 51 percent. Those who approved of his Middle East policy slightly outnumbered those who disapproved, 49 percent to 45 percent, while disapproval of his handling of the economy was at 51 percent, as opposed to 45 percent who approved.

The AJC polls also show that Jewish voters consistently list Israel as fifth among their priorities, outranked by issues such as the economy, health care and broader foreign policy concerns.

In his book A New Voice For Israel, J Street founder Jeremy Ben-Ami notes that although AIPAC claims to represent the traditional Jewish voice in American politics, surveys reveal that only 8 percent of American Jewish voters support its political positions. He goes on to argue that Israel’s occupation over another people is a threat to both American and Israeli long-term interests and also violates the very letter of Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which promises equality to all, regardless of race, religion or gender. According to Ben-Ami, Israel is on the brink of becoming an "apartheid state" and losing its status as a moral beacon to Jews and as the safe and democratic haven its pioneers sought to create.

In mid-September, voters in New York elected a conservative Republican to represent a Democratic district that has not been in Republican hands since the 1920s. Bob Turner, the winner, cast the election as a referendum on President Obama’s stewardship of the economy and, in the state’s Ninth Congressional District, which has a large proportion of Orthodox Jewish voters, the president’s position on Israel. Turner, who is Roman Catholic, defeated David Weprin, an Orthodox Jew and strong supporter of Israel.

In this election, which has been discussed in terms of the president’s growing difficulties with Jewish voters, many factors were involved. The Democratic candidate got into trouble with Orthodox Jewish voters as well as Roman Catholics because of his support of a same-sex marriage bill while serving in the state legislature. Siena College pollster Steven Greenberg said that general voter frustration over the slumping economy, a poor get-out-the-vote campaign and Weprin’s ill-advised spending of campaign money on TV ads had at least as much to do wih the election’s outcome as issues related to Israel.

Whatever the results in New York really mean in political terms, the fact is that policy toward Israel and the alleged "Jewish vote" have become subjects of widespread discussion. According to The New York Times, "Republican groups are determined to make Israel a wedge issue…Billboards went up around New York City showing Mr. Obama smiling and shaking hands with the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, and declaring that the president is ‘not pro-Israel.’"

Just as President Obama arrived at the U.N. in September to try to persuade Palestinian President Abbas not to proceed with his plan to seek admission to the U.N. as a member state, Republicans, sensing that the alleged "Jewish vote" could be influenced, harshly attacked Mr. Obama. Texas Gov. Rick Perry accused him of "appeasement" of the Palestinians and Mitt Romney charged the president with "repeated efforts over three years to throw Israel under the bus…" Republican members of the House even introduced legislation to support Israel’s annexation of the West Bank which The Forward described as "a move contrary to both American and Israeli official policy and an absolute affront to international law and democratic rights."

The politicization of Middle East policy is complicating the president’s role, declared The New York Times: "The relationship between the Israeli government and the Republican Party has…complicated the administration’s diplomatic efforts to avert a confrontation at the U.N….over the Palestinian bid for full membership as a state, limiting President Obama’s ability to exert pressure on Mr. Netanyahu to make concessions that could restart negotations…"

The quest for a mythical Israel-centered "Jewish vote" is causing this dangerous politicization of U.S. Middle East policy, and the government of Israel appears to be involving itself in internal American politics. A close Netanyahu ally, Knesset member Danny Danon, stood beside Rick Perry when he launched his attack on U.S. Middle East policy. TIME’s Joe Klein declared that Netanyahu "has now overtly tossed his support to the Republicans."

One result may be that the U.S. loses influence throughout the Middle East and, because it is unable or unwilling to move the Israeli government toward a genuine two-state solution, will cede any ability to work as a mediator trusted by both parties.

The fact is that there is no Jewish vote–only the votes of millions of individual Jewish Americans. Those ballots are cast on the same basis as are those of Americans of other faiths. It is a dangerous challenge to our democracy to try to separate voters on the basis of religion, and to do so on the basis of a false picture of the nature of U.S. Middle East policy is harmful to all–”to Israel, to the Palestinians, to American interests in the region and, perhaps most important, to the truth itself.