Does Democrat David Weprin’s surprising loss Tuesday in New York’s heavily Jewish and Democratic 9th Congressional District signal a shift of the Jewish vote away from US President Barack Obama? If you believe Democratic National Committee chairwoman Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the NY-9 vote is unrepresentative of American Jewry.
The disproportionately high level of Orthodox Jews living in the district, which spans Brooklyn and the Queens, means that deep down this is a traditional-minded constituency very different from the primarily non-Orthodox – and Democratic – majority of US Jews.
Indeed, a cogent argument can be made that Jewish voters in NY-9 – one-third of whose total voters are Jewish, with one-third of that third Orthodox, according to Weprin’s calculations – tend to be more conservative than the Jewish communities in Ohio and Pennsylvania, pivotal states crucial to an Obama victory in 2012. And there might be idiosyncrasies in this special election called to replace the disgraced former Democratic congressman Anthony Weiner that make it a bad litmus test for Obama’s popularity among all American Jews.
For instance, Weprin’s principled stand for legalizing gay marriages might have also turned against him the Orthodox or traditional-minded vote in NY-9.
Nevertheless, the Roman Catholic Bob Turner’s margin was wide enough
that it cannot be explained solely by pointing to the Orthodox vote. And
former New York mayor Ed Koch’s appeal to vote Republican was not
directed at Orthodox Jews, but to a still more sizable population of
non-Orthodox Jews in old-line Queens neighborhoods such as Forest Hills.
Those older, heritage-proud non-Orthodox Jews are comparable to the
Jews of South Florida, another pivotal state crucial to an Obama victory
So NY-9 might very well be an indication that Obama is in trouble with
significant segments of US Jewry. However, it is a bit more difficult to
determine whether it is the Obama administration’s Israel policies that
have distanced American Jews from the Democrats.
American Jewish Committee surveys in the past four years have shown that
Israel has consistently ranked no more than fifth on American Jewish
voters’ priority list. Ranking higher are domestic worries such as
unemployment, housing prices, healthcare, and conflicts in Afghanistan
and Iraq where US soldiers’ lives are endangered.
Still, Turner’s attack on Obama’s policies vis-à-vis the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict featured prominently in the campaigning.
Weprin, in an interview with the Washington Jewish Week shortly after
Tuesday’s election, specifically mentioned Obama’s Israel policy. Asked
“what happened,” Weprin replied: “The media, my opponent somewhat
successfully made it a referendum on Obama. I don’t know if it was just
Israel, but Israel certainly was a major part of it.”
We believe there has been a change for the worse in US policies toward Israel under the Obama administration.
True, the US remains Israel’s single most important ally – the promised
veto of the Palestinian statehood bid in the Security Council is just
the latest example – and the American president remains unshakably
committed to Israel’s security.
But it is disheartening that the Obama administration has refused to
reaffirm former president George Bush’s 2004 letter – endorsed in
overwhelming majorities in both houses of Congress – that rejects the
notion that any Israeli-Palestinian agreement would include a full
return to the 1949 armistice lines.
The Obama administration’s demand, never made by previous US
administrations, that Israel impose a complete construction freeze not
only in Judea and Samaria but even in consensus Jerusalem neighborhoods
as a condition for negotiations is another example of a change for the
worse. Even after the Obama administration backtracked, the Palestinians
continued to demand a freeze, using it as an excuse to indefinitely
delay direct talks.
With 14 months left before the US presidential election, there is still
time for improvement. For starters, we would recommend that Obama reach
out to the Israeli people, and indirectly to American Jewry, by making a
move long overdue. The time has come for Obama to visit Israel.
The NY-9 vote might be a sign that Jewish support for Obama has slipped
significantly below the 78 percent he enjoyed in the 2008 election. And
that fall in Jewish support might very well be tied in some way to
Washington’s policies vis-à-vis the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Making
an outreach trip to Israel would be a positive first step toward
improving perceptions – and realities – in American-Israeli relations.