American Jews, Israel and the ballot box

Is the Jewish vote in transition in US politics?

US elections (photo credit: REUTERS)
US elections
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The relationship of the American Jews with Israel is evolving. Previous glues that held the Jewish community together are weakening, with increased secularization and the passing of the Holocaust and immigrant generations. Israel might be replacing the synagogue and the fading Yiddish narrative as the primary point of orientation for American Jews.
Sen. Norm Coleman, who served as Republican senator from Minnesota and in various Jewish leadership roles, points to a challenge with such development.
“The percentage of Jews in America who care strongly about Israel is diminishing. I and my generation of Jews grew up on stories of Mickey Marcus [American colonel who volunteered and died in Israel’s 1948 Independence War]. I try to nest such values with my kids, but it is challenging. Jews of the current generation have different passions than the ones we had,” he says.
Part of the generational problem according to Coleman is what is transpiring on America’s campuses.
“Unfortunately, we are feeding the younger generation of Jews as well as non-Jews with misinformation about Israel. This is happening on college campuses and beyond.”
Some of such misinformation is coming through the BDS movement, though Coleman is focused on a more immediate danger.
“The extent of the BDS threat is yet to be determined, and certainly needs to be dealt with, but I am much more concerned about Iran. Beyond the nuclear and military threats, Iran is spreading anti-Semitism that feeds into the narrative of Israel being an apartheid state. That affects the safety of Jews.”
Whether it is Iran, BDS or the hostile environment on campuses, it is becoming increasingly evident to many in the American Jewish community that the contemporary threat to Jews is funneled through Israel.
It is debatable if such acknowledgment would contribute to increased connection to Israel or to greater distance from it. Yet, this realization does suggest that unlike the romanticized approach of the early years, a more practical tone is governing the relationship between Jews and Israel.
Prof. Steven Cohen of Hebrew Union College is a sociologist focusing on Jewish continuity and generational change. He has researched this issue extensively.
“American Jews simply do not know Israel. The majority of Jews have never visited the country. Even those that have only acquire superficial knowledge of Israel,” he says.
According to Cohen, such superficial knowledge leads to mundane consequences.
“The reality is that Jews acquire most of their knowledge about Israel through the news. Therefore, for most American Jews, Israel is seen through a prism of conflict – rather than through social, religious or cultural ways.”
While still viewed through conflict, Israel is no longer viewed through a prism of charity as it was in the early days. With the rise of its economy, Israel is not only the arena for those who seek to harm Jews, but it is also the center of today’s Jewish triumphs: hi-tech, science innovation, entrepreneurial spirit, creativity, art, wine. This allows American Jews to find palatable connectors to their Judaism through Israel’s successes.
Scott Stringer, New York City comptroller, visited Israel last week and was impressed by such Israeli achievements.
“There is tremendous energy of young entrepreneurs in New York City. You come to Israel and you see the same degree of energy in young Israeli entrepreneurs.
This is something American Jews and non-Jews can relate to,” he says.
Stringer, who is Jewish and a Democrat, believes that the Jewish connection to Israel is not only through its accomplishments but also through shared social concerns.
“The hi-tech sector has brought incredible success to the Israeli economy. Like in America, Israel is facing a challenge of how to make such success work for all people. American Jews care deeply about income inequality and so do people in Israel.”
Regardless of the nature of connection, Stringer believes that the backing of the Jewish community remains strong: “American Jews have always been supportive of Israel, and I hope this will continue.”
Stuart Weil, a Jewish farmer and a leader in the California Republican party, frames such support in more definitive terms: “For me, there is no separation between my Judaism and my identification with Israel. Judaism and Israel are intertwined.
Weil, who has been involved with the political process for years, explains how such intertwining been reflected in American politics.
“There was a huge influx of Jews to the Democratic Party during FDR’s time. Consequently, Jews had enormous influence on the party and there was a lot of support in the Democratic Party to Jewish causes,” he says.
Echoing Coleman’s observations, Weil points to the key Jewish cause of that generation: “Support for Israel in the Democratic Party at that time was sky-high. Today’s Democratic senators and congressman are pro-Israel because they grew up in the Democratic Party of 30 years ago, which was all pro-Israel.”
With 65-80 percent of Jews typically voting for Democratic presidential candidates in the decades that followed, Weil notes a shift that is taking place on the ground at the county and local level.
“If you look at central committees throughout the Democratic Party, you see a changing reality. Today’s young people are affected by the hostile environment to Israel. This generation climbs up the party ladder in an environment that is not pro-Israel. These are the people that will get to the Senate and Congress in a few years,” he says.
Weil claims that this is exactly the opposite on the Republican side: “The grassroots is extremely pro-Israel.
Republicans will not have you on their central committees unless you are fully pro-Israel.”
Cohen, who describes himself as a liberal Democrat, backs such ground observations with academic research.
“Surveys show that young secular Democrats are increasingly taking positions that Israel is mistaken in its policies and is intolerant. Religious and conservative Republicans are taking positions that Israel is moral, democratic, tolerate and peace-seeking,” he says.
Will such dichotomy between the Democrats and Republicans regarding Israel shake the long-lasting loyalty of Jews to the Democratic Party? Cohen’s views are clear: “This will not affect the Jewish vote. That is simply because Jews do not vote based on Israel.”
While acknowledging that the Jewish vote is not homogeneous, Cohen does not think the Democrats should be worried.
“The only Jewish groups for which Israel is a deciding factor are Orthodox Jews, Russian Jews, Israeli Jews and Persian Jews. Most Jews are concerned with reproductive rights, gender equality, free speech, and are very supportive of health care. Republicans continue to oppose the social policies that Jews favor and therefore are not likely to gain the Jewish vote,” he says.
Weil agrees with such conclusion but looks at it from a different angle.
“In the past, Jews were influencing the direction of the Democratic Party. Today it is the Democratic Party that is shaping the views of Jews. Jewish Democrats want to stay loyal to the ideology of the Democratic Party, hence they are going along with the narrative that the Democratic Party dictates. Such Jews might have been supportive of Israel if on their own, but they want to be accepted and so they follow the lead of the party. They give up Israel.”
Is it possible that the void that was created by secularization and de-Yiddishization of American Jewry is being filled in part by affiliation with the Democratic Party? Stringer does not think so.
“Jews are with the Democrats not because of its historical good policies towards Jews and Israel, but because of the composition of the party. Unlike the Republicans, the Democratic Party has many diverse opinions. It has people from all sort of backgrounds and there is tremendous demographic diversity. That is why Jews feel comfortable in the party.”
Looking at the bigger picture, Coleman, who like Weil was a Democrat in his early years, urges caution: “Support for Republicans in the Jewish community remains challenging, but Republicans should not try to turn support for Israel into a partisan issue.”
And so, for a people whose religion encourages opinionated debate, American Jews continue their evolving engagement with the Jewish state. 
The writer is chairman of the America-Israel Friendship League think tank. The views he expresses are his own and not those of the AIFL.