Obama and the Jewish vote

Did American Jews, who overwhelmingly cast their lot with Barack Obama, vote in accord with or contrary to their foreign policy and economic self-interests?

Obama campaign trail 88 248 (photo credit: Bloomberg News)
Obama campaign trail 88 248
(photo credit: Bloomberg News)
There is a saying attributed, perhaps apocryphally, to the Chinese: "May you live in interesting times." It is meant as a curse. The sage who sardonically coined the phrase may not have foreseen the calamities of our own day. Had he been so prescient, he might instead have opted for "May you live in riveting times" as more suitable for today's zeitgeist.
Two issues are particularly interesting in our riveting times: radical Islam's war against modernity and the West, directed primarily against the US and Israel, and government's proper role in the world's most innovative and prosperous economy, a question of acute resonance for a nation buffeted by an economic tempest.
The policies now crystallizing in the Obama administration will potentially have a long-term impact on America's security, Israel's security and Americans' prosperity. The implications for the American Jewish community will likely be profound, meriting introspection. The fundamental question: Did American Jews, who overwhelmingly cast their lot with Barack Obama and the Democratic Party in the last election, vote in accord with, or contrary to, their foreign policy and economic self-interests?
Obama has signaled that he intends to "reset" US relations with the Muslim world. His premise, suggested both on the campaign trail and in office, has been that the rhetoric and actions of the Bush administration caused a sharp deterioration in US relations with much of the world, and that a more genial approach by the US will result in greater accommodation by America's friends and foes. (Unabated Iranian and North Korean bellicosity, in spite of the change in presidents, points to a rapidly spreading crack in this premise, but the administration, for now, seems prepared to continue along this line of reasoning.)
Two different outcomes, located on opposite poles, may result from the administration's approach. Under the optimistic scenario, the reset will pave the way for a diminution in discord in US-Islamic affairs and a reinvigorated Arab-Israeli peace process, one that will lead to long-term regional stability. Under the pessimistic scenario, radical Islamic forces will be emboldened by US appeasement, the US-Israel relationship will experience increasing friction and possible degradation and Israel will be pressured into making concessions that compromise its security.
The administration's strategy consists of three elements. The first, the spearhead, is constructed of an adamantine faith in the power of dialogue and diplomacy and entails rhetorical appeals to the Muslim world. Instances of such outreach are by now legion: Obama's first interview post-inauguration, on Arab television; his videotaped greeting to Iran earlier this year, sent for Iran's holiday of Nowruz; his Cairo speech before the Muslim world; his reference to the "Islamic Republic" of Iran; his use of the honorific "supreme leader" in reference to Iran's theo-dictator; his genuflection to the Saudi monarch; and a rhetorical shift that has all but banned talk of "terrorism" and the "war on terror" from the administration's lexicon.
The second element, a corollary to the first, is its approach toward Israel. The signs of a change in tone have accumulated: the administration's public statements on the cessation of natural growth in the Jewish settlements in the West Bank (in apparent contravention of oral understandings entered into between the Israeli government and the Bush administration); the public pronouncement by Assistant Secretary of State Rose Gottemoeller that Israel's accession to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty is a goal of US policy; the linkage of efforts to stymie Iran's deployment of nuclear weapons to Israeli flexibility in the peace process; the appointment to senior security positions of individuals who have exhibited antipathy toward Israel; and the exclusion of a stopover in Israel during the president's trips to Turkey and Egypt. Indeed, some of the leaders of 16 Jewish organizations who met with Obama at the White House on July 13 expressed their concerns with his approach to Israel.
The third element, the bracket linking the Islamic and Israeli legs of the Obama strategy, consists of a deemphasis of the Bush administration's efforts to promote democracy in the Middle East, a strategic shift which nascent democratic movements in this troubled region may regard with some chagrin.
To be sure, the administration's approach to Israel and the Muslim world has entailed a number of pronouncements that supporters of Israel and advocates of a muscular response to Islamic radicalism would applaud. In Cairo, Obama did offer criticism of the Muslim world. Furthermore, he reiterated before the Muslim world the strength and importance of the US-Israel relationship, describing the bond as "unbreakable." Moreover, he offered encouraging words following Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's recent speech in which he declared his conditional support for a two-state solution.
But the administration's thinking on the great Middle Eastern trifecta of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iran and the threat emanating from radical Islam appears often to be defined almost self-consciously in contradistinction to the policies of the Bush administration. And given that president George W. Bush was a staunch supporter of Israel and unabashedly confronted terrorism in his rhetoric and actions, it is not difficult to imagine that a foreign policy partly fashioned to distinguish itself from his policies could translate into a US stance less supportive of Israel and generally less favorable to Diaspora Jewish security interests.
Some would argue that none of this should come as a surprise to supporters of Israel, not least to those American Jews who voted for Obama. Robert Malley, one of Obama's foreign policy advisers during the campaign, had penned political commentary for The New York Review of Books acrobatically absolving Yasser Arafat of primary blame for the breakdown of negotiations at Camp David in 2000 (on the heels of which the bloody second intifada followed). Obama's long-time pastor Jeremiah Wright was considered to hold views hostile to Israel.
And Obama had an association at the University of Chicago with Rashid Khalidi, a Palestinian-American professor of Middle East studies who was quoted as a PLO spokesman in some news reports from Beirut in 1982. (Khalidi does not deny that he was in Beirut and was quoted by the press at the time, but he does claim he was misidentified as a PLO employee in those various instances in which he was quoted.) Has a pattern developed that should concern supporters of Israel?
IRA FORMAN, chief executive officer of the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC), a group that promotes the Democratic Party in the Jewish community, and a former employee of AIPAC, thinks not. He sees no dissonance between the Jewish vote for Obama and Jewish self-interest with respect to Israel. Forman refers to Israel as a "threshold" issue for American Jews, and for the vast majority of American Jews, "Obama makes that threshold."
Furthermore, he dismisses the contention that Obama's past associations imply he is less than empathetic to Israel, arguing this is easily refuted by the close relations Obama has maintained with the Chicago Jewish community. And he strongly takes issue with the claim that a change in US policy toward Israel is in process, arguing that "the basic policy of the Obama administration is in line with the previous five administrations."
With respect to Obama's vigorous promotion of a peace process that some critics have seen as a process of unreciprocated Israeli concessions, Forman argues, "The absence of a peace process is detrimental not only to our [America's] interest, but to Israel's interest as well."
Forman sees hypocrisy in those critics who fault Obama for pushing the peace process again. Some of the loudest voices from the Right attacking the Obama administration's reinvigoration of the peace process, he points out, were silent when the Bush administration engaged in a revival of the peace process at Annapolis in 2007.
While Forman is an ardent defender of the Democrats' stance on Israel, a number of nonpartisan surveys offer a decidedly less flattering picture of the views on Israel held by liberals and Democrats. One recent poll, conducted by Pew Research Center in January 2009, indicated significantly greater support for Israel among conservatives and Republicans than among liberals and Democrats. Sixty percent of self-described conservatives stated that their sympathies lie with Israel versus only 8% with the Palestinians. By contrast, only 33% of self-described liberals declared their sympathies lie with Israel versus 21% with the Palestinians. Viewed from a different perspective, close to twice as many conservatives as liberals sympathize with Israel. Breaking out the poll results by party affiliation, 69% of Republicans stated they sympathize more with Israel than the Palestinians; only 42% of Democrats stated they sympathize more with Israel.
Other surveys concur with these results. A study published in October 2008 by the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at New York University concluded that "the most committed Jewish supporters of Israel come in a variety of political colorations; but when they engage with their most passionate pro-Israel allies among non-Jews, they find counterparts with decidedly Republican and conservative inclinations."
In addition, the Israeli public is highly skeptical about Obama's views. A recent poll by Smith Research, sponsored by The Jerusalem Post, found that only 6% of Israelis believe Obama to be pro-Israel.
Counterintuitively, in spite of the greater sympathy Israel elicited among the Republican and conservative rank-and-file, 52% of American Jews surveyed by the American Jewish Committee in its 2008 Annual Survey of American Jewish Opinion said the Democratic Party "is more likely to make the right decision" regarding American support for Israel; only 32% believed the Republican Party would do so. (16% said they were "not sure.")
MATTHEW BROOKS is executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC), a group that represents the Jewish community to Republican officials (but is not affiliated with the Republican Party), and is executive director of the Jewish Policy Center, a conservative think tank. In Brooks's view, supporters of Israel should be very concerned about Obama's stance on Israel. Obama has "taken the US-Israel relationship away from the policies of Bush, who was the most pro-Israel president in US history," and brought about a "reincarnation of the Carter years."
Brooks says that "this administration has a very different way of looking at the US-Israel relationship in a broader context in the Middle East," a way that "doesn't bode well for Israel."
He cites as worrying signs the significant pressure the administration has applied on the issue of internal growth of settlements, pressure to conclude a peace agreement without regard for the costs to Israel, willingness to deal with a Palestinian unity government that will include Hamas and various pronouncements on Iran.
Brooks also argues that while one mustn't lose sight of the distinction between peace and a peace process, whether or not a peace process is a virtuous activity "depends on whose peace process and what peace process. If you force the parties together regardless of issues of security and real peace, then that's a bad peace process." In contrast to Obama, "Bush understood you need a partner for peace and an end to the incitement for terror."
Brooks does not see a viable partner on the Palestinian side today - not when rockets are fired from Gaza, Mahmoud Abbas is weak and Hamas rules.
THE DOVISH sentiment of the American Jewish mainstream may serve as one explanation for Jewish voting patterns that some say seem to run contrary to Jewish self-interest on the issue of Israel. This sentiment has deep roots in the Jewish community. When Jews were asked in the 1984 National Survey of American Jews if president Ronald Reagan "displayed poor judgment in calling the Soviet Union an 'evil empire,'" 66% agreed that he had displayed poor judgment, 25% disagreed with the statement and 9% were unsure.
In attempting to understand why so few American Jews could bring themselves to agree that the Soviet Union - an enemy of Israel, Judaism and Jewish cultural expression, not to mention freedom generally - was evil, Milton Himmelfarb, an astute observer of American Jewish political and social trends, wrote, "The cause of this oddity is that so many Jews are doves."
Little has changed in 25 years. The following question was posed in the 2007 Annual Survey of American Jewish Opinion conducted by the American Jewish Committee: "Would you support or oppose the United States taking military action against Iran to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons?" Fifty-seven percent of Jews responded that they would oppose military action. Only 35% were supportive of military action.
The Jewish community's dovish orientation is one among several explanatory factors. Here's another: Many American Jews do not rank Israel particularly high in their assessment of their self-interest. The New York University study found that Israel ranked only eighth in importance out of 15 issues for Jewish voters, and that only 15% of Jewish voters ranked Israel among their three most important issues. (The study found a positive correlation between a respondent's ranking of Israel as an important issue and the likelihood that the respondent would vote for John McCain, the Republican candidate, for president.) Furthermore, a decline in the strength of American Jewish sentiment toward Israel appears to have occurred over the last few years. In 2006, in a survey of American Jews by the American Jewish Committee, 37% said they felt "very close" to Israel. In 2007, the percentage dropped to 30%. In 2008, it dropped again, to 29%.
THE REDISTRIBUTION of wealth through higher taxes on the upper-middle class and on the affluent is one of the ideological lodestars of modern liberalism. It is difficult to gainsay that, in line with that ideology, the Obama administration and the Democrat-controlled Congress are attempting the greatest expansion of government's role in the economy since Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. The administration is seeking to remake the health care and energy sectors, which constitute a very significant share of the economy; has taken ownership stakes in banks, insurance companies and car companies; and plans to oversee a massive increase in personal and capital gains taxes to pay for an unprecedented wave of federal spending. Additional taxes, such as a health care surtax on high earners, are now also under discussion in the Congress.
Some observers have sought to understand in what way is it in the interest of Jews, many of whom are members of the upper-middle and affluent classes, to vote for policies that will erode their own prosperity? Himmelfarb once highlighted this point by commenting that Jews "had the income of Episcopalians but voted like Hispanics."
Forman maintains that Jewish voting patterns do not run in opposition to Jewish economic self-interest. He prefaces his argument by explaining that while income indeed correlated strongly with Republican voting patterns in the 1980s among the general population, the correlation no longer holds so tightly today. Instead, education level is correlated with Democratic voting. Therefore, the phenomenon of the affluent voting to give away a greater portion of their earnings is not just a Jewish phenomenon but one occurring more and more widely among the affluent across ethnic groups.
Furthermore, Forman argues, cultural factors are much better predictors of voting patterns than earnings. His argument concludes on a somewhat theoretical point: "The gap between the highest earners and others is inimical to the stability of society. Reducing the gaps is much more in the interest of the people who are doing the best, including American Jews."
If that is not entirely convincing to the man on the street who wishes to maximize his economic well-being, to make matters more confusing it is not altogether clear that American Jews do actually favor the redistribution of wealth. When asked by the American Jewish Committee if they favored a "government reduction of income differences," only 38% of Jews responded affirmatively, among the lowest of the 15 groups surveyed in the 2005 study.
For Matthew Brooks of the RJC, larger government and higher taxes are clearly not in the Jewish self-interest. Furthermore, redistributive policies are not the only, or best, way to bring about improvements in the lot of the disadvantaged. "Liberals don't have a monopoly on tikkun olam," Brooks says in reference to the Jewish tradition of repairing social ills. "Jack Kemp understood that as a conservative Republican you can apply conservative principles in a compassionate way to solve social problems." (Brooks once worked for the well-known conservative Republican politician.)
In fact, Brooks points out, some of Obama's policies run contrary to the stated social goals of Jewish voters. For example, while Obama wants to ameliorate some of the social problems in America, "proposing limits on the deductibility of charitable giving will turn off the spigot for a lot of organizations in the Jewish community that rely on [charitable] support."
ACCORDING TO a survey recently conducted by two professors at Stanford University, 32% of Democrats blamed Jews for the current economic crisis versus only 18% of Republicans, adding another data point to a trend that points to a less hospitable intellectual home for Jews among Democrats and liberals than among Republicans and conservatives.
What then accounts for American Jews' seemingly unshakeable attachment to liberalism? Several decades ago, Irving Kristol, in a rich and complex essay in Commentary magazine, argued that this attachment is rooted in two sweeping factors: Jewish political history and the evolution of Jewish religious history over the last two centuries.
In the political-historical realm, according to Kristol, Jews were more heavily influenced by the Continental radical liberalism of the French Revolution with its emphasis on economic equality than by the Anglo-American liberalism of the American Revolution with its emphasis on individualism and social and political equality. It was inevitable that the French Revolution would have a greater influence on Jews than the ideas animating the American Revolution since, according to Kristol, "It was the ideology of the French Revolution, incarnated in Napoleon, that liberated European Jewry from confinement in the ghetto."
European Jews were grateful for this, and some of the descendants of Jews who saw emancipation in the ideas of the French Revolution emigrated to America, bringing with them political beliefs that "still dominate the thinking of most American Jews," Kristol held. Writing in 1988, Kristol noted that "Jewish political attitudes in the 1980s have a more direct connection with Jewish political thinking in the 1880s than with current social, economic or even political realities in the United States."
In the realm of religion, Kristol noted a transformation in the spiritual outlook of Jews beginning in the early 19th century, a shift away from the legalistic notions inhering in traditional rabbinic Judaism in favor of a focus on the teachings of the biblical books of the prophets with their emphasis on the downtrodden and universal peace. Jews came to see a close correspondence between liberalism and the prophetic form of Judaism which had come to dominate their religious life; in some respects, the two identities fused.
WHAT CAN we conclude from the complex, and sometimes contradictory, data describing Jewish perspectives? To begin to make sense of it all, we must admit that self-interest is a slippery concept. Various individuals in a group may define it differently; some do not properly identify their self-interest; others intentionally ignore their self-interest to pursue what they perceive to be the greater good. Each of these factors, as well as complex historical factors, come into play in understanding what drives the Jewish vote and whether or not Jewish voting patterns truly suit Jewish interests (assuming we can agree on what those Jewish interests are).
On foreign policy, Jews indeed believe they are voting in their self-interest, as they perceive it, when they vote for liberal candidates who seek to shrink the military budget, search out multilateral responses to international issues (often at a United Nations that is unreservedly hostile to Israel), support a less muscular US foreign policy and uphold peace processing even in the face of repeated and costly failure. As discussed, American Jews tend to be dovish in their views. Obama's foreign policy orientation, and that of the majority liberal wing of the Democratic Party, is similarly drawn from a wellspring of thought on America's proper place in the world that could be termed dovish.
The critical question though, is whether Jews are accurately assessing their self-interest. Arguably, the answer is no. It is natural for Jews to be concerned about Israel. To the extent that that concern is waning, Jews are misperceiving their self-interest. And if they are indeed concerned with Israel's security, dovish attitudes are incompatible with that concern. Dovishness, ultimately, will not serve well an ethnic group that is the target of a global radical religious movement. Nor will such attitudes serve to enhance Israel's security, since Israel relies upon America's military technologies, and ultimately America's military might, as a counterweight to its many enemies.
On the question of economics, the argument, common to liberal thought, that government should redistribute wealth to achieve social justice and guarantee social stability is rooted in social theories which, more often than not, have caused damage to Jews' economic interests in the past. If today not only affluent Jews but affluent non-Jews vote for higher taxes, then one can convincingly say that Jews do not have a corner on the market for altruism; less convincingly can one assert that Jews vote in their economic self-interest. And ultimately, all Americans, Jewish and non-Jewish, must ask what price they are willing to have the US pay in lost dynamism, forgone innovation and erosion of economic freedoms for the abstract goal of economic egalitarianism, a goal which of necessity can only be brought about through coercion.
The historical factors underlying the Jewish attachment to liberalism perhaps offer the most robust explanation for Jewish voting patterns that so confound some observers. Liberalism in a certain respect, and for some Jews, has become intimately wrapped up with their identity, regardless of the suitability of liberal nostrums in addressing Jewish concerns. It reminds one of another saying attributed to the Chinese: "May you find what you are looking for." That, too, is meant as a curse.
The writer is a corporate finance consultant based in New Jersey.