In a column published two months ago, I commented on the findings of an opinion poll by Dick Morris which indicated that, contrary to the predictions of most political commentators, the Jewish community’s century-long nexus with the Democratic Party was dramatically eroding as Jews increasingly began to absorb Obama’s negative approach to Israel.
The stunning electoral upset in New York's Ninth District – the most Jewish-populated congressional district in the United States, which had not elected a Republican candidate since 1922 – indisputably confirmed this. The defeat of the Democratic candidate 54% – 46% was a massive display of non-confidence in the Obama administration and could represent a watershed in Jewish commitment to the Democratic Party. Even if a majority of Jews continue to back Obama, the level of defections from a record support of 78% at the last election represents a massive turnabout.
Yes, the economy was undoubtedly also a major factor. Yes, there were quite a few Orthodox Jews and Jews of Russian origin who are inclined to be more conservative than the broader Jewish community.
But the Democratic candidate was a respectable Orthodox Jew, a lifelong supporter of Israel, while his opponent, a gentile, was relatively unknown to Jewish voters. The Republicans’ success in elevating Obama’s Israel policies to a major issue in the platform was undoubtedly a significant contributing factor to their victory.
The effervescent 86-year-old former New York mayor Ed Koch (himself a Democrat) had called on Jews to vote Republican in order to send President Obama the message that Jews do not take kindly to their president “throwing Israel under a bus with impunity.”
It is now clear that the frequent assertion that the voting patterns of American Jews are only marginally influenced by attitudes towards Israel is unfounded. Indeed, a Public Policy poll taken days before the election found a plurality of voters saying that Israel policy was “very important” in determining their votes. Among those voters, Republican candidate Robert Turner was leading by a 71-22 margin. Only 22% of Jewish voters approved President Obama’s handling of Israel.
Needless to say, Obama has never “broken” with Israel. Indeed, some of his actions have been highly praiseworthy. In terms of defense support, he has behaved impeccably and the United States has made it clear that, if necessary, it will veto recognition of a Palestinian state at the UN Security Council. However, by falsely raising Palestinian expectations, nobody is more responsible for creating this diplomatic impasse than Obama himself. Moreover, his offers to induce the Palestinians to defer their request for recognition (for up to 6 months) do not bode well for Israel.
It is also clear that the disaffection over Obama’s Israel policies is not based on misconception or inadequate communication. It reflects anger with the identifiable hostility towards Israel which, despite even repeated statements to the contrary by the Israeli government, is now becoming abundantly clear. There is a feeling of betrayal; that Obama failed to fulfill his promise in 2008 to be a pro-Israel president.
Manifestations of hostility in recent months include Obama’s renewal of pressure on Israel to accept the indefensible 1949 armistice lines (with swaps agreed to by the Palestinians) as the opening basis for negotiations; his renewed condemnation of construction in Jewish Jerusalem; the recent State Department challenge of West Jerusalem’s legal status as being Israeli; efforts to bludgeon Israel into apologizing to the bullying Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan; the disastrous outcome of simplistic US support for the Arab Spring; Obama’s recent 9/11 speech, in which he notably omitted Israel when enumerating countries suffering terrorism; the leak from Richard Gates (retired secretary of defense) castigating Netanyahu for being “ungrateful” for America's largesse. These and other similar provocations have created a maelstrom within the Jewish community, convincing many that their president was excessively hostile and biased against Israel.
It is unclear whether these trends will be duplicated, or as pronounced, in the forthcoming 2012 election. But if they are, it could crucially impact on the outcome in the key states of Florida and Pennsylvania. It has already also resulted in a dramatic decline in the level of Jewish contributions towards Obama’s reelection campaign.
In the wake of the result of the New York Ninth District election, panic has set in and the Democratic National Committee has been desperately seeking to minimize the defeat or describe it as an aberration.
The Democratic machine has been drumming up Obama’s support for Israel with an outreach program, sending emails to influential Jewish donors and supporters. Ira Forman, recently appointed Democratic Jewish point man for the elections, has been working overtime, repeatedly highlighting the gratitude and appreciation conveyed to the president by Netanyahu for Obama’s intervention with Egyptians to prevent the lynching of Israelis in the Cairo Israeli embassy when the Egyptian police stood by and enabled rioters to storm the building. Needless to say, Israel had every reason to express its appreciation and applaud Obama’s intervention. On the other hand, one can just imagine the impact on Obama – not merely from Jews but from all Americans – if after having unceremoniously abandoned his long standing ally Mubarak, such a lynching had occurred.
The New York Times last week quoted Ed Koch as stating, “I’m hopeful the president will read the tea leaves, will get the message – he has to be deaf not to,” adding “I’m hopeful that he will change his position.” He warned that if he did not do so, he would campaign against him at a national level.
If Jews are no longer to be taken for granted by any political party, it will have major long-term repercussions.
Most important of all, it will represent a healthy sign of normalcy and maturity on the part of the Jewish community not to be considered an automatic supporter of any political party. Even though the Jewish community is not monolithic and incorporates a wide variety of different, even opposing viewpoints, the influence of Jews in relation to issues most of its adherents regard as vital to their interests would be strengthened. It would certainly encourage a more even-handed US policy towards Israel if no party could rely on the automatic support of the Jews. Ironically, in the long term, it would also strengthen bi-partisanship towards Israel, which for the first time is now being questioned.
In my next column, I will explore how - in stark contrast to the response at the Jewish grassroots level – the Jewish leadership establishment appears somewhat desperate not to be perceived as being in any way critical of the Obama administration.
Isi Leibler writes for the Jerusalem Post.