Monday, 16 August 2010

The New Angry American Jewish Voter

One should not assume that the anger expressed by American voters in recent weeks is somehow limited to a fringe element of this society. While Jews are generally not identified with the Tea Party crowd, there has been a corollary Jewish response these days to the events unfolding in the Middle East and elsewhere. Someone has suggested that this countercultural response could be labeled as a contemporary version of the Maccabees, namely, a revolt against the existing order.

Clearly, the community mobilization in the months following the Gaza flotilla incident has energized significant segments of the American Jewish community. Unlike previous news events involving Israel, this story has served to galvanize many who are particularly upset over how Israel has been depicted by governments, commentators and press reports.

Already deeply committed to a pro-Israel agenda, these Jewish activists and voters now feel increasingly isolated and concerned over how Israel is being maligned in the world. Over time, this cohort of voters and activists has taken on the political attributes and characteristics of “red state voters” through their support of single-issue concerns, a value-based and at times a faith-defined political agenda, and a specific hard-line position on American security and military defense issues. Voters from within this growing wing of the Jewish community have opted to support candidates who more definitively support their policy viewpoints and who in turn have questioned the current state of American democracy and politics. In particular, this group has sought to critique the current national administration for what it perceives as its less-than-full support of the case for Israel within the international community.

This type of renewed activism can be seen supporting pro-Israel PACs (political action committees), as confirmed by Morris Amitay, former executive director of AIPAC, who noted in a New York Post story this spring: “I have had some people sending me a second check this year, saying they hope it does good with our friends in Congress because of the animosity from the White House toward Israel.” Such fundraising success is also present among an array of single-issue organizations, both on the right and left within the Jewish community.

Similar to the Tea Party movement, there is a growing momentum to mobilize support for Israel among the electorate and to hold politicians accountable for their commitment, as well, to the Jewish state. Some of this discontent is being directed against other Jews who hold views that align with Peace Now and J Street or other center-left positions on Israeli policies, which are interpreted by the Jewish political right as giving aid to the enemies of Israel and adding fuel to the negative and problematic image of the Jewish state internationally.

This class of activists has created, in effect, an Israel loyalty test that defines and measures one’s credentials as a pro-Israel advocate. Nuance has given way in this current crisis to a more definitive expectation of support. The once-understood communal principle of governing by consensus has given way in these times to the presence of political positions that firmly divide the Jewish community into ideological camps. Increasingly, one finds that in place of a shared discourse and a commitment to civility, the communal debate often deteriorates to sloganeering and, at times, name-calling. In some settings, unless one holds a “politically correct” position on Israel, one’s voice is not welcomed or sanctioned by the formal institutional structures of the Jewish community.

We are not only witnessing a sharpening of the divide within the community, but a radicalization of the Jewish political right, accompanied by a corresponding disengagement of the Jewish liberal sector from the Israel discourse, as this latter group is often unwilling or too uncomfortable to participate from what some perceive as a defensive posture. Of equal concern are those on the left who come to believe Israel has lost its moral compass and have abandoned, in turn, their role as defenders of the Jewish state, preferring to align themselves with the nation’s most outspoken critics.

The Jewish Vote

The divisions that now define American Jewish voting patterns are framed and influenced by a number of elements. A new generation of voters includes a significant Orthodox cohort, along with a growing presence of Russian, Iranian and Israeli activists, who generally reflect a more conservative political bent and represent an important and growing factor in the ever-shifting Jewish political scenario. Possibly a far more interesting and emerging base of support can be found among male baby boomers (55 to 64 years of age), whose voting patterns have increasingly reflected a shift to the right. This political transition is particularly significant among Jewish voters, as this age cohort dominates the Jewish population base. Not only worried about their own economic status, this constituency is deeply concerned by what they observe as the erosion of support for Israel.

This spring, in a study of American Jewish voters, McLaughlin and Associates reported that 42 percent of those polled would support the president’s re-election, while 46 percent indicated that they would support another candidate. Among Orthodox/Chasidic voters, 69 percent noted that they would likely support someone else, in comparison to 17 percent who expressed support for the president. Among Conservative-affiliated voters, the proportion was 50 percent to 38 percent. Reform Jews, by a slim majority of 52 percent, supported Obama, while 36 percent indicated they would consider someone else. Fifty percent of the Jewish voters polled in this study expressed support for the president’s handling of U.S. relations with Israel; 39 percent said they disapproved. These numbers become significant when one realizes that the president received nearly 80 percent of the Jewish vote just two years ago.

There appears to be a more general shift in the reshaping of “liberalism” on the part of the Jewish electorate, where moderate positions are replacing the more traditional left-of-center political perspective. This shift is reflected in a number of ways, as voters are more selective in identifying with liberal causes and, in turn, are redefining how they interpret the nature of their ideological credentials and voting positions. This pattern of social moderation is not limited to the Jewish liberal community but is prevalent among a growing sector of Democratic voters.

The center-left Jewish groups, including the labor-Zionist organizations, are struggling in this environment to maintain their base as well as to attract new audiences to their political perspectives and institutional message. The downsizing of this once-formidable bloc of liberal Jewish activists is reflected as well in the shifts we are likely to see in the changing patterns of institutional affiliation among younger Jews, whose loyalty and commitment to Israel has come into question.

The Angry, Fearful Jewish American
The national anger found among the electorate encompasses concerns over the economy, jobs and health care reform as individualized issues. But the deeper despair is tied to what researcher Frank Luntz has described as the lack of accountability and the lack of respect when dealing with one another. Such themes are not only evident among Jewish constituencies but take on a specific bent in expressions of anger offered through recent online comments:

Israel needs to turn down further American “military aid” so as to no longer be beholden to a communist Muslim interloper or his nudist Israeli messenger boy.

American Jews embracing, supporting, justifying or even praising Obama and his pro-Arab, anti-Israel — and, as such, anti-Jewish — policies and declarations, remind one of American Jews of the 1940s who were too afraid to show compassion for their brothers and sisters perishing in Europe, for fear of losing favor with the Roosevelt administration.

The absence of a shared Jewish political agenda reflects this deep, and at times angry, social divide that now defines the state of American Jewry. This new political reality portends a serious crisis; as a minority community, Jews cannot afford the luxury of being seen as a house divided. Ethnic communities operate within a particular framework of influence and credibility. When their power is understood to be compromised or weakened by internal discord, their capacity to be politically effective is proportionally reduced.

Steven Windmueller serves as the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Professor of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles campus.

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