Is it time to rethink notions of ‘The Jewish Vote’?

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By Repps Hudson, Special to the Jewish Light

“Why are Jews liberals?” asked the former editor of Commentary magazine and a former liberal himself, Norman Podhoretz.

That phrase was the title of his book, published in 2009, almost a year after President Barack Obama’s historic election.

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It remains a perplexing question to explore today as the Nov. 6 election between Democrat Obama and his Republican challenger, Mitt Romney, approaches.

In essence, Podhoretz noted, most American Jews have consistently supported and continue to support a large federal government that can help resolve the many issues of injustice, provide social services to the needy and promote public education while ensuring that Israel remains strong and able to survive in its tough neighborhood.

As a leading conservative voice in the Jewish community, Podhoretz argues that it is the American system of free enterprise that has served Jews, many once poor immigrants, so well. It was not big government.

“What I am saying,” he wrote in a piece in The Wall Street Journal three years ago, “is that if anything bears eloquent testimony to the infinitely precious virtues of the traditional American system, it is the Jewish experience in this country.”

Podhoretz continues: “Surely, then, we Jews ought to be joining with its defenders against those who are blind or indifferent or antagonistic to the philosophical principles, the moral values, and the socioeconomic institutions on whose health and vitality the traditional American systems depends.”

Rabbi James Bennett of Shaare Emeth, a Reform congregation in Creve Coeur, says conservatives may be no less compassionate about helping the less fortunate than liberals. It may be simply that they believe their approach, through a market-based system and with volunteers in social service organizations, will be more effective over the long run and therefore more beneficial for those who need help in society, whoever they may be.

And yet, after nearly four years of the Democratic Obama administration, the American Jewish Committee has found overall the same tendency among American Jews that has endured for many decades, at least since Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s.

In its survey Sept. 6-17 of 1,040 American Jews expected to vote in the presidential election, 64.9 percent said they are likely to cast their ballots for Obama. Another 9.9 percent was undecided, while 24.1 percent said they favor Romney.

Those numbers for the pro-Obama Jewish voters are relatively close to the 78 percent who exit polls indicated voted for Obama in 2008, the second highest ethnic or religious group to support the president after African-Americans, who voted 95 percent in his favor.

Incidentally, an AJC survey of likely Jewish voters in Ohio, a major battleground state that Romney probably must win to become the first Mormon president, found the national sampling virtually duplicated: 64 percent for Obama and 29 percent for Romney.

Sixty percent of Ohio Jewish voters, the AJC survey found, support Obama’s handling of the economy; 65 percent approve of his handling of healthcare, and 70 percent approve of his handling of national security issues. As for the U.S.-Israeli relationship, a sore point for many conservative and Orthodox Jews, 54 percent approve of Obama’s stewardship.

So what’s going on?

Why doesn’t Norman Podhoretz’s argument carry the day with American Jews?

After all, the United States has an economy that is still struggling to recover and is confronting a dangerous world that seems treacherous with terrorist cells at work throughout much of the Middle East and Iran steadfast in its effort to develop a Persian nuclear weapon. 

Reckoning moral values with personal needs

Two rabbis here weighed in on this question, and even though they come from different places on the spectrum of Judaism, their responses were remarkably similar – and similar to Podhoretz’s argument, too.

“There is almost a kneejerk reaction in the Jewish community to vote Democratic. It’s an emotional issue,” said Rabbi Ze’ev Smason of Nusach Hari B’nai Zion, a modern Orthodox congregation in Olivette.

“Social issues have always been important to Jews in this country,” Smason continued. “We remember when we didn’t have access to all facilities. That’s why there was a Jewish Hospital here in St. Louis. We believe in rooting for the underdog. None of that has left our consciousness. We have values of compassion and mercy.”

David Robertson, professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, agreed.

“The Jewish voter understands exclusion,” he said. “And they are going to vote to protect Medicare. They are concerned about fairness and justice. These are very important values for Jewish voters. They are very important.”

Bennett, of Shaare Emeth, who describes himself as very liberal, cautioned that “it’s far less automatic that Jews will vote liberal than it was a few years ago.”

He and other observers believe the loosening of Jewish affiliation to liberal causes, which usually mean those advocated by the Democratic Party and most of their candidates, is a result of success in the non-Jewish world, of more assimilation and of a lessening of overt anti-Semitism, such as restrictions against Jews in “the public square” and private facilities.

As one pointed out, three Jews sit on the U.S. Supreme Court; the other six are Roman Catholics.

Yet many Jewish voters and those who are politically aware are moved by what Bennett calls the “No. 1 core issue.”

“Jews historically and universally have advocated for taking care of the most unfortunate among us,” Bennett said. “This is directly from the Torah. We are instructed to care for the most vulnerable and see that their needs are met. That is one of, if not the most essential, core value.”

Bennett said this particular presidential election seems to be provoking more of his congregants—and friends and acquaintances – to want to talk about the stakes this time around.

“I counsel people to seek out their own core values,” he said. “I say they should ask themselves: What is most important to me?”

Furthermore, he said, the people he discusses the election with may not ask his advice as to how they should vote.

“People want to talk,” Bennett said. “People are struggling with how to reconcile their moral values with their own personal needs. They say, ‘Boy, this health care debate is really complicated. But we may have to be able to share what we have.’ 

Israel as a partisan issue

It may be noteworthy that for many liberal and moderate Jews, the safety and security of Israel is not as important as a single issue in this campaign, accusations that Obama has neglected Israel to the contrary.

“Overwhelmingly, today we will say the economy is the priority,” said Smason of Nusach Hari B’nai Zion. “Israel will not be in the top three.”

However, some observers, like Nancy Lisker, regional director of AJC’s St. Louis office, bemoan the fact that Israel has become a divisive wedge issue — a political football — in this particular presidential election.

She, like many, believes Israel deserves and has long had bipartisan support generally from Democrats and Republicans, as well as independents.

Differences may arise over specific policies, such as expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, but in previous campaigns these have been muted in favor of an overall two-party support for the existence and protection of the state.

This year clearly is different, with Republicans and conservatives — some of them Jewish — strongly, repeatedly and loudly attacking the Obama administration for not being fully supportive of the Likud government of Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu.

For example, Morton Klein, president of the 115-year-old Zionist Organization of America, with 30,000 members nationally, called Obama “the least supportive of Israel of any president.”

He ticked off a list of issues he said proves his point: Obama’s frosty relations with Netanyahu; Obama’s comments during a White House meeting with Jewish leaders that characterized Israeli leaders as less willing to make peace than the Palestinians; Obama’s restraint of Netanyahu regarding attacks on Iran as it continues its quest to develop nuclear weapons, and Obama’s weakening of international sanctions against Iran.

Non-partisan press accounts, by the way, do not confirm Klein’s view that the Obama White House has been less supportive of Israel than any other since President Harry S Truman recognized the state in 1948.

These accounts generally say that U.S. support of Israel, in terms of military weapons, strategic consultations and intelligence sharing, is more intense than ever. It is far, far better than in 1967, for instance, when the Johnson administration told the Israelis that if Israel struck the Arab states first in what became known as the Six-Day War – arguably Israel’s greatest existential threat since independence—they were on their own.

J Street, the non-partisan and avowedly left-of-center pro-Israel organization in Washington, clearly has a different assessment of the Obama administration’s record vis-à-vis Israel and its security needs.

“Obama has been very strong on Israel and in favor of a two-state solution,” said Jessica Rosenblum, spokesperson for J Street. “He has met nine times with Netanyahu.” She added that, like others interviewed for this story, she is “concerned about how Israel has been turned into a partisan issue.”

“We are deeply concerned about that,” Rosenblum said. “Israel has had long-standing bipartisan support.”

She said J Street, which was founded several years to be a liberal alternative to such influential groups as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), also supports the Obama administration’s policy regarding sanctions on Iran.

“We favor the go-slow approach,” Rosenblum said. “Sanctions need time to work, and they are.”

But Klein, of ZOA, argued that calling for a “two-state solution” is a loaded term that implies that Israel is not yet a state and will not be one until the state of Palestine is created alongside it.

Furthermore, Klein said, “now Jews have become aware that Palestinians do not want peace with Israel.”

“I speak to Jewish groups all over [the United States],” Klein said. “People used to be shocked when I talked against the creation of a Palestinian state. Then I remind them that the Palestinians have turned down two offers from Israel to have a Palestinian state: once when Ehud Barak was prime minister and again when Ehud Olmert was prime minister.”

Romney makes inroads with Russian and Orthodox Jews

Klein’s rationale is a core reason that at least two groups of American Jews are steadfastly in the Republican camp in this election. 

Lisker, of the American Jewish Committee, noted that AJC’s polling has shown that Russian Jews in New York and other large cities are strongly in favor of the Romney ticket, as are most of the Orthodox. They do not follow the usual Jewish pattern of several decades of voting with the Democratic Party.

For some, it’s a matter of strict religious observance of Torah on issues such as abortion and gay marriage, both of which Democrats generally favor. And it may be that Israel’s security also is a more important issue than the social-justice issues that move many Jews to vote Democratic.

These distinctions in the minds of many Jewish voters, Rabbi Smason  said, are because many Jews are “dispersed, diverse and assimilated” into American society.

Robertson, of UMSL, said he expects the Jewish vote overall for Obama to run from 66 percent to 75 percent. And, he said, the Israel issue will not turn many Jewish voters against the president, which could be significant in some states, like Ohio and Florida, with large and active Jewish populations.

Even though the Jewish vote is around 2 percent of the voting population, it can seem outsized because of its influence in key urban areas.  Cleveland and Cincinnati come to mind. As Klein of ZOA noted, Jews are “disproportionately [strong] financial supporters of politics” – particularly regarding the Democratic Party and its candidates.

Voting is not the only political act in a democracy, several people said.

“A person should not only vote and participate but become an advocate,” said Smason. “The minimum is to vote. But also they should write letters, talk around the water cooler, make the case for what they believe.”

This tradition of high political awareness among Jews has its roots in Jewish history, said Bob Cohn, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of this newspaper.  Jews have always had to adjust to different cultures, wherever they lived and whoever was in power as head of state.

Ever since Napoleon freed the Jews of France in the early 19th century to participate openly in public and civic life, Cohn said, Jews have realized that by taking part in the political process they can help to shape the conditions of the society in which they live. 

 “We have a devotion to study,” Cohn said, “that was infused with Jewish values: love thy neighbor, do not stand idly by, tzedakah, social justice.”

For many again this year, that probably will mean the Democratic Party, regardless of what Norman Podhoretz thinks.

As Robertson of UMSL put it, “party identification is an emotional issue. It’s hard to change. It really is.”