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Brit Tzedek v'Shalom
Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace
Obama and the Jewish Vote
Real Clear Politics
By Pierre Atlas
In order to win the "Jewish vote," candidates often try to out-trump each other in demonstrating their support for Israel. The media play into this game, as many journalists and pundits tend to assume, along with politicians, that American Jewish opinion is monolithic (and uniformly hawkish) when it comes to Israel: that no criticism of Israeli policies or actions will be tolerated, and that no pressure should ever be put on Israel to make compromises.
As Barack Obama traveled to the Middle East last week, his every move was scrutinized by the media. Was he pro-Israel enough to secure the vote of American Jews? Would any nuance in his statements be interpreted to mean he was pro-Palestinian?
It does a great disservice to both American foreign policy and to the Jewish community to portray American Jews as of one mind, marching in lockstep and demanding that all candidates read from a script when it comes to Israel. Contrary to popular belief, the majority of Jews are not single-issue voters. George W. Bush, arguably the most "pro-Israel" president in American history, was able to garner only 24% of the Jewish vote in 2004. Fully 76% voted for John Kerry according to exit polls. Jews have traditionally voted overwhelmingly for Democrats since the 1930s. That didn't change after the Second Intifada, 9/11 or the invasion of Iraq. Indeed, Bush was able to increase his Jewish support by only 5 percentage points from the 2000 election.
One reason for the widespread belief in a monolithic and inflexible Jewish position on Israel is the success and perceived power of AIPAC. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee has played a key role in helping to establish and maintain bipartisan support for Israel in Congress and the executive branch. AIPAC, which has become increasingly pro-Likud in recent years, is a textbook example of a successful interest group, on par with the NRA, AARP, and the farm lobby.
But American Jewish opinion, although not as diverse as that of Jewish Israelis, is more varied on Israel than AIPAC's pronouncements would suggest. According to the November 2007 American Jewish Committee's annual survey of Jewish opinion, 46% of American Jews supported the creation of a Palestinian state, with 43% opposing and 12% not sure--this, in a poll taken just months after Hamas' violent takeover of Gaza. Asked whether they were "willing to compromise on the status of Jerusalem as a united city under Israeli jurisdiction" in a permanent peace deal with the Palestinians, while 58% said no, 36% said yes and 7% were not sure.
Reflecting this diversity of Jewish opinion, American pro-Israel peace groups such as Brit Tzedek v'Shalom and J-Street, the new pro-Israel PAC, have emerged as more moderate alternatives to AIPAC.
On July 16, J-Street released the results of a new survey that demonstrates "a remarkable gap between the attitudes of American Jews and the conventional wisdom about how Jews view America's role in the Middle East." According to the survey, 86% of Jews would support the US "playing an active role in helping the parties to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict [even] if it meant the United States publicly stating its disagreements with both the Israelis and the Arabs." Eighty-one percent would support the US exerting pressure on Israel as well as the Arabs "to make compromises necessary to achieve peace."
American support for Israel is longstanding and bipartisan and the reasons go well beyond AIPAC's influence. The political, cultural, religious, scientific and economic ties between America and Israel are substantive and multi-faceted. Both Obama and McCain understand Israel's security needs and its existential anxieties. Regardless of which man becomes the next president of the United States, the special relationship between the US and Israel will continue.
Many Israelis, however, are concerned that Obama might be hostile to the Jewish state. The false assertions that he is a Muslim and that he was raised in a radical madrassa in Indonesia, concerns about his association with Rev. Wright, and even his middle name have all played into the fears of some Israelis--just as they have with some Americans. When I was in Turkey last month, I spoke with an Israeli tourist in my Istanbul hotel who was convinced that Obama would be "bad for the Jews." When I asked him why, most of the "facts" he cited about Obama were patently false, based on the same email rumors and innuendo that have been sent to American Jews.
Obama has sought to reassure Jewish voters and his trip to Jerusalem and Sderot was an important move. Yet he too may have bought into the simplified image of American Jews. When he spoke before the AIPAC convention in June, Obama declared that Jerusalem "will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided." In so doing, he unnecessarily went further than the official US position on Jerusalem, which states that the city's fate should be left to the final status negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
Obama's declaration came off as pandering for the Jewish vote. Ironically, while it caused consternation in the Arab world and dismay among peace negotiators, it is doubtful whether the statement did anything to satisfy the more hawkish Jewish and Christian supporters of Israel in the United States.
In its three-thousand year history, Jerusalem was divided for only eighteen years, from 1949 to 1967. This was a disaster and should not be allowed to happen again. But for a two-state solution to succeed, Jerusalem must become the capital of both Israel and Palestine. Israeli and Palestinian negotiators have been exploring the idea of dual municipalities for years. Imagine if Obama had told the AIPAC audience that while Jerusalem should not be re-divided, it ultimately must be shared. He could have shown bold leadership and vision on one of the most vexing issues of our time, and he would have been supported by a large number of American Jews.
If the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is to be resolved, the next president will need to take steps that facilitate Palestinian statehood while also maintaining Israel's security. This will require bolstering Palestinian moderates in their political struggle against extremists, encouraging key compromises on both sides, and rewarding cooperative behavior by neighboring states.
The questions posed to McCain and Obama should not be simplistic queries as to who supports Israel the most, but how they plan to move the peace process forward. What is each candidate's vision for a new Middle East, and what role does he see for the US in achieving it?
For both the candidates and the media, acknowledging the diversity and sophistication of American Jewish opinion will be a much needed first step.
As for Obama, if he can debunk the false rumors and make the case that he is no less supportive of Israel than previous Democratic candidates, he should have little problem attracting Jewish voters, who tend to be liberal on social issues and are most comfortable with the Democratic Party. He won't have much difficulty convincing younger Jews. The real challenge will be with the older Jewish voters.
Atlas is an assistant professor of political science and director of The Richard G. Lugar Franciscan Center for Global Studies at Marian College.