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November 13, 2012 8:23 am

The Much-Vaunted ‘Jewish Vote’ Needs to be Demythologized

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Expressions from the third presidential candidates' debate, focused on Middle East policy.

The much-vaunted “Jewish vote” garnered even more attention this election than it normally does, culminating perhaps in one newscast that basically stated how Florida’s Jewish voters would decide the national election. When you do the math, however, the diminishing Jewish vote isn’t what it used to be.

The voters in the Jewish minority in a handful of highly contested and vote-rich states do take voting seriously, making their votes appear so crucial in Florida, California, New York, New Jersey, and even Ohio. But those who put their political stethoscopes to our hearts and minds may as well try to determine our favorite collective brisket recipe.

Jews tend to be more liberal and more Democratic than the typical voter despite being more educated and wealthier. Next election, don’t believe the cries of many Republicans who in 2012 again said this time around, the Jewish community was going for their candidate. Exit polls had Barack Obama winning 69 percent of the Jewish vote—nine points down from the 78 percent he garnered in 2008, but not enough to swing any critical states in Mitt Romney’s favor.

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We are concerned about the economy and other issues, as are all Americans—so if anything, there is an American vote tinged with some Yiddishkeit (Jewishness), but it is not  an Israeli vote.

We may bring our concerns about Israel into the voting booth, but we are not Israelis or their surrogates, and that electorate is sharply divided on everything, so how could we be united? The more we raise Israel as the primary “Jewish vote” issue, the more we make it appear that support for it is due only to a tiny but powerful group congealing to exercise its influence in great disproportion to its numbers. A longstanding tradition of broad, bi-partisan support for a strong and secure Israel is based on it being in America’s best interest and shared democratic traditions, rather than just pandering to the narrow interest of a small minority.

Jewish leaders, intellectuals or hyper-partisan individuals who insist that Jews vote based on Israel alone make it appear that Israel is a client state of America that cannot exist without constant babying of Israelis and of Jews. They tell us that only their favorite candidate will save Israel, while the other guy will destroy it. They set us all up for an even worse mythology that suggests that America is a client state of Israel and that the two percent of American citizens who swayed that last election, and the ones before it, are really a disloyal and secret cabal running the government and the nation’s foreign policy. Such a mythology conjures up images of Paul Findley, Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, and Pat Buchanan, who referred to American Jews as “Israel’s amen corner.”

This tail does not wag the dog. Jewish American or American Jewish voters are just that, and when a Jew tells you that Israel is his or her only or main concern when voting, keep in mind that he or she is a tiny minority within a tiny minority, regardless of hanging chads in Palm Beach County. The big item in this so-called Jewish vote is the relatively rapid growth of Orthodox Jews and their future voting choices, but they will likely remain marginal because of their concentration in only a few districts with large numbers in but a few states.

Paul Foer is a newspaper columnist and Merchant Marine Officer based in Annapolis, MD. He also studies and writes about American Jewish history.

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  • paul foer

    I enjoyed Miles Rich’s story and many of us have similar personal anecdotes I am sure. But whether the vote is 69 percent or 74 percent or whatever is not terribly meaningful though many are scrambling to interpret and glean some import from every piece of election datum they can dig up. The Jewish vote for president is rarely significant or a game changer but it can be in perhaps a few swing states, Florida being the top one. Two is that Israel is not the top or single concern of any but a small minority within a minority. There is so much antipathy and irrational stuff about Obama that it is hard to make sense of any of it. Whether it’s Obama or Romney the real issue in the Middle East remains the same. Will the Arab nations accept and normalize relations with the Jewish state or continue to demonize and attempt to destroy it? Thank you.

  • Miles W. Rich

    Mr. Foer: I agree with some of the premises of your article, but I think you will find in 2016, without Barack Obama on the ticket, the Jewish vote will again be over 75% Democratic. I personally know lots of lifetime Democrats, most of whom are over 65 years old, who were “brainwashed” with the Fox News, Charles Krauthammer “big lie” that a vote for Obama was a vote against the security and even existence of Israel. My father, who is age 86, and usually votes Republican, except when Republicans have been anti Israel, (He voted for Clinton in 1992 and for Gore in 2000, after it was confirmed to him by a prominent Republican member of the House, that James Baker said, “f**k the Jews, they don’t vote for us anyway,”) is convinced that Obama’s re-election threatens Israel’s existence. Many of his solidly Democratic friends bought into the same nonsense and the other big lie that Obama is a Socialist or a Marxist. (My father believes both). Like it or not, older Jews, even semi liberal ones, are prone to believe the worst things they hear and read about Obama, because in their mind, “he is still a schvartze.” My dad, and his Democratic friends who abandoned Obama this time around, all live now in Florida.