President Obama has a Jewish problem, at least according to media reports. They pounced last year when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rebuked the president for making an “indefensible” proposal for Israel to accept 1967 borders. They amplified comments from GOP hopeful Mitt Romney, who said Obama had thrown Israel “under the bus.” They searched for deeper meaning in the special election to replace Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY), when his largely Jewish district voted in Republican Bob Turner. “Does Dems’ loss mean trouble with Jewish voters?” asked a CNN.com headline on the heels of Turner’s upset. More specifically, could this be the year when enough Jews cut traditional Democratic ties to help put a Republican in the White House?
As the campaign heats up, Democrats would like to think they can count on Jews to vote in large numbers for Obama, as they did in 2008 to the tune of 78 percent—which was four points better than John Kerry and just one point below Al Gore, who had an Orthodox Jewish running mate. But a weak economy and a sometimes strained relationship with Israel have created an environment in which canvassing Jews to make the case for Obama has become a political necessity.
On the surface at least, the numbers signal trouble for the 44th president. A new poll from the Public Religion Research Institute shows lukewarm support, at best; among the Jewish community, Obama is polling 16 points lower than the 78 percent support he ultimately won in 2008. Obama’s approval rating among Jews, according to a Gallup survey last fall, has dropped 29 points—from a high of 83 percent at his inauguration to just 54 percent. The same month, the American Jewish Committee (AJC), a non-partisan advocacy group, found for the first time more Jews disapproved of Obama’s performance (48 percent) than approved (45 percent). Until recently, Obama had done on average 14 percentage points better among Jews than the general population, but that support shows signs of weakness. “It’s trending down,” said Gallup Poll Editor Frank Newport. “In November 2011, [Obama’s approval among Jews] was only eight points higher than the national average.”
What’s more, party ties aren’t as strong as they once were. In 2008, Jewish voters favored Democrats by a 52-point margin; now it’s much smaller, with only a 36-point advantage, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Last fall, only 45 percent of Jews called themselves Democrats in the AJC survey. That’s down from 53 percent in 2009.
The Obama campaign isn’t taking the Jewish vote for granted. Last summer, strategist David Axelrod began convening weekly conference calls to discuss Jewish outreach, according to The Forward. The Obama campaign website now devotes a special section to Jewish issues, including six pages of rebuttals to “myths” regarding Obama’s stance on Israel. (“Myth: President Obama is pressuring Israel more than he is pressuring the Palestinians. Fact: President Obama has strongly objected to Palestinian plans to unilaterally declare statehood.”) In his most recent State of the Union address, Obama said, “Our iron-clad—and I mean iron-clad—commitment to Israel’s security has meant the closest military cooperation between our two countries in history.” More recently, on April 23, Obama visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., announcing new sanctions for Iran and Syria, and promising, “I will always be there for Israel.”
Political pros have come aboard to help shore up support, insuring votes and continued donations. Last year, the campaign hired Democratic activist Ira Forman to direct Jewish outreach; he formerly led the National Jewish Democratic Council. Last October, the White House also appointed Jarrod Bernstein, an administration official with New York roots, as liaison to the Jewish community. (In his new role, his first speech was at a legislative breakfast—held in Weiner’s old district—for Agudath Israel, an umbrella group for Haredi Jews.) Meanwhile, Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) has taken to the airwaves routinely to push back against what she describes as “distortions about President Obama’s record on Israel.” Vice President Joe Biden, who has a long track record on foreign policy and with the Jewish community, has joined the effort as a headliner at fundraisers, where he routinely fields questions from Jews anxious about support for Israel. Next week, on May 8, Biden will speak at a convention for Conservative Judaism’s Rabbinical Assembly, which represents nearly 1,600 rabbis.
Obama hasn’t always made life easy for his ambassadors to the Jewish community. U.S.-Israeli relations were strained by his administration’s calls for a freeze on West Bank settlement activity. The matter was not helped when Netanyahu immediately dismissed Obama’s call for Israel to accept a pullback to its 1967 borders. At a largely well-received September address to the United Nations, Obama insisted: “Friends of Israel must recognize the need to pursue a two-state solution” to the Palestinian situation, angering corners of the American Jewry. That same month, only 40 percent of Jews approved of the president’s handling of U.S.-Israeli relations, according to the AJC survey, down from 49 percent a year earlier. “Most American Jews would not vote for a federal candidate who they view as anti-Israel,” said David Harris, president of the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC), which rallies Jewish support for Democrats. “So it is a litmus test.”
Party activists admit they spend a lot of time these days assuring Jews that Obama is a friend of Israel. In January, the campaign released a video, “America & Israel: An Unbreakable Bond,” featuring clips from pro-Israel Obama speeches alongside testimonials from Israeli leaders, among them Netanyahu and Ehud Barak. Obama’s role in securing a record-setting $3 billion foreign aid package for Israel has become a mantra of Jewish outreach initiatives at the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and with Obama’s campaign staff. Obama’s defenders are quick to note his stance on Israel’s borders, as part of a land swap deal, reflects a longstanding U.S. position through both Democratic and Republican administrations. Obama has also insisted Palestinians must not unilaterally declare statehood, and he has called on Hamas to recognize Israel’s right to exist—both indicators, supporters say, that his commitment to the Jewish state is unwavering.
But his defenders may have more work to do to make their message clear. On the last day of 2011, Josef Ashkenazi, a 67-year-old Jewish physicist from Miami, made a donation online to help re-elect Obama. But a few minutes later, when I reached him by phone, he seemed less than certain about his eventual vote. Ashkenazi is so uncommitted to any political party that he couldn’t remember if he’s a registered Democrat or an Independent. And even though he’s been generally happy with Obama, he laid out a scenario in which he might vote Republican in 2012. “I support Obama,” he said, but only if there are no “anti-Israel surprises” from the president. “In a very bad surprise, I may support Romney—who looks to me not completely unreasonable.”
The NJDC would rather be discussing Obama’s record on a range of issues, from the environment to gay rights. Instead, the group scrambles every day to fend off Republican attacks on Obama’s record vis-à-vis Israel. “The dirty truth is that there is a narrative in the American Jewish community about this president, and the narrative is not good about him and Israel,” NJDC President David Harris said. “It’s a perceived wound, by some Republican partisans, that they continue to pour salt into […] It requires constant attention and education on our part because things are too quickly put into that narrative and viewed through that frame.”
Sluggish economic growth under Obama also accounts for much of Jewish discontent, just as it does for the populace at large. Only 37 percent of Jews in the AJC survey said they approved of Obama’s handling of the economy, down from 55 percent in spring 2010. Disapproval of the president’s economic policies hit 60 percent. That’s up from 51 percent a year earlier. “Jews are very much like other Americans in this respect: the economy is the number one issue for them,” said David Harris, executive director of the AJC. (No relation to David Harris of the NJDC.)
But interestingly, lower percentages in the Democratic fold don’t mean Jews are flocking to the GOP. The segment of Jews who self-identify as Republicans has remained virtually unchanged since 2009 at about 16 percent. (The ranks of Jewish independents, however, grew from 30 percent in 2009 to 38 percent in 2011.) Like other Americans, Jews are more likely to vote Republican if they attend worship services weekly, according to a Pew Research Center analysis. Yet many Jews, especially secular ones, feel their community’s moral values—including concerns for minority rights and civil liberties—make them natural Democrats. It’s a point echoed this fall by DNC Chair Wasserman Schultz, who is one of Obama’s key Jewish surrogates. “Because the natural home for Jewish voters on all issues is the Democratic Party, the president will receive overwhelming support from our community once again,” she told NBC in a September interview.
Consider Jack Lieberman, a North Miami entrepreneur who’s been active in Occupy Miami. He’d be hard pressed to say he approves of Obama’s job performance, but as someone whose critique comes from the left, he cannot imagine a Republican alternative. “At the center of Jewish religiosity, and of Jewish values both secular and religious, is our obligation to perform Tikkun Olam—healing the world,” Lieberman said. “I certainly think Obama wants to do that, even if I think in some cases he’s misguided. He’s much more sensitive to environmental issues, social justice issues and democratic rights than his opponents are.”
Election watchers predict the majority of Jews will carry on a long tradition of supporting Democrats. Jews have voted overwhelmingly Democratic in almost every election since before the New Deal. Eighty-two percent of Jews supported Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1932; 80 percent went for Bill Clinton in 1992. Yet as loyal as Jewish voters have been historically, they have broken with that tradition, most notably in an election that bears some resemblance to this year’s. In 1980, then-President Jimmy Carter, a Southern Baptist evangelical, mustered only 45 percent of the Jewish vote. The rest went to Republican Ronald Reagan (39 percent) or Independent John Anderson (15 percent). Carter’s vulnerabilities were similar to Obama’s: Jewish voters, then as now, felt uneasy about an economy marked by high unemployment and about a president who at times appeared unfriendly toward Israel.
Even while strong Democratic support is likely to continue among Jews, enthusiasm, or a lack of it, could impact results. “Turnout is the main factor,” said Ted Jelen, a political scientist at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, who studies religion and politics. “I can imagine enough people being disgusted with Obama for a variety of reasons, one of which might be Israel […] that they might not bother to vote. Maybe the checks they write would be short a zero.”
The AJC September survey found Obama would win the Jewish vote no matter who the GOP nominee is. But the survey also found Obama would do substantially better among Jews if the nominee were an evangelical such as Rick Perry, who dropped out early in the primary season. Against Mormon Mitt Romney, a social moderate who shares with Jews a status as a religious minority, Obama faces a closer race. The Democrats and Obama may not see outright defection from their party to the GOP, but they may still suffer at the hands of many smaller cuts—from disaffected independent Jewish voters who don’t turn out and from unenthusiastic donors. Though Jews make up just 2 percent of the electorate, their influence is greater, especially in key swing states with relatively large Jewish populations, such as Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida.
“If I were a Republican, then I would say this is a community worth pursuing,” said Harris of the AJC. “Because if I can chip away a little further and it becomes a close election—a la 2000, where it comes down to Palm Beach County, Florida—then a shift of some Jewish voters might actually help make all the difference.”
G. Jeffrey MacDonald is an independent journalist with a focus on religion and values. He’s the author of Thieves in the Temple: The Christian Church and the Selling of the American Soul.