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What Jewish voters want -- and what the candidates don't offer

August 15, 2012|By Rebecca Vilkomerson
  • Mitt Romney delivers a speech outside Jerusalem's Old City on July 29.
Mitt Romney delivers a speech outside Jerusalem's Old City on July… (Uriel Sinai / Getty Images )

Dan Schnur misses some crucial points about the Jewish community in his Op-Ed article Sunday on  Republican efforts to woo Jewish voters.

First, the idea that President Obama’s policies toward Israel are substantially different than Mitt Romney's would be -- or than President George W. Bush’s were -- is incorrect.  Rhetorically, Obama made some effort in 2010 to rein in Israel's settlement building, but in practice Israel has been able to continue entrenching its occupation of Palestinian lands with no substantive protest from the United States.  In fact, Obama released an additional $70 million in military aid to Israel at the end of July, prompting Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak to note that it was "another expression of the consistent support of the Obama administration and also Congress for the security of Israel."

On the issue of Iran, news outlets from Haaretz to CNN have noted, as Israeli journalist Anshel Pfeffer did, that “once you strip away the rhetoric and bombast of Romney’s visit to Israel and his speeches and interviews, you end up with two almost identical positions.”

COMMENTARY AND ANALYSIS: Presidential Election 2012

Given that Jewish Americans make up only about 1.7% of the U.S. population (though they could be crucial voters in several swing states), the real target of presidential campaigning on Israel is more likely to be the evangelical vote, which has been widely recognized as pivotal in every election since Jimmy Carter's in 1976. Though evangelicals, like Jewish voters, are not monolithic, there is widespread and very strong support in that community for extremely hawkish positions on Israel, which along with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee's arm-twisting further explains why there is little light between the candidates' positions.

As Schnur observes, it seems that most Jewish Americans are not single-issue voters in any case. In a recent survey, the Public Religion Research Institute found that only 4% of Jewish registered voters put Israel at the top of their list of issues in deciding their vote in the 2012 election. In contrast, 51% named the economy as their primary issue. Israel was at the bottom of the list of concerns for most Jewish voters.

Of course, the great unspoken is the role not of Jewish voters but of campaign donations by Jewish voters. This is an extremely sensitive topic, and rarely discussed openly, but Ron Kampeas, the Washington bureau chief of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, has cited estimates over the last few years that Jewish donors give between one-third and two-third of the support for the Democratic Party. Especially in the era of the "super PACs," to whom donors can give virtually unlimited funds, a few big-money donors can have an enormous impact.  Exhibit A: casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who, as Thomas Friedman sharply observed in a recent New York Times column, was the primary audience for Romney's recent trip to Israel (and occupied East Jerusalem).

Schnur describes the Jewish community as divided between voters who are committed to Obama's reelection because they like his positions on matters other than Israel and those for whom his supposedly insufficient commitment to Israel could turn their vote. 

But Schnur entirely neglects a third group: those who are disappointed that Obama didn’t put his money where his mouth is and didn't enforce, for example, his call for a moratorium on settlements.  There is a growing segment of the Jewish community that wants to see progressive values applied to every issue, including Israel and Palestine. If we fight for immigrant rights, environmental stewardship and a more equitable tax system, then those principles of equality, fairness and a secure future for all people should also be applied to Israel and the Palestinians. By this measure, U.S. policy, under presidents from both parties, has been an unmitigated disaster, as Israel has been given free rein by the virtually unconditional military, diplomatic and economic support of the United States to pursue policies that violate Palestinian human rights.

My organization, Jewish Voice for Peace, delivered 17,000 signatures to Romney’s campaign headquarters last week asking that he apologize to the Palestinian people for his comments asserting that Palestinian culture, rather than the occupation, is the reason that the Palestinian economy is languishing while Israel's flourishes. It took only a couple of days to gather those signatures, which is just one sign among many that there is a growing segment of the American Jewish community whose primary concern is not an identity based on fealty to an enthnocratic state but justice for all people. In fact, the same Public Religion Research Institute poll cited above found that 46% of Jewish respondents said a commitment to social equality is the most important element of their Jewish identity.

It may not be a significant force in the election of 2012, but it would be a mistake to discount this growing segment of the Jewish community.

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Rebecca Vilkomerson is the executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace.

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