Ben Smith

Politico, June 29, 2011


David Ainsman really began to get worried about President Barack Obama’s standing with his fellow Jewish Democrats when a recent dinner with his wife and two other couples—all Obama voters in 2008—nearly turned into a screaming match.

Ainsman, a prominent Democratic lawyer and Pittsburgh Jewish community leader, was trying to explain that Obama had just been offering Israel a bit of “tough love” in his May 19 speech on the Arab Spring. His friends disagreed—to say the least. One said he had the sense that Obama “took the opportunity to throw Israel under the bus.” Another…admitted he’d lost faith in the president.

If several dozen interviews…are any indication, a similar conversation is taking place in Jewish communities across the country. Obama’s speech last month seems to have crystallized the doubts many pro-Israel Democrats had about Obama in 2008 in a way that could, on the margins, cost the president votes and money in 2012 and will not be easy to repair.…

The immediate controversy sparked by the speech was Obama’s statement that Israel should embrace the country’s 1967 borders, with “land swaps,” as a basis for peace talks. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seized on the first half of that phrase and the threat of a return to what Israelis sometimes refer to as “Auschwitz borders.” Obama’s Jewish allies stressed the second half: that land swaps would—as American negotiators have long contemplated—give Israel security in its narrow middle, and the deal would give the country international legitimacy and normalcy.

But the noisy fray after the speech mirrored any number of smaller controversies. Politically hawkish Jews and groups such as the Republican Jewish Coalition and the Emergency Committee for Israel pounded Obama in news releases. White House surrogates and staffers defended him, as did the plentiful American Jews who have long wanted the White House to lean harder on Israel’s conservative government.

Based on [numerous] conversations, it’s hard to resist the conclusion that some kind of tipping point has been reached.

Most of those interviewed were center-left American Jews and Obama supporters—and many of them Democratic donors. On some core issues involving Israel, they’re well to the left of Netanyahu and many Americans: They refer to the “West Bank,” not to “Judea and Samaria,” fervently supported the Oslo peace process and Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and believe in the urgency of creating a Palestinian state.

But they are also fearful for Israel at a moment of turmoil in a hostile region when the moderate Palestinian Authority is joining forces with the militantly anti-Israel Hamas.… Some of these traditional Democrats now say, to their own astonishment, that they’ll consider voting for a Republican in 2012. And many of those who continue to support Obama said they find themselves constantly on the defensive in conversations with friends.…

The qualms that many Jewish Democrats express about Obama date back to his emergence onto the national scene in 2007. Though he had warm relations with Chicago’s Jewish community, he had also been friends with leading Palestinian activists, unusual in the Democratic establishment. And though he seemed to be trying to take a conventionally pro-Israel stand, he was a novice at the complicated politics of the America-Israel relationship, and his sheer inexperience showed at times.

At the 2007 AIPAC Policy Conference, Obama professed his love for Israel but then seemed—to some who were there for his informal talk—to betray a kind of naivete about the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians: “The biggest enemy” he said, using the same rhetoric he applied to American politics, was “not just terrorists, it’s not just Hezbollah, it’s not just Hamas—it’s also cynicism.”

At the next year’s AIPAC conference, he again botched the conflict’s code, committing himself to an “undivided Jerusalem” and then walking it back the next day.

Those doubts and gaffes lingered, even for many of the majority who supported him.

“There’s an inclination in the community to not trust this president’s gut feel on Israel and every time he sets out on a path that’s troubling you do get this ‘ouch’ reaction from the Jewish Community because they’re distrustful of him,” said the president of a major national Jewish organization, who declined to be quoted by name to avoid endangering his ties to the White House.

Many of Obama’s supporters, then and now, said they were unworried about the political allegiance of Jewish voters. Every four years, they say, Republicans claim to be making inroads with American Jews, and every four years, voters and donors go overwhelmingly for the Democrats, voting on a range of issues that include, but aren’t limited to Israel.…

That, perhaps, is the crux of the political question: Pro-Israel Jewish voters and activists…are largely die-hard Democrats, few of whom have ever cast a vote for a Republican to be president. Does the new wave of Jewish angst matter?…


John Podhoretz
Contentions, July 5, 2011


The talk of the Jewish world today is that Gallup has found no significant change in the president’s popularity among Jews after the controversies of the past few months. Gallup measures his approval at 60 percent, statistically unchanged from the 64 percent previously measured—but significantly changed from the 80 percent he registered a few months into 2009. So an argument is raging about what this means—an argument that largely misses the point about the nature of the difficulty between Obama and the Jewish community. For those Jews whose support for the president was going to be affected by his behavior toward Israel, the damage was pretty much done last year. In one sense, then, what the president’s behavior this year has done is to make it unlikely his popularity among Jews will rise again to the levels it once enjoyed. So by continuing to behave in a manner many of us perceive as hostile, he has solidified some opposition among those who were enthusiastic about him in 2008.…

This doesn’t mean Jews won’t vote for him again, and in landslide numbers, in 2012—especially if the Republicans put up someone Jews decide to despise. But which Jews vote or don’t vote for Obama doesn’t matter all that much except when it comes to conversations around the seder table.

Where it matters—where Obama’s team is clearly worried and where it is seeking to come up with counterarguments to give to surrogates—is money. It’s one thing to cast a single vote as the member of a small minority community to which outsized attention is paid. But Jews are uncommonly generous givers, both philanthropically and politically, and while they might still cast a vote for Obama, they might give him nothing. Or half what they gave him in 2008. And that decline in enthusiasm might be reflected not only in giving to the reelection campaign, but to Democratic campaigns generally. That’s the real fear, and that’s the real problem for the Democrats. They have Jewish support at the ballot box. They can bank on that. They’re worried they won’t be able to bank on Jewish support in the other sense of the term, and that worry is very real, and very realistic, and can’t be argued away.



Jerusalem Post, July 5, 2011


Judging from voting trends during the past three decades, Democratic President Barack Obama can rest assured that he will receive a majority of Jewish votes in the 2012 presidential election. Even Ronald Reagan, who was the only modern Republican presidential candidate to seriously challenge Democrats’ dominance among Jews, mustered just 39 percent of the Jewish vote in the 1980 elections. Subsequent Republican candidates have received anywhere from 11% to 24% of the Jewish vote. In the last elections, John McCain received 22% to Obama’s 78%.

That said, a report by Ben Smith in Politico at the end of June, which has generated quite a bit of attention, claims to have located a possible “tipping point” in American Jewish opinion. Obama’s falling out with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, during the latter’s May visit to Washington, purportedly has forced more center-left Jews to reconsider their political loyalties ahead of next year’s presidential race.…

It might very well be an exaggeration, however, to claim that the US president is losing the Jewish vote over his policies vis-a-vis Israel. As JTA’s Washington bureau chief Ron Kampeas blogged recently, [American Jewish Committee] surveys in the past four years have shown that Israel has consistently ranked no more than fifth on American Jewish voters’ priority list. Ranking higher are domestic matters such as unemployment, house prices and health care, and international military conflicts in which US soldiers’ lives were under constant danger.

In addition, a recent Pew Research Center poll found that Americans in general (there was no breakdown for Jews) perceive the Obama administration to have a fundamentally positive approach to Israel. In a survey conducted just days after Obama’s May 19 State Department speech and his May 22 AIPAC address, 50% said the president was striking the right balance in the Middle East situation, while 21% said he favors the Palestinians too much.…

Regardless of the Pew poll results, however, there may have been a turn for the worse in the White House’s position on Israel, as Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Washington-based Council on Foreign Relations, argued in an interview with The Jerusalem Post’s Herb Keinon that appeared in Friday’s paper.

A prime example pointing to such a shift is Obama’s refusal to reaffirm former president George Bush’s 2004 letter, endorsed in overwhelming majorities in both houses of Congress. A central element in the letter was its rejection of the notion that any Israeli-Palestinian agreement would include a full and complete return to the 1949 armistice lines. Obama, in contrast, has insisted on using the 1949 borders as the basis for talks, with land swaps to compensate the Palestinians for territories beyond the armistice lines that remain under Israeli control. In essence, this means Israel will be forced, according to Abrams, to “give up sovereign Green Line territory to keep the Kotel,” a “ridiculous” demand that seriously weakens the Israeli negotiating position.

Another example given by Abrams is the Obama administration’s different approach to the United Nations. The Bush administration cast nine vetoes blocking anti-Israel resolutions in the Security Council over an eight-year span, out of a conviction that the UN is inherently biased against Israel. In contrast, the Obama administration “is desperate to avoid vetoes,” Abrams said.

Abrams also implied that until now Obama might have been constrained by domestic politics and that in a second term he might feel freer to place more pressure on Israel. Perhaps this helps explain the Palestinians’ success in using their September statehood bid in the UN to put pressure on Israel.

Obama will undoubtedly continue to enjoy wide support among American Jewry. But it is a sobering thought…that this does not mean his Mideast policies will be good for Israel.


Daniel Greenfield

Daniel Greenfield Blog, July 5, 2011


Every election season brings another round of predictable essays about the Jewish vote. Variations of these essays have been going round and round for decades without getting anywhere. So let’s begin by demystifying the Jewish vote.

The Jewish vote is not a single entity. There is no monolithic Jewish vote, because there is no monolithic Jewish community. The Jewish community is small, but in its own way it is as complex and diverse as American Christians are. Which is to say that there’s a Jewish spectrum covering everything from Baptists to Unitarians. And politically everything from Rand to Marx.

Let’s begin by breaking down the Jewish vote into thirds as a way to get a larger overview of the picture on the ground.

The first third is conservative. They may be socially conservative, economically conservative or both. This covers everything from Hasidic Jews who are worried about moral decay to gay millionaires who are fans of Ayn Rand. It covers the Russian Jewish immigrant who is active in the Tea Party and the former liberal living in the suburbs who slowly finds herself drifting to the right. This group will vote Republican if there are available and viable candidates.…

The second third is liberal. This group ranges from hard core leftists to more mainstream liberals. It will rarely if ever vote for Republicans, unless they are of the Bloomberg type, and even then it will usually vote for the party’s choice. It is strongly socially liberal and for big government. It is somewhat liberal on foreign policy issues. Its positions on Israel vary from hard core antis to pro-peace and pro-security.

This is the progressive camp. Its influence significantly outweighs its numbers, because it includes a greater share of academics, media figures, writers, organization executives and other opinion leaders. When someone claiming to represent the Jewish community speaks out on an issue, it’s usually one of them. And rising to the top without being in this camp is difficult.

The final third is moderate or middle of the road. This group is squishy, it typically does not hold very strong political opinions. It usually follows the majority or whatever the conventional position seems to be. It believes that government should help people, but is less enthusiastic about many social issues. It is fairly pro-Israel, but believes that the Democrats and Republicans are both equally pro-Israel. But members of this group do sometimes begin to worry about radicals like Carter or Obama.…

When serious doubts are raised, then members of this group become the swing vote. The entire group never shifts, but percentages of it do.

This is just a rough snapshot. These numbers derive from a Jewish community in flux. Underneath this there are deeper demographic issues. For example the Jewish vote becomes more conservative out West, and more liberal back East.…

The Jewish population has been slowly drifting out of the central areas in New York and California to the suburbs and beyond. The Northeast now holds less than half of the Jewish population in America. The South and the West each host about a quarter. The Republican House Majority Leader is a Jewish man from Virginia. A geographical shift does not mean an immediate political shift, but politics are often contextual. The kind of voting that makes sense in New York City, does not always make sense in Arizona.

Then there’s immigration. The Jewish immigrants of the 1990’s and onward tend to be Russian or Middle-Eastern and conservative. Unlike the Russian and Eastern European immigrants of the 1890’s-1930’s who were fleeing right wing tyrannies, the 1990’s Russian and Eastern European immigrants were escaping totalitarian left-wing regimes. And that has given them a worldview closer to the Cubans. The Middle-Eastern immigrants also tend to be socially conservative, with a bias toward free enterprise.…

The biggest demographic factor however is religious. Following a general pattern in American religious life, the more conservative religious movements are marrying earlier and having more children. Among Jews that means a rising demographic trend for the orthodox, who are claiming a larger percentage of the 18-29 population. The trend is not as definitive as in the UK, where three out of every four Jewish births are orthodox, but it will still define the future.

How significant is this? In a 2011 survey, 67 percent of Orthodox Jews found the Tea Party “refreshing”. Some exit polls [after the 2008 U.S. election] placed the Jewish vote for Obama at 78 percent. But Orthodox polling showed that the 78 percent went the other way, with McCain polling at 78 to Obama’s 13.…

The Jewish vote will not change overnight, but its trajectory is slowly shifting. The American Jewish population in a generation will be more conservative, less urban and less tied to the dinosaur leftist organizations that have exerted a death grip on Jewish life. It will be a day when The Forward is gone, the ADL is history and the Federations have lost their Jewish identity and have merged with other charities into a non-denominational grouping.…

The Jewish vote will look more like the way it did before the full impact of Eastern European immigration altered the scales. Roughly divided between both parties. And the political clock will have been turned back to the early 20th century.