American Jews are not single-issue voters

Poll finds Jews in the US prioritise domestic issues, such as the economy and Medicare, over international issues.

American jews demonstrating against AIPAC
A common mistake is the assumption that US Jews care more about Israel than life in the US [GALLO/GETTY]

A congressional aide contacted me last week to tell me a story that he believed illustrated a point I often make.

His boss was visited by a group of eight senior citizens from his district. They had travelled to Washington with a group of retired teachers and decided, on the spur of the moment, to visit their representative. They had no appointment so they did not expect to see him but wanted to see the office, if nothing else.

The aide greeted the group, looked at the congressman’s schedule, and decided that he could at least come out to say hello. He took the names and brought them in to his boss. The congressman perused the list and said, “The names are all Jewish. Are they from a Jewish organisation?” The aide said they were not and explained that they were older people on a bus tour sponsored by a charter travel group that catered mostly to retired educators.

The congressman (a Democrat) went out and delighted the group by ushering them into his office and talking to them for half an hour. He opened by telling them how strongly he supported the Obama administration’s opposition to the Palestinian bid for UN recognition and how much he enjoyed Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s speech before a joint session of Congress. He elaborated on the Israel issue for a while and then asked for questions.

There was not one reference to anything he had said about Israel or any foreign policy issue. The only issues the visitors wanted to discuss were Medicare and “why Obama doesn’t fight harder” against the Republicans. As Democrats, they all intended to support Obama for re-election but were disappointed with the president, especially for extending the Bush tax cuts.

The aide said that, afterward, the congressman chided him a little for not telling him that the group was not particularly interested in the Middle East. The aide said that he had not said that they were. It was the Congressman’s assumption that their Jewish names meant that they cared primarily about Israel.

The congressman made a common mistake. Politicians assume that the main issue American Jews care about is Israel. To be blunt, a cheque to a political campaign from someone with an obviously Jewish surname will be chalked up to the candidate’s support for Israel, unless the donor specifically indicates otherwise.

It isn’t hard to understand how members of Congress, and even the president, came to the conclusion that the foremost issue for Jewish donors and voters is Israel. After all, that is precisely what they hear from the lobby and its cutouts (in the media and Congress itself). The lobby promotes the idea that Jews are single-issue voters who only care about Israel. They do that to enhance their own clout and to prevent policymakers from deviating from the lobby line.

Avoiding profiling

But the polls consistently show that Jews, like most Americans, are primarily concerned about domestic issues such as jobs, choice, the environment, equality, Medicare, etc. During the 2008 presidential election, the American Jewish Committee polled Jews on the issues that were most important to them. Fifty-four per cent said the economy. Eleven per cent said health care. Five per cent said terrorism. Three per cent said Israel.

It was against that backdrop that 78 per cent of Jews voted for Barack Obama in 2008, not because they thought he was “better” on Israel than uber-hawk John McCain.

This brings us to the current drop-off in Jewish support for President Obama. According to a Gallup poll published on September 16, Obama’s approval rating among Jews is now down to 54 per cent from 83 per cent at his inauguration.

Naturally, the lobby and its acolytes are blaming Obama’s significant slippage on the Israel issue. They say Jews are abandoning him because he is too tough on Prime Minister Netanyahu.

However, the fact is that there has never been a US president who has been so supportive, for better or worse, of every position taken by an Israeli prime minister. No doubt some Jews oppose Obama, citing Israel, but they are the same ones who didn’t like him in 2008. And some may have been duped by the Republican Jewish Coalition into believing that a president admired even by Israel’s rightist foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, is anti-Israel. Let me be clear here. I don’t approve of the president’s support for Netanyahu, which is obviously politically calculated and bad for the United States, the Palestinians, and Israel. But anti-Israel? Not only is that charge a lie, but those making it know it’s a lie.

No, it’s not Israel that has produced the decline in Obama’s standing among Jews. The reason for the decline is that Jews are Americans and support for the president is down among all Americans. And the reason it is down among Jews, as for their neighbours, is because joblessness is above nine per cent and the economy shows few signs of recovery.

For politicians, including, notably, President Obama, to behave as if their Jewish constituents are more concerned about Israel than they are about their own families and neighbours here comes very close to acceptance of the libel that American Jews are more loyal to Israel than to the United States. The fact that the lobby and its associated organisations tell them that Jews care primarily about Israel is no excuse. To believe it and to act on that belief is offensive. Worse than offensive.

American Jews have been good and loyal Americans ever since they arrived on these shores. They understand and appreciate that America has been, since its creation, the safest place in the world to be Jewish. They understand and appreciate that the US Constitution, and particularly the First Amendment’s separation of church and state, have guaranteed their rights ever since George Washington himself welcomed Jews:

May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants – while everyone shall sit under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.

This is not to say that American Jews do not care about Israel. They do. But their national homeland is the United States and those who imply otherwise – especially lobbyists and pandering politicians – insult us all.

MJ Rosenberg is a Senior Foreign Policy Fellow at Media Matters Action Network.

A version of this article previously appeared on Foreign Policy Matters.

Follow MJ Roseberg on Twitter @MJayRosenberg

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.