September 16, 2011

GOP gains Jewish votes, at whose cost?

Since before Barack Obama was elected, individual Jewish community leaders and organizations have warned Jewish voters that the President wanted to "throw Israel under the bus." To some extent, this strategy has worked. The number of Jews who think their fellow Jews are somehow bad Jews if they support Obama's re-election has probably increased, and perhaps some of those Jewish Democrats even believe they themselves are bad Jews for it.

In the end, the overwhelming majority of Jewish voters will continue thinking for themselves, which happens to be the worst possible indictment of the organized Jewish community -- i.e., irrelevance. For the average Jewish voter, such slogans have no meaning or impact whatsoever. More than hurting Obama or helping Israel, this GOP strategy is also helping to alienate more Jews from their community and from the State of Israel.

I can understand die-hard Republicans, like my friends Matt Brooks and Dan Senor, going after Democratic President Obama on Israel, playing up any differences he has with Likud Prime Minister Netanyahu and stoking the fears and insecurities that still define swaths of the American Jewish community. It does help to motivate some Jewish voters, especially in local pockets like New York City. It may also send a message to more liberal Jews that their support for classic Israeli principles of peacemaking and open debate render them unfit and unwelcome among official Jewry -- and at a time when Jewish affiliation in the United States is already at crisis pitch.

I do not fully understand why a prominent Democrat like Ed Koch would take up this same cause so vocally, even though he has a record of independent action. It may be that he actually believes Obama is bad for Israel, or that no Israeli Prime Minister should be rewarding decades of Palestinian terrorism and dysfunction -- even if it could mean a better future for Israel -- and he wants Israelis to know that American Jews will cover any right-wing leader they elect, even at the expense of the progressive values Koch otherwise supports.

This continues to be a very effective strategy for turning out more Republican voters and swaying those Jews who feel they're helping Israel by somehow defying Obama. The President himself has played into this strategy by twice risking political capital on calls for a settlement freeze, and twice failing. Twice. He also made a sedate statement about Israeli-Palestinian negotiations being BASED on the pre-1967 borders, which has always been the case -- but he knew that Netanyahu would be decrying that line of his speech and he still went ahead with it.

It's doubtful that many Jewish voters outside of New York will be swayed by the anti-Obama trope, but it could be enough to matter in some tight races. It also helps to unlock campaign donations from Jews and Christians who care. Still more Jews are probably being driven away completely, from Israel and from their people, though no one has an incentive to measure those statistics.

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