Point - Counterpoint: "Obama's Jews" by Bernard Avishai

In the October, 2008 issue of Harper's Magazine, Bernard Avishai, contributing editor of the Harvard Business Review, discusses the evolving "liberal impulses" of the American Jewish community over the last 40 years. In the 1968 election, Jews voted almost 5 to 1 for Hubert Humphrey over Richard Nixon, but by last May, Barack Obama was ahead among Jewish voters by only 2 to 1. Avishai reports that at the same time, "polls show that 50 percent of Jews call themselves liberal or 'progressive,' and only 21 percent, 'conservative.'" His article may be accessed at /http://harpers.org/archive/200810/0082187. Avishai contends that "what has been so deceptive about American Jewish attitudes is how out of synch majority opinion is with the very public views of many Jewish organizational leaders. .... Obama's campaign is exposing the fault lines among Jews, which are serious, while implicitly challenging the great silent majority to repudiate Jewish organizational leaders .... whose militant simplicities purport to represent them - and don't." We invited community activist David Broida and Jewish Exponent editor Jonathan Tobin to share their reactions to Avishai's thesis. We encourage our readers to voice their own opinions as well. Myths and Facts About "Right-Wing" Jewish Leadership By Jonathan S. Tobin Bernard Avishai's essay "Obama's Jews" (Harpers Magazine, October 2008) rightly notes that most Jews are loyal liberal Democrats and will not desert Barack Obama on election day. The reasons for this fact are many and worth discussing but rather than explore this thoughtfully he chooses to extrapolate from it a set of assumptions that have everything to do with his own ideological agenda and very little to do with the political realities of either the United States or Israel. His thesis centers on the belief that the party line loyalty of Jewish voters means that this is the time for a "new leadership" of American Jewry to emerge which will rout the antiquated "Likudnik" heads of major Jewish organizations and support policies that are not only a less oriented toward support for Israeli security but will openly advocate for what the left likes to call "progressive" politics in the United States. In Avishai's view, the 20 to 30 percent of Jews who will vote for The drift toward the right on the part of a sizable portion of American Jewry (He credits this trend, not without justice, in no small part to the influence of Commentary magazine) has created a permanent divide between a neo-conservative minority that will vote for John McCain and a liberal majority. Yet rather than take a close look at the political beliefs of Jewish Democrats and what they think about Israel and what they want American politicians to do and to say about it, he blithely assumes that this loyal Democratic majority is sticking with their party's candidate because they have rejected the mantra of down-the-line support for Israel. This is the same line taken by J Street, the left-wing group organized this year to provide an alternative to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which it says is a knee-jerk right-wing lobby for hard line elements in Israel. But Avishai and J Street are wrong not only about what Jewish Democrats believe but about the mainstream Jewish groups. And the reason for the former is linked to a similar mistake made by their counterparts on the right. For decades, Jewish Republicans and neo-conservatives were hooked on their own set of incorrect assumptions. They thought that the natural inclination of the majority of American Jews to support Israel would lead them to the conclusion that left-liberals and Democrats were inherently unreliable on the issue. It is true that there is a large element of the American left that is inherently hostile to Israel and Zionism and that this group has proportionately more influence among Democrats than the small portion of the American right that is similarly hostile to Israel (think Pat Buchanan and the so-called paleo-cons). To the extent that any Democrat can be identified as a clone of former President Jimmy Carter whose view of Israel as an apartheid state has thoroughly discredited him as a mainstream figure, the Republicans do gain. Of course, it is true that most American Jews are not single issue voters on Israel. However much they may care about it, they live in the United States and have demonstrated over and again that they are a lot more afraid of Evangelical Christians and their perceived assault on church-state separation than they are of Hamas. To the extent that Sarah Palin has been tagged as the new icon of the Christian right, she has certainly hurt the Republican ticket among Jews. This may help the Democrats maintain the 75-25 split of this vote that took place in 2004 rather than the increase in Jewish GOP ballots as had been expected because of the substitution of John McCain for George W. Bush. But it is worth noting that the Republican high-water mark in terms of Jewish votes in a presidential year took place in 1980. For a long time, Jews in the GOP have tried to re-create the magic of Ronald Reagan who memorably took 39 percent of Jewish voters that year, a mark that they have never come close to reaching again. But the real magician that year, at least as far as the Jews were concerned was not Reagan (who did much worse four years later among Jews while winning in a 49-state landslide) but the Democratic nominee Carter. If Democrats have held their own among the Jews since then it is not because they have chosen to flout the sensibilities of supporters of Israel but because they have never allowed themselves to be wrong-footed on Israel as they were in 1980. Despite the heat of the conservative attacks on Obama and the all-out effort of groups like the Republican Jewish Coalition to tar the Illinois senator as hostile to Israel, Obama has wisely never allowed any daylight between his positions and that of the pro-Israel community. His tight hold on the Jewish vote, which would have been endangered by a slide into Carter-like moral equivalence between Israel and the Palestinians, is due in no small measure to his refusal to allow the Republicans any traction on this issue. The big difference between the political alignment of thirty years ago and today is that the Republicans who were once iffy about Israel are now solid. But despite the expectations of conservatives that the Democrats would surrender to the left and allow the Republicans to "own" the issue of Israel, they have not done so. The Republican Jewish Coalition's controversial ad campaign in Jewish publications, both in 2004 and 2008, centered on trying to prove to voters that the Democrats were nothing but the party of Jimmy Carter. If it has failed to significantly influence the debate it is not because Jews know this and don't care but because the majority of Jews who are Democrats believe the assertion to be utterly false. As for the "Likudnik" mainstream Jewish groups that Avishai and J Street abhor, the truth about AIPAC, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations and the rest of the establishment crowd is far from the cartoonish view that he draws. First of all, mainstream Jewish groups need no lessons from J Street or Avishai in support for liberal politics. On domestic issues, far from being the tools of the neo-conservatives, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Congress, the American Jewish Committee and the rest of the alphabet soup of groups are consistent advocates of the liberal point of view on just about every conceivable domestic issue. And the Jewish federation movement and its various arms is among the first in line to push for more social service spending (from which their charities benefit) and a whole range of "social justice" controversies. As for Israel, the fact is, AIPAC and the rest of the establishment have always been careful to march in lockstep with whatever party has governed the Jewish State. That meant that they, and the Federation movement were all cheerleaders for the Oslo peace process in the 1990s and ferociously resisted the efforts of those Jews who were cynical or questioned that fiasco. The same rule applied to the withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 and every other concession Israel has made in the last 15 years. Though Avishai sees them as "Likud" pawns, the truth is the Jewish establishment has never been comfortable with the Zionist right in Israel or its small cadre of supporters in this country. Proof of this is the obvious lack of enthusiasm on the part of the mainstream groups for Jewish settlements, which is the real touchstone issue of the right. That said, Avishai's entire notion of the Israeli political spectrum is itself outdated. The years since the collapse of Oslo has shown that the hardcore positions of both the left and the right in Israel have been discredited. The vast majority of Israelis have long ago given up on the right's concept of holding on to all of the West Bank. But they have also given up on the left's notion that the Palestinians will make peace if only Israel gives up the territory. Even the Likud would make some sort of land-for-peace deal these days. But Israelis on both the left and right understand that the Palestinian Authority neither wants such a deal or could make one even if they did. And virtually everyone understands that Hamas, which may now command the support of the majority of Palestinians in both Gaza and the West Bank will never make peace. So the whole idea that what American Jews need to do is dump AIPAC and support pressure from the United States on Israel to make further concessions in the name of peace is an absurd misreading of reality. Israel needs no such prodding and nothing good would come of it if it happened. And most American Jews, Republicans and Democrats alike, would not support such an unfair policy in any case. There may well be fewer American Jews who care about Israel today than there were in 1980. But that has more to do with general trends of assimilation and disaffection from Jewish identity in general than a specific rejection of Israeli policies or the American Jewish groups that defend them. What J Street, and apparently Avishai, are truly interested in is not so much Obama or even policies toward Israel, but the question of who gets to speak for American Jewry. But Obama's vote count will not provide any "proof" that these marginal elements are the true mainstream. Avishai is right that "Obama's Jews" are backing him not in spite of his attitude on Israel but because of it. But that attitude is one of overt support, not criticism. Should a President Obama ever prove his critics right on this issue, he will discover that Jewish voters are every bit as capable of punishing him as they were Jimmy Carter. Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia. In January, he will assume the post of executive editor of Commentary magazine.
Reflections on "Obama's Jews", by Bernard Avishai By David Broida, JSPAN Board member Bernard Avishai tackles many issues in his essay, "Obama's Jews", which tries to explain why Barack Obama will not be getting the roughly 75 - 80% of the Jewish vote his Democratic predecessors got in the past few elections. Jews are like other Americans - the richer individual Jews become, the more likely they'll vote Republican. As my daughter's friend recently told me, "We're voting on economics - it's our livelihood", referring to her and her husband's income, which exceeds $250,000. In addition, as Jews in general have become wealthier in America, a greater proportion of Jews are earning six figures. So, for economic reasons, less of us will be staying with the Democratic Party. And, just like other white, European-Americans, we have our bigots. A certain percentage, hopefully very low, simply will not vote for an African-American candidate. As Cornell West has correctly noted, Jews are a religious minority, but still part of the white racial majority in this country. Unfortunately, Jewish bigotry is not new - my family's older generations are reflective. It's just that this is the first time it will affect voting in a presidential race. So, the Democratic candidate, Barack Obama, will lose a few Jewish votes here, too. No one questions Republican candidates on their support for Israel's security needs. They get a free pass. The Republican Party does not have a left wing, which takes an interest in international issues of oppression and national and civil rights. The Democrats, on the other hand, have in their big tent those with a passionate and positive outlook on justice for the oppressed, some of whom fail to understand the importance of security to Israel, Jimmy Carter included. So, the Democratic candidate for President must live with party-mates who are easy for lovers of Zion to criticize. Guilt-by-association, or party, is easy to affix. If Jimmy Carter would only balance his criticism of the occupation, with which I agree, with at the very least a minimal understanding of Israel's security needs, maybe Jewish voters would stick with the Democrats in greater numbers. When I met President Carter at the Democratic National Convention in Denver in August, I gave him a Barack Obama lapel pin, in Hebrew letters, and wished him the best in his negotiations and quest for Middle East peace. We posed for the obligatory (for me) photo. But I left it at that. I didn't feel comfortable telling our ex-President in his mid-80's my differing views. Therefore, Barack Obama trails John McCain among Jewish voters when it comes to US support for Israel, despite his and McCain's identical voting records. Both candidates vote for military appropriations for Israel, for Iran sanctions, for resolutions condemning Palestinian terrorism, and for resolutions proclaiming Israel's right to defend itself. But for Barack, it's not enough. At the same time he's reaching for Jewish votes, he has to defend himself against false charges by right-wing Jews that he is less committed to the safety of the Jewish State. George W. Bush and his administration have been asleep at the wheel in terms of negotiations and moving the peace process forward these past eight years. One could argue that this has hurt Israel, that it is not in Israel's interest to let time slip by. Sari Nusseibeh, in his new book Once Upon A Country, argues that peace-loving Palestinians like himself are giving up on a two-state solution. When Israel loses Sari Nusseibeh as a negotiating partner, and he begins to clamor for civil rights for all Palestinians in a united Israel with the West Bank included (and who knows about Gaza), Israel will face a scary prospect - democracy and the loss of a Jewish majority, or an even greater denial of civil rights to Palestinians. So, the Republican strategy of ignoring negotiations might be damaging to Israel's security in the extreme, but the Republicans face no danger of losing Jewish votes as a result of this strategy. American Jews seem to lose interest in Israel's need to move forward with peace negotiations when it's quiet in Tel Aviv. It's a wonder the Democratic Party hasn't lost more Jewish support, with its candidate handicapped so badly. From a progressive Jewish perspective, Barack Obama is an exciting candidate. In his first book, Dreams From My Father, he describes his reading of Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, W.E.B. DuBois, and Langston Hughes. He took a friend to see Ntozake Shange's play, "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enough". It's exhilarating to imagine a President who has read the same books as I have, as opposed to the Louis L'Amour reading habit of Ronald Reagan. I'm reminded of Mort Sahl's joke about the Nixons, sitting in the living room: Pat's having a drink, Julie is doing crewel, Tricia's working on a puzzle, and Dick's reading the Constitution, looking for loopholes. I can't imagine Richard Nixon reading (What happens to) "A Dream Deferred". But I can imagine Reagan stealing Langston Hughes' line, "Let American be America again", substituting "Poland" for "America", and not knowing the source. Avishai's right about American Jews' failure to confront our "rightest leadership". We're not democratic; leadership of Jewish organizations, the federations and publications included, is based on money. I don't know of a similar disconnect between other ethnic groups' leaders and masses. But it doesn't matter - not all Jews will not be falling for the mean-spirited, viscous ads of the Republican Jewish Coalition, which make Barack Obama seem like a very dangerous man. One area that Avishai ignores is the Jewish Republican reaction to their party's continued drift to the right. The parents of another friend of my daughter, longtime Republicans, with an income well over the $250,000 threshhold that Barack Obama will levy taxes on, have broken ranks this year and are supporting Barack Obama. Stem-cell research is just one of the issues that drove them away from the Republicans. Sarah Palin is another. Some former Democratic Jews are coming home this time. The further right the Republicans go, the more the issues of separation of church and state, abortion, etc., will matter to Jewish voters. The National Jewish Democratic Council's pro-Choice ads reflect their polling, which indicate the importance of these social issues. One final reason for Democratic hope lies in the economy. In times of trouble - the stock market crash, the Great Depression - voters have been drawn to the party that promises government help. That's been the Democratic Party ever since the New Deal. As the truly dangerous economic picture gets even worse, Jews will behave like other Americans - they'll tend toward the Democrats. The election's results will remain a mystery for a few more weeks, and so will the percent of Jewish votes each candidates receives. But although I agree with Avishai that "our political culture........will deny Obama historic levels of Jewish support", my guess is that on November 5, Barack Obama will have risen to 70%, not bad for a candidate who started out in the low 60's. David Broida, is a member of J-SPAN Board, former board member of American Jewish World Service and Lower Merion Township Democratic Committeeman