Given the small size of the Jewish population, the attention given to the Jewish vote is, almost by definition, disproportionate. But though the absolute numbers at stake in the battle for this small slice of the electorate is small, if Republicans can persuade a substantial percentage of Jews to abandon their traditional support for the Democrats, especially in key swing states such as Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, it could have a real impact on the outcome of a close presidential race in November.
But Jewish Republicans and Democrats don’t merely disagree about the issues. They differ over whether it is even permissible to debate what is arguably one of the most important issues for Jewish voters: Israel.
For the last generation, but especially over the course of the last decade, Republicans have highlighted their party’s fervent backing for Israel to convince a traditionally solid Democratic constituency to back the GOP. Democrats don’t merely take umbrage at the implication that their party is any less dependably pro-Israel than the Republicans but argue that that since support for Israel is the function of a bipartisan coalition, for their opponents to try and use it as a wedge issue turns something that should be above politics into a partisan football.
This debate has heated up this year and for good reason. Most polls indicate that the Democratic share of the Jewish vote may be the lowest since 1988. The reason for this is that President Obama’s attitude toward Israel has alarmed many Jews. Constant fights marked the first three years of his administration with the Israeli government over the peace process, settlements, Jerusalem and the 1967 lines. Despite an election-year Jewish charm offensive conducted by the administration, the disagreement between the two countries over setting red lines about Iran’s nuclear weapons program has become bitter and public.
All this has given the Republicans an opening and they haven’t been shy in trying to exploit it. Republicans have longed for a candidate to lead their party who could inspire confidence in the Jews like Ronald Reagan, whose 39 percent of the Jewish vote in 1980 set a modern record. But they were wrong. What they needed was another Jimmy Carter. And in Barack Obama they hope to have found one.
Democrats have replied to GOP criticisms of Obama on Israel by rightly pointing out that he has not destroyed the alliance. But their main counter-argument is to say that even raising Israel in this manner isn’t kosher because doing so undermines the consensus. But they are being more than a little hypocritical.
They wish to silence this debate because they stand to lose in any discussion on the issue since it is the only point on which conservatives can appeal to a generally liberal constituency like the Jews.
Yet no matter whether the GOP winds up getting a significantly higher percentage of Jewish votes this year or not, the debate about Israel has still been, contrary to Democratic arguments, good for the Jews.
Though some worry the tension between Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Obama that has cropped up again this month on Iran will undermine the pro-Israel consensus, those fears are unfounded. The pro-Israel consensus exists because most Americans care deeply about Israel. Backing for Zionism is baked deep into the political DNA of the country and the overwhelming majority of Americans see the alliance as based on common values that transcend the issues of the day.
Accountability is the keystone of democracy. If the Jewish community is not prepared to hold politicians accountable for their stands, it will soon discover its concerns being ignored. Indeed, if the Obama administration were not afraid of losing more Jewish votes because of a credible Republican challenge, it is more than likely President Obama would feel he had a free hand to exert more pressure on Israel and to ignore its concerns about Iran.
While there are friends of Israel on both sides of the political aisle, the debate about Israel has helped keep both parties competing for Jewish votes. And that is something that is good for Israel, no matter whether you are a Republican or a Democrat.
JNS Columnist Jonathan S. Tobin is senior online editor of COMMENTARY magazine and chief political blogger at www.commentarymagazine.com. He can be reached via e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/#!/TobinCommentary.