The Obama campaign is apparently well aware of the discontent in the Jewish community regarding Obama’s positions on Israel—perhaps one of the reasons behind the president’s talk yesterday at the Holocaust Museum. Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch has been a bellwether voter in years past, with a tendency to desert the Democrats when concerns about Israel outweigh domestic political considerations. After Koch noisily backed Republican Bob Turner in the New York race to replace disgraced Congressman Anthony Weiner in order to send a message to the White House, the Obama Administration put on a full court press to secure Koch’s support, including a personal meeting with Obama and an invitation to a state dinner. While this effort moved Koch from opponent to supporter, at least for now, it is too costly an approach to employ on every disaffected Jewish voter. (The poll numbers show that there is at least some disaffection: A February Pew poll found that “Even Jewish voters, who have traditionally been and remain one of the strongest Democratic constituencies, have moved noticeably in the Republican direction.” A more recent poll shows that 62 percent of Jews would back Obama in November—an improvement, but still lower than what he received in 2008.)
Jews have also found themselves in the middle of some recent, broader campaign missteps as well. Hilary Rosen, the Democratic strategist who said earlier this month on CNN that Ann Romney “never worked a day in her life,” is Jewish. So is Danielle Gilbert, the DNC aide who caused a kerfuffle with the discovery of her Facebook posts that showed her and her girlfriends holding wads of cash and calling themselves “Jewbags.” Gilbert was hired by Jewish DNC head Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who declared that she would stand by Gilbert, the daughter of Mark and Nancy Gilbert, important Democratic fundraisers.
Of course, it is not surprising to have Jews a major part of the conversation on the Democratic side of the aisle. Democrats typically can count on at least 75 percent of the Jewish vote, and Jewish money, much of it from Wall Street and Hollywood, is crucial to funding the Democratic Party. Furthermore, 13 of the 53 senators who caucus with the Democrats are Jewish—almost 25 percent. Two of those 53 senators are Independents, both of whom are Jewish. There are 26 Jewish members of Congress. Twenty-five of them are Democrats. (The one who isn’t, Eric Cantor, is the House Majority Leader.)
So, why is this year different from all other years? In how much the Republican conversation has focused on Jews as well. Newt Gingrich made a splash in the Jewish world—and everywhere else—thanks to Jewish billionaire Sheldon Adelson and Adelson’s Israeli-born wife, who single-handedly allowed Gingrich to stay in the race months after he seemed to have run his course. Adelson and his family kicked in over $16 million to help a pro-Gingrich SuperPac, which led to Adelson profiles in the New York Times and The New Yorker, among other publications. The running theme in the profiles was how Adelson’s support for Gingrich would potentially influence Gingrich’s already hawkish pro-Israel views.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who may have been the least Jewish candidate ever on Lenny Bruce’s famous Jewish v. Goyish scale, held a fundraiser in New York specifically targeted at reaching out to Orthodox Jews. Yet, it was another highly goyish candidate—the staunchly pro-Israel Tea Party Republican Michele Bachmann—who tried to use the word “chutzpah” in a Fox News appearance. Suffice it to say, it didn’t go well, and the choots-pah clip flew around the Web.
As for the GOP candidate, Mitt Romney has busted out the “ch” word as well, accusing Joe Biden of chutzpah for criticizing Romney on the economy. Biden, for his part, has said that Romney has chutzpah for calling Obama “out of touch.” Both men got the pronunciation mostly right—or at least more right than Bachmann.
Romney has also declared that his first foreign trip as president would be to Israel. The New York Times recently ran a front-page story on the decades-long friendship between Romney and Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, who met at the Boston Consulting Group back in 1976. The article showed how Netanyahu has influenced Romney on a number of issues, and not just with respect to the Middle East. John Bolton, former U.S. ambassador the United Nations, has joked that the friendship between the two means that Netanyahu could expect to get at least a sandwich and a cup of coffee from a Romney White House, a reference to the time that Obama left Netanyahu and his team alone in the White House while he went off to get dinner without the Israeli leader.
There are a number of reasons why the Jewish community gets so much attention in a nation that is about 98 percent not Jewish. Part of this stems from a strong Jewish presence in key election battleground states such as Ohio and Florida, as well as Jewish involvement in the political, fundraising, and media worlds. But it is also a testament to this country—the way it not only welcomes immigrant groups but also folds them into the fabric of American life, while allowing them to maintain what makes them distinctive. As the great Daniel Boorstin wrote in 1953 in The Genius of American Politics, outside religions such as Judaism and Catholicism, “while accepting the moral premises of the community, can still try to judge the community by some standard outside its own history. But even these religions often take a peculiar American complexion and tend toward validating themselves by their accord with things as they are.”
It is unclear at this point how much the Jewish vote itself will shape the election come fall, or what the final outcome will be. But, as Boorstin suggested, the American Jewish community will continue to both seek validation through the electoral process, as well as provide validation to the country as a whole. And through their outsized role in multiple aspects of the presidential campaigns unfolding before us, Jews will continue to shape the race.