Home  Principles & Statements  Positions of the ACJ  Articles  DonationsAbout Us  Contact Us  Links                                         

American Jews and the 2008 Election

Allan C. Brownfeld
Spring 2008

As the 2008 election process has proceeded, there has been much discussion of a so-called “Jewish vote,” and there have been many efforts by some Jewish organizations and “leaders” to judge candidates based upon what they perceive to be a “pro-Israel” position with regard to U.S. Middle East policy.  
For example, a confidential memo questioning Senator Barack Obama’s potential approach to the Middle East was distributed in January by staff members of the American Jewish Committee. The memo, written by Debra Feuer, the Committee counsel, suggested, among other things, that Obama placed the burden of solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict primarily upon Israel. She also expressed concern about Obama’s encouragement of diplomatic engagement with Iran.  
Hillary Clinton’s campaign has questioned Obama’s commitment to U.S.-Israel relations. Ann Lewis, a senior adviser to Clinton, discussed the New York senator’s strong support for Israel during a conference call in January with leaders of major American Jewish organizations. During the call, Lewis contrasted Clinton’s pro-Israel credentials with those of Obama. To make her point, she said Obama’s “chief foreign policy adviser” is Zbigniew Brzezinski. Brzezinski, the former national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter, is not Obama’s “chief foreign policy adviser.” That is the job of three former staff members of President Clinton.  
Negative E-mails  
Negative e-mails about the Obama campaign have assaulted not only the alleged role of Brzezinski but of Obama advisers such as Robert Malley, a former Clinton negotiator at the 2000 Camp David talks who has since written articles sympathetic to the Palestinians. Addressing such attacks, Obama criticized some elements of the pro-Israel community that he says equate being pro-Israel with being pro-Likud. “I think there is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt an unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel that you’re anti-Israel, and that cannot be the measure of our friendship with Israel. If we cannot have an honest dialogue about how we achieve these goals, then we are not going to make progress.”  
While in Jerusalem, Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president of the Conference of Major American Jewish Organizations, declared of the Obama campaign that, “All the talk about change, but without defining what that change should be, is an opening for all kinds of mischief ... There is a legitimate concern over the zeitgeist around the campaign.”  
Fortunately, those groups and individuals engaged in this effort are coming under increasing criticism within the Jewish community. Editorially, The Forward (Feb.29/March 7, 2008) challenged the portrayal of Obama adviser Robert Malley as a “hater of Israel,” noting that, “The real Malley is a soft-spoken Jewish intellectual who has strong ties to Israel and believes deeply in Israeli-Palestinian peace.” Beyond this, declares The Forward, “Barack Obama doesn’t think that sympathizing with Palestinians and supporting Israel need to be mutually exclusive ... We second that and we’ll take a step further. The best way to show friendship to Israel is to help it achieve peace through dialogue with the Palestinians. The candidate who does that best should be the choice of pro-Israel voters.”  
Intrusion into Politics  
A number of things should be made clear with regard to the intrusion into the political campaign of certain Jewish organization and spokesmen.  
The first is that these groups and individuals speak only for themselves, and not for the vast majority of Americans of the Jewish faith, who vote not as Jews, but as American citizens who are liberal and conservative, supportive of the war in Iraq and opposed to it, and who have a variety of viewpoints concerning U.S. Middle East policy.  
Often, when political candidates address Jewish forums, they turn their attention to U.S. Middle East policy, apparently believing that this is the way to appeal to Jewish voters. The annual survey of American Jewish opinion conducted by the American Jewish Committee, which was released in December, shows a far different reality.  
According to the survey, the past year saw a decline in the percentage of Jews who feel “very close” to Israel, to 30 percent in 2007 from 37 percent in 2006. The issue most often selected as the most important in choosing a president in 2008 was “the economy and jobs,” at 22 percent, in contrast to the war in Iraq, cited by just 16 percent.  
“Economy and Jobs”  
Asked about the issues that will determine their presidential vote this year, a strong plurality of 42 percent picked either “economy and jobs” or “health care,” the two domestic choices offered. By contrast, only 36 percent picked one of the three Middle-East-related suggestions, the war in Iraq (16 percent), “terrorism and national security” (14 percent) or “support for Israel” (6 percent).  
The notion that Jewish voters are waiting for a stamp of approval from self-proclaimed “leaders” of a “pro-Israel” label on particular candidates bears no relationship to reality. Exit polls in recent primary balloting suggest that Jewish voters chose Obama or Hillary Clinton based on differences in age and sex. An elderly Jewish woman was more inclined to vote for Hillary, while a young Jewish man was likely to favor Obama. Exactly the same result was found with Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, and Methodists. There was absolutely no indication that perceived differences in the two candidates’ views on Israel affected the vote.  
A second important point is the fact that what it means to be “pro-Israel” is not something to be determined by those groups, such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) which take an “Israel right or wrong” position.  
New Lobbying Group  
Recently, a new political action and lobbying group, known as JStreet and JStreetPAC has been established. “The definition of what it means to be pro-Israel has come to diverge from pursuing a peace settlement,” said Alan Solomont, a prominent Democratic Party fundraiser involved in the initiative. In recent years, he said, ‘We have heard the voices of neocons, and right-of-center Jewish leaders and Christian evangelicals, and the mainstream views of the American Jewish community have not been heard.”  
The executive director of the new groups is Jeremy Ben-Ami, a former domestic policy adviser in the Clinton White House. His own personal history shows the depth of his relationship with Israel. One hundred and twenty five years ago, his great-grandparents arrived in Jaffa from today’s Belarus. They helped establish Petah Tikva and his grandparents went on to be among the founders of Tel Aviv. Ben-Ami himself has lived in Jerusalem.  
Writing in The Forward (April 25, 2008), Ben-Ami declares that, “With this as my heritage, I say confidently that what today passes for pro-Israel politics in the U.S. does not serve the best interests of the people or the countries my family has lived and died for. In this, I stand squarely with a substantial portion of Israelis and American Jews.”  
“Scripted Talking Points”  
Ben-Ami laments that, “Here being ‘pro-Israel’ requires only mouthing scripted talking points about staunch support for Israel, the special American-Israel relationship and the shared bond in the war on terror. For the sake of Israel, the U.S. and the world, it is time for American political discourse to re-engage with reality. Voices of reason need to reclaim what it means to be pro-Israel and to establish in American political discourse that Israel’s core security interest is to achieve a negotiated two-state solution and to define once and for all permanent, internationally recognized borders ... It is time for the broad sensible mainstream of pro-Israel American Jews and their allies to challenge those on the extreme right who claim to speak for all American Jews in the national debate about Israel and the Middle East — and who, through the use of fear and intimidation, have cut off reasonable debate on the topic.”  
In the end, it serves neither the national interest of our own country nor that of Israel to suppress a free and open debate about the best manner to achieve a lasting peace in the Middle East, something which those groups which seek a litmus test from candidates about our Middle East policy have done.  
Another Special Interest Group  
We have great confidence in the American Jewish electorate and believe that it will continue to execute this most basic of all American obligations, the right to vote, in a manner consistent with the best interests of the United States and based on whatever considerations each individual determines is most important, whether they be the economy, healthcare, welfare, U.S. policy in the Middle East, etc., not because of pressure or intimidation by outside interests but because of their own free will and considered decisions as citizens of the United States.  
Observing the machinations of some Jewish organizations and spokesmen, one would not conclude that Judaism is a religion of universal values with an ancient ethical code calling upon its adherents to help repair the world. Instead, it would be viewed as simply another special interest group promoting its own narrow agenda, in this case a particular U.S. policy for the Middle East.  
Process Tainted  
In this enterprise, both Judaism and our American political process is tainted. And it is tainted by those who clearly are unrepresentative of the millions of men and women in whose name they pretend to speak. Only when this is made abundantly clear to all — including the candidates — can this dangerous charade come to an end.  
Please feel free to forward your comments to my attention at either the address or e-mail listed below. We need and appreciate your continued involvement to ensure that our voice is heard.  
American Council for Judaism,  
P.O. Box 9009,  
Alexandria, VA 22304.  

< return to article list
© 2010 The American Council For Judaism.