L.A. Sukkah sit-in shows Jews’ passion for politics

As I stopped at the sukkah in the Occupy L.A. encampment outside City Hall, I thought of the Jews’ role in the upcoming presidential election, which will be taking place amid a recession and doubts about President Barack Obama’s attitude toward Israel.

The sukkah was an excellent counterpoint to the anti-Semitic drivel coming from a fired Los Angeles substitute teacher and a couple of sign holders on the other side of City Hall.  I ran into Rabbi Yonah Bookstein and his young daughter and son at the sukkah.  They offered me a piece of an excellent honey cake, made by his wife that morning.  Occupy L.A., he told me, was “tapping into the Jewish mission of redemption.  In our society, there is a lot of inequality and injustice, and by them [the protesters] being there, they are bringing attention to these social problems in the most visible way in my lifetime,” he said. At 42, the rabbi noted that he missed the anti-Vietnam war movement.

The presence of one sukkah here is no more solid a tipoff to Jewish political sentiment than the Occupy L.A. encampment is to the electorate at large.  But both are signs of something going on, of unhappiness over joblessness and the injustice of financial institutions that have escaped blame for the recession and prospered during hard times, thanks to the bailout.  Some people have criticized the Occupy movement for being fuzzy about its goals. But what is striking to me is the staying power of the occupiers. And, on the other ideological side, the Tea Party — also anger based — has also shown the same ability to stick around.

A stronger indication of Jewish community sentiment is the American Jewish Committee (AJC) Survey of American Jewish Opinion, released in September. It found that the Jewish community shares other voters’ strong discontent with Obama’s handling of the economy. Just 37 percent of those polled approved of the president’s economic performance. That’s just about the same figure as for all Americans.  And it’s a sharp drop-off from the year before, when 55 percent of Jews supported Obama on the economy, compared to 45 percent of all Americans.

What’s unclear is the personal impact.  How many Jews are unemployed? How many have lost their businesses or are just hanging on? These are what will determine political choices as next November’s election draws near.  The hardship felt by people who are suffering can also radiate outward to family and friends, also shaping their voting behavior.

The number of such people isn’t known. Pini Herman, co-author of The Jewish Journal’s Demographic Duo blog, estimates that there are 25,000 Jewish unemployed in Los Angeles County.  But he also said this is just an educated guess, based on out-of-date population statistics.

Jewish Journal reporters, including myself, have found strong signs of economic hardship in the Jewish community as the recession wears on.  Workers in social service agencies described to me how long-term unemployment has hit Jews who have never before been out of work.  All through last year and into this year, public school administrators have told me of Jewish families returning to the Los Angeles Unified School District because they can’t afford private schools.

Whether they will blame Obama or the Republicans for their plight will be determined by the long campaign ahead and by events yet to occur.  Obama is attacking the Republicans in a populist way that, to a mild extent, echoes what can be heard at the Occupy encampments, as he pushes for passage of the various elements of his jobs bill.  The Republican alternatives—deregulation, more oil drilling, protecting the wealthy from tax increases — may catch on with this disenchanted electorate, but so far there’s been no sign of it.  Polling numbers for Congress, including the Republican House, are worse than Obama’s.

Israel, of course, will be the other factor impacting the Jewish vote.

In 2008, Obama received about 78 percent of the Jewish vote. Lawrence Grossman, in a JTA op-ed on the AJC survey, wrote that “among Orthodox Jews, who make up 9 percent of the sample, disapproval is much higher, 72 percent.”  Evidence of that came earlier this year, when Orthodox Jews helped elect a Republican in a New York congressional district that is one-third Jewish and had not sent a Republican to Congress in 90 years.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been a big help to the Republicans, as a persistent critic of Obama on Israel.  Netanyahu’s speech to Congress last spring reminded me of a Republican political rally.  The Israeli newspaper Haaretz put it well in a headline: “Is Obama’s Problem That Netanyahu Is a Republican at Heart?”

Whether it is Netanyahu’s love of market-based conservative economics or his distrust of Obama on Israel, the Republicans see Netanyahu and his stand on the settlements as an opportunity. The New York Times reported that the Republican National Committee plans to target several Democratic-held districts where it believes Jewish voters could help them win.  Meanwhile, House Speaker John Boehner is speaking to Jewish groups.

Republicans have tried this before without much success, but this year Israel is a more polarizing issue.

How decisive an issue Israel will be in November likely will depend on the economy and how angry and insecure voters react to what Obama and the Republicans say about that.  The lesson of the Occupy movement — and the Tea Party — is that people are staying mad and are ready to act on their anger.

Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for The Jewish Journal, Truthdig and L.A. Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).