Five Jewish takeaways from the 2012 election

One of the most significant losers of Election Day was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who openly opposed President Barack Obama from the very beginning of his administration, first on settlements and then on the question of Iran.
November 8, 2012

The prime minister of Israel does not speak for the Jews of America, nor do many of the Jewish organizations.

One of the most significant losers of Election Day was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who openly opposed President Barack Obama from the very beginning of his administration, first on settlements and then on the question of Iran. He went to Congress and to his friends on the Republican right to appeal to the American people over the head of the president and used AIPAC to arouse the American Jewish community against the Obama administration. Most recently, he pushed for a presidential commitment to specific military action before the election holding the president seemingly hostage and the Jewish vote in balance. No longer!

Jews voted overwhelming for President Obama 70 percent, more than two in three — and they just didn’t buy the arguments that the Jewish right, the Israeli prime minister and the Republican candidate were offering. Obama had not thrown Israel under the bus; worse yet, if he had, Jews just didn’t care enough to cost him Florida, New York or California. Equally important, they cast aside the hyperbole that has been filling our e-mails and our Jewish papers, calling the president every name in the book, declaring an emergency when none was apparent, crying wolf all too often. American Jews paid more attention to the support that this administration has offered to Israel militarily and politically. They paid more attention to Israel’s president, defense minister and Israeli security officials than to the prime minister. They do not know Israel’s foreign minister.

And now the tide is turned. Netanyahu is the candidate, Obama will never again face the electorate, and the Israeli people must decide if they want to re-elect a prime minister whose relationship with the American president is, to say the least, problematic, if not dysfunctional. I presume the president will be what the prime minister was not — gracious. Bibi threatened; he could not deliver.

The American electorate is changing.

The Romney campaign had one model of the American electorate, the Obama campaign had a very different model and the Obama campaign was right. The Hispanic vote will only increase and America is more diverse, more colorful, more pluralistic and more religiously diverse than ever before. Jewish outreach to these communities must continue, and though Evangelical support for Israel has been strong, the outreach of the Jewish community must be more nuanced, more inclusive. 

There are great divisions within the American Jewish community and even greater divisions between American Jews and Israelis of American origin.

The Jewish right and the vast majority of American Jews are seeing two different realities and experiencing the world through different lenses. These divisions are real. And though many Jewish activists may be on the right, they could not deliver the people, and if Jewish institutional life continues to tilt rightward it may well find itself without a constituency. 

We must also subdivide the Jewish vote to understand its true implications and thus see the divisions between the Orthodox — Modern and Charedi — and the non-Orthodox to truly understand how divided we are. Nate Silver was right about the election; Peter Beinart may not have been wrong about American Jews despite the many attempts to refute him. 

Polls in Israel found that four out of five dual Americans living in Israel who voted by absentee ballot supported Gov. Romney. That was almost the polar opposite of the way in which their American Jewish kin who remained in the United States voted. The gap is wide and growing. Perhaps one of the reasons they immigrated to Israel was because of a certain alienation from the American Jewish community and the direction of American life. Perhaps because they did not have to face the consequences of living under the domestic policies advocated by the Republican right, they could concentrate solely on Israel.

I suspect that I was not alone in feeling that the economic collapse of 2008 was a compelling argument against deregulation and for Dodd-Frank and that the social safety net could not be abandoned. Perhaps I am not the only American Jew to feel that the Jewish ethos taught me a communitarian ethic of concern, compassion and community and that the emphasis on rugged isolated individualism was alien and potentially cruel. Perhaps I was not a lonely American Jew singularly unimpressed that vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s hero was Ayn Rand. Perhaps I am not the only Jew of privilege willing to pay more in taxes for the common good.

On the international front, during the last Republican administration the United States fought two wars incompetently, entered one war under pretenses that proved false, and transformed the geopolitical balance of the Middle East in such a way that Iran was strengthened (by the weakening of Iraq) and Hamas was put in power by the commitment to democracy that became the ideology employed to justify the wars. The last Republican administration ended when the United States of America was at its weakest point in my lifeline, and it seemed as if the same people would return to power under a Romney administration. I was not moved by the prominent role of Ambassador John Bolton, or assured by the presence in the Romney camp of pro-Israel Dan Senor, who had worked for Paul Bremer when the disastrous decision was made to dismantle the Iraqi army. I was less than thrilled by the prominent role that former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice played at the Republican convention. What were the lessons of Iraq for the American people?

And for those few American Jews who heeded the advice of my distinguished friend Rabbi David Wolpe and voted only on the question of Iran, one has to wonder which candidate were they to support as Israeli opposition to an Israeli attack grows and as sanctions seem to be destabilizing the Iranian regime? Who do they vote for as one Israeli official after another — including the prime minister — accepted the assessment of the American government regarding when Iran would be capable of building a nuclear weapon?

Social Issues count for the American Jewish community.

We are notoriously liberal on issues such as abortion, contraception, birth control and on gays. We are unburdened by the Catholic conception of original sin. In Roman Catholic theology the fetus is innocent life. A child who enters the world is tainted by original sin and loses its innocence. We find considerations of the “personhood” amendment alien to Jewish religious values. Jewish tradition encourages stem cell research — we are religiously bound to assist God in the healing process. And few of us have any religious problem with in vitro fertilization. Be fruitful and multiply is the first commandment issued to humanity in the Torah; would that Jews, who are not reproducing in numbers sufficient for the growth of the Jewish community, observed it (so says the father of four).

Policies toward the elderly are essential to a Jewish community that is significantly older than the American population as a whole, and if we are to take the New York Jewish community recent population study seriously, policies toward the poor — yes, there are a large number of Jewish poor — are also quite important. If Orthodox Jews, especially within the Charedi community, voted against Obama in overwhelming numbers, they voted against their own economic interests. 

Most Jews I know supported the push to universal health care and many have changed their views regarding gay rights – certainly our children have. And in my family, their attitude, as well as the fact that my former neighbors were a happily married gay couple, forced me to rethink my positions. My neighbor’s marriage posed no problem to the stability of my family, to the nature of my marriage. 

There is a difference between passion and numbers.

The Jewish right had deep passion to get rid of the president. They pulled out all the stops and spent fortunes of money. I am quite certain that Sheldon Adelson has made better investments in other aspects of his career. Yet even though in politics passion counts for a lot, and the passionate can make a lot of noise, in the end, they could not deliver the people and, at least on Election Day, numbers count.

Michael Berenbaum is professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University. Find his A Jew blog at jewishjournal.com/a_jew.

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