The fable of the Jewish Republican electorate | US presidential elections 2016: What do I need to know? | DW | 18.04.2016
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US elections 2016

The fable of the Jewish Republican electorate

Those who run for US president are expected to pledge their support for Israel. Republican candidates, especially, go all out. Are they doing it to win support from Jewish voters? Humbug, finds Lars Gesing in Washington.

Among the many required phrases in the how-to-become-president campaign playbook, some variation of "I unequivocally stand with the nation of Israel" is a standard oratorical move. Just a couple of weeks ago, for example, when the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) held its confab in Washington, DC, every candidate - except for Bernie Sanders - heeded the cattle call.

Up and down the campaign trail, particularly Republican candidates devote enormous amounts of time to disavowing the Iran nuclear deal as an existential threat to Israel. They talk about moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. And they pledge their moral and military support for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - who now-ousted Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner even invited to address Congress last spring.

So with that, the GOP should have the support of the American Jewish electorate, right?


Against conventional wisdom

American Jews, who make up a mere four percent of the electorate to begin with, have fallen squarely in the Democratic camp for close to a century now. A recent study by the Pew Research Center found that 64 percent of American Jews align themselves with the Democratic Party. Even more - 78 percent in 2008 and 69 percent in 2012 - voted for Barack Obama, the man who conservatives so desperately try to paint as anti-Israel.

"It is totally perplexing because Jews have the socio-economic profile we normally associate with conservative voting," Kenneth Wald, the distinguished professor of political science and Samuel R. "Bud" Shorstein Professor of American Jewish Culture and Society at the University of Florida, told DW. "It is a persistent source of annoyance to the Republicans."

Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, John Kasich

The Republican candidates all gave speeches at AIPAC this year as expected

One common explanation for such ballot-box behavior is historical. Friends of Jewish emancipation in Europe in the 18th and 19th century tended to be on the left - whether it was communist or socialist parties, trade unions - or journalists. That engrained memory, so the theory goes, still carries over to today. It also makes Jews more sensitive to hostile rhetoric toward minority groups in general - say, for example, candidates proposing a religious test for Muslims upon immigration or anti-Hispanic rants.

In their liberal leaning, American Jews have different political attitudes than Jews in many other parts of the world, says Steve Windmueller, a political commentator and former dean of the Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.

"Jews have lived in this country from the very beginning," he explained to DW. "They were part of the building of American society, so they are deeply entrenched in all of its diversity and complexity. There is also no history of state-sponsored anti-Semitism in the United States. That's a very different experience for Jews than some of the other conditions elsewhere where they lived."

Shared values

But Professor Wald, who says if American Jews could vote in Israeli elections, Netanyahu's conservative Likud party would certainly not have the majority, has come up with his own logic for Jewish Democratic favoritism here in the US - one that goes back to political theory.

"The US has a classic liberal regime where citizenship and religion were disconnected from the outset," the author of "The Choosing People: The Puzzling Politics of American Jewry," said. "When Jews arrived in the United States, they achieved a level of integration and political opportunity that they never had anywhere else. While the population was largely Christian, Christianity per se had no legal status. The core priority of the Jewish community has been to maintain that system."

In other words, the more Republicans try to blur the lines between church and state with a religion-induced socially conservative gospel on issues such as gay marriage, pro-life or school prayer, the more they alienate Jewish voters in particular.

Add to that the fact that polls show that even though Jewish voters in the United States are generally - and unsurprisingly - supportive of Israel, the issue ranks low on their priority list.

Sheldon Adelson (right)

Casino magnate Adelson is known for donating large amounts to Republican politicians

"The Republicans in their heart of hearts understand that they are not going to make serious inroads with the Jewish vote," Kenneth Wald said. "But they have not given up on Jewish donors, such as [casino magnate] Sheldon Adelson or [billionaire auto dealer] Norman Braman. They believe that those donors are strongly committed to Israel."

Jason Isaacson of the Washington, DC-based advocacy organization American Jewish Committee said the broad-based support for Israel in the United States - a Gallup poll found that 62 percent of Americans sympathize with Israel rather than with Palestine - is a matter of shared values.

"It is a matter of commitment to a sister democracy," he told DW. "It is a matter of interest in the Middle East and a sense that Israel is a strong, reliable American ally in a tumultuous, largely undemocratic region."

Ultimately, Ken Wald believes, conservative pro-Israel catchwords are not even aimed at the Jews.

"The Evangelical pro-Israel movement doesn't talk about the Israel that exists today," he said. "They see it in all these mystical terms. Most of them couldn't find Israel on a map. [The rhetoric] really is an effort to appeal to the Republican base."

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