By RAFAEL MEDOFF
A Republican doesn’t have to win the Jewish vote. Just reducing Obama’s share would have a major impact
Mitt Romney will soon visit a city that could prove crucial to his election hopes—not Miami or Richmond or Cleveland but Jerusalem. This year more than ever, the Jewish vote is up for grabs, and Barack Obama has no one to blame but himself.
By pressuring Israel for concessions on Jerusalem, urging it to return to the narrow pre-1967 borders, and clashing with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the president has fractured the White House’s relationship with American Jews in ways not seen since the Carter administration. President Carter’s tilt against Israel cost him heavily in the 1980 presidential election: About 60% of Jews backed either Ronald Reagan or third-party candidate John Anderson. Could history repeat itself?
Various voting blocs are undergoing shifts in political allegiance, including Hispanics, Catholics and women. The Jewish vote may be the most volatile.
An April poll by the Public Religion Research Institute found Mr. Obama’s support among Jews at 62% today, down from 78% in 2008. A Siena College poll in June showed that in New York Mr. Obama’s edge over Mr. Romney among Jews has shrunk to just 8%.
The Romney team evidently appreciates all this. Mr. Romney’s visit to Jerusalem will highlight his warm personal relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu and his steadfast commitment to the Jewish state. The contrast between his positions and those of the Obama administration will be obvious in heavily Jewish Miami Beach, 6,000 miles away.
Mr. Romney’s gambit comes right out of his opponent’s playbook. In 2008 Mr. Obama went overseas to impress voters back home, staging a dramatic speech in Germany to underscore his claim that electing him would improve America’s standing abroad.
The Republicans do not need to win a majority of the Jewish vote—something that hasn’t happened since 1920. Even a significant reduction of the Jewish vote for Obama would likely have major impact, especially in a key state such as Florida, which George W. Bush won in 2000 by just 537 votes. Some 640,000 Jews reside in the Sunshine State, and they care deeply about Israel.
GOP efforts to wean Jews away from the Democrats are not new. They date to the 1940s and, interestingly enough, involved a young Zionist activist named Benzion Netanyahu—the father of Israel’s current prime minister.
That spring, there was widespread dissatisfaction in the Jewish community over President Franklin Roosevelt’s failure to rescue Jews from the Holocaust and to support the creation of a Jewish state. Netanyahu, then the leader of a small Zionist group in New York, cultivated relationships with former President Herbert Hoover and other leading GOP figures and urged them to include a pro-Zionist plank in the 1944 GOP platform.
Neither party had ever officially endorsed a Jewish state. The GOP became the first. It called for opening British-controlled Palestine to Jews fleeing the Holocaust and the creation of a “free and democratic” Jewish homeland there. That forced the Democrats to adopt an almost identical plank. For the first time in American history, the two parties treated Jewish votes as something that was up for grabs, and openly competed for them.
Thus was born the concept of “the Jewish vote.” Bipartisan support for the State of Israel, established in 1948, soon followed.
In the decades since, the American Jewish community has undergone some gradual but significant changes. FDR’s Jewish supporters were mostly blue-collar immigrants, or the children of immigrants, who saw the New Deal as their protector. Today’s Jewish community, by contrast, includes significant numbers of Orthodox Jews and immigrants from Russia and Israel, all of whom tend to be more conservative. Today’s young Jewish professionals and businessmen likewise do not always share their parents’ strongly left-of-center views.
The Republicans, too, have experienced important changes. A GOP once identified with the WASP elite and an isolationist foreign policy has given way to a party that is fervently pro-Israel and includes many Jews and other minorities in prominent positions.
Will President Obama’s rocky relations with Israel and Mr. Netanyahu spark the kind of Jewish shift to the GOP that the prime minister’s father and Herbert Hoover first tried to bring about nearly seven decades ago? It could happen.
This op-ed appeared on the WSJ edition on 7/25/12. Mr. Medoff is director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies, and co-author, with Sonja Schoepf Wentling, of “Herbert Hoover and the Jews: The Origins of the ‘Jewish Vote’ and Bipartisan Support for Israel.”