American Jewish Voters are Overlooking Israel

By Dan Schnur

Jewish Journal

June 5, 2019

 

Every grade school student learns in social studies class that democracy is based on the concept of majority rule. But as we get older, we realize that it is actually a system of minority rule with majority acquiescence. To put it another way, small numbers of true believers who care passionately about an issue can almost always prevail over a larger group with greater numbers but less commitment. 

This is a concept that descendants of Joshua, David and Judah Maccabee should understand with little additional explanation. The more we care about something — a cause, a concept or a country — the more likely we are to achieve our goals. But the converse is true as well.

Which is why a recent poll from the Jewish Electorate Institute is so disconcerting. When 1,000 Jewish American voters were asked to prioritize 16 policy issues as to their importance in the 2020 elections, a candidate’s stance on Israel ranked dead last. While most American Jews still would classify themselves as pro-Israel, the safety and security of the Jewish homeland scarcely caused a ripple in the collective political consciousness of our community. 

Dead last. It seems that the Diaspora is complete — not just geographically but psychologically.

Jewish voters’ disdain for President Donald Trump and discomfort with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are contributing factors to the diminished import of Israel to their votes. It has become easier for many American Jews to simply deprioritize the issue to avoid sorting through their complicated feelings and conflicting cultural, historical and political loyalties. 

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti recently demonstrated the difficulties that emerge when attempting to articulate a pro-Israel anti-Trump point of view. Garcetti’s careful but largely futile efforts to explain that wanting the U.S. Embassy to be in Jerusalem on one hand and opposing the manner in which Trump accomplished that goal on the other were perfectly logical. But the criticism he took from true believers on both sides of the debate is an excellent example of how murky the waters have become for American Jews who would like to continue their support for Israel without lining up next to the president. 

For many years now, Jewish voters have paid more attention to domestic policy rather than issues related to Israel. Some of this is based on the belief that most (but not all) candidates in both major parties can be counted on to support Israel’s needs when necessary. But much is also based on the growing cultural divide between American and Israeli Jews, as evidenced by controversies in recent years regarding conversions of the non-Orthodox, the role of female rabbis and regulations for prayer at the Western Wall.

Of greater concern is the possibility that the diminished interest in Israel among Jewish voters here is simply the passage of time. The existential threat to Jews that led to the creation of Israel seems less real to many whose experience with anti-Semitism is limited to news reports and history books. So it’s not surprising that the attitudes of American Jews are much different than our Israeli counterparts when it comes to issues of safety and security.

For the same reason, it’s equally unsurprising that the most dauntless pro-Israel voices among American Jews tend to come from the Persian Jewish community. The atrocities that forced so many Jews from Iran are 30 years more recent — and one generation less removed — and so the horrors seem more real. If the American Jewish community is going to reassert ourselves more forcefully on behalf of Israel, I suspect that effort will be led by Sephardic Jews.

Finally, it’s worth noting that America’s most virulent opponents of Israel do not share our lack of focus or motivation. While public opinion polls show that most American voters consider themselves to be supporters of Israel, our adversaries are growing both in numbers and intensity. An increasingly diffident American Jewish community will face much more difficult challenges — and threats — in the years ahead unless we regain that lost commitment.