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Making sense of the Jewish vote in 2008 is something of an emerging specialization at the University of Faith and Values Politicking (where I coach the Kickline team in addition to my normal academic responsibilities). Here are a few questions and propositions to be considered:
Does John McCain’s selection of Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate dramatically impact the way Jews will vote?: My intuition screams “no!” But another voice in my head whispers that her appearance on the ticket could create difficulties if and when the Obama campaign decides it actually wants to win this election.
For now, what her selection does do is “seal the deal” for those who were leaning either Democratic or Republican. In just two short weeks, Governor Palin has emerged as the New Boogeywoman Of The Liberal Psyche. Jewish (and non-Jewish) voters of the Blue persuasion will be doing their very best to make sure she serves out her term as Governor of Alaska.
As for McCain supporters, unless there are groups out there like “Pro-Choice Jews for McCain,” or “The Jewish Coalition for the Preservation of Moose” I don’t see how Palin turns any Members of the Tribe away from the Maverick
What are some of her liabilities with Jewish voters, especially Undecideds?: Among Jews who haven’t made up their minds yet, Palin’s near total lack of foreign policy experience may be a dealbreaker. This is one place where Joseph Biden and his impeccable pro-Israel and foreign relations credentials had better pay dividends.
I have heard anecdotally that Obama’s mastery of policy details made quite a good impression on Israeli government officials during his recent trip. This is something I assume that his operatives are bringing to the attention of community leaders and rainmakers far and wide. Running ads in Florida and Pennsylvania questioning Palin’s competence to deal with Middle Eastern crises seems like an obvious strategy. (Though in her interview yesterday with Charles Gibson she struck the right notes when she said: “Well, first, we are friends with Israel and I don’t think that we should second-guess the measures that Israel has to take to defend themselves and for their security.”
In an interesting article, James Besser of The Jewish Week suggests that Palin is a throwback to a tradition of American, small-town populism. Those small-town populists tended to be subtly and not so subtly anti-Semitic. This means that the McCain campaign must steer her away from rhetorical gestures and personal associations that might concern Jews.
It must, for example, de-anti-Semitize the implications of her 1999 appearance with Pat Buchanan, her hymn of praise about Ron Paul, and her association with certain types of Christian supporters of Israel (see below). Obama, of course, does not lack for problematic associations himself (which may account for why he has had surrogates press this issue).
Governor Palin sure seems to be fond of Israel. Does that attract Jewish votes?: A debate rages as to the degree to which Jews are “one-issue” voters who primarily assess candidates on the basis of their commitment to the safety and well-being of Israel. A recent and hotly contested poll suggested that few American Jews identify Israel as a major factor in their thinking about presidential and congressional candidates.
My own sense, however, is that at this particular moment support and concern for Israel is increasing among American Jews. With the tightening Hamas/Hezbollah pincer, and the provocations of the canny lunatics running Iran, I predict that Jewish voters will vet candidates on the Israel issue more carefully than ever.
If I am correct, then Palin might be able to score some points in spite of her thin national security resume. Her religious background has placed her in the company of groups that are unambiguously supportive of Israel. She attended a Pentacostal Church before leaving in 2002 to join a nondenominational Evangelical congregation. Her current spiritual home, The Wasilla Bible Church, invited a Jew for Jesus to lecture last month. In short, Sarah Palin has logged a lot of quality spiritual time with people who wholeheartedly embrace Israel.
But don’t Jews get nervous when dealing with those pro-Israel Christian Zionists, dispensational premillenialists, Jews for Jesus, etc., whose theological worldview envisions the ultimate conversion of the Jews?: When it comes to thinking about Christian politicians who espouse apocalyptic worldviews, I notice two Jewish camps. Let’s call them “the pragmatists” and “the theologians.” The theologians find the implications of Christian “end-time” scenarios deeply disturbing and detect more than a whiff of the traditional anti-Semitism in these alleged displays of philo-semitism.
The pragmatists, on the other hand, view Evangelical, Pentecostal, and Fundamentalist support for Israel in the Executive and Legislative branch as a huge political asset that has provided tangible security gains again and again. For these reasons they are willing to overlook certain doctrinal infelicities.
The Old and the Young: This just might be the defining dynamic of the Jewish vote in 2008. Older Jews especially senior citizens in Florida who lived through the collapse of the Civil Rights coalition might warm to McCain-Palin. If they view Obama through the prism of tortured Black/Jewish relations, if they look at him and see Black Power movements, Ocean-Hill/Brownsville, “Hymie-town,” Crown Heights etc., then they could conceivably swing to the GOP.
A younger generation, who did not live though any of that, is less likely to harbor such suspicions. They will point out to their bubbies and zadies that African-America is not a homogeneous entity. They will also point out that while Barack Obama and Stokely Carmichael may both be Black, they are not, in fact, the same person. And after their parents warn them not to take that tone with gramma and grampa, they will storm away from the table muttering something about racism.
Are Jews really that crucial in 2008?: Here too I have my doubts. States with significant Jewish populations (e.g., California, New York, New Jersey) will in all likelihood vote Democratic anyway. Even in crucial battleground states with large Jewish communities the overall percentage of the Jewish population is tiny (Florida 3.6%; Ohio 1.3%; Pennsylvania, 2.3%; Michigan 0.9%). So let us not succumb to facile arguments that Jews are the “key” to this election.
But Jews are passionate, sophisticated, articulate and vocal observers of American politics. Palin’s strategists would do well to target the pragmatists all the while distancing her from figures who make Jews, and others, nervous.
By Jacques Berlinerblau |
September 12, 2008; 3:02 AM ET
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