America, Israel, and America’s Jewish Voter
The strategic situation in the Middle East has changed dramatically in the last few years. Israel, which has generally been concerned about its neighbors sees little threat from them as Syria is engaged in a civil war and Jordan and Egypt maintain a cold, but peaceful relationships with the Zionist state. The biggest threat seen by Israel is Iran, which is hundreds of miles away.
But, there is another strategic issue that bothers Israel: the United States, Obama, and the American Jewish voter. Ever since its founding, Israel has relied on the US, the American Jewish voter, and the Democratic Party (who is the usual beneficiary of American Jewish votes) to come to their defense blindly. Not anymore.
The chemistry in the Middle East has changed. Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu have had very pubic disagreements. Obama has Okayed an agreement with Iran that lifts some sanctions and promises to ease gradually any diplomatic isolation, although Israel strongly opposes it. Yet, none of this has greatly upset the American Jewish voter, who has been critical for the Democrats in several key states like New York, Pennsylvania, and Florida.
Relations between Obama and Netanyahu have been tense and often have provided journalists with juicy tidbits that have demonstrated their mutual disdain for the other. When Netanyahu came to Washington a few years ago, there were false rumors circulated by pro-Israeli circles that Obama left the meeting for dinner with his family. On the other side,, however, the White House didn’t release a photo of the meeting, which offended Netanyahu. Netanyahu retaliated a year later at the White House, when he scolded Obama for saying that peace negotiations would have to begin with Israel’s 1967 borders. “Remember that before 1967, Israel was all of 9 miles wide – half the width of the Washington Beltway. And these were not the boundaries of peace. They were the boundaries of repeated wars.”
The dispute went international in late 2011, when France’s president told Obama, “I cannot bear Netanyahu; he’s a liar,” and Obama replied, “I have to deal with him even more often than you.”
There is a time when these actions towards an Israeli Prime Minister would have so politically damaged an American president that he would have lost the next election. However, Obama easily won reelection in 2012 against a pro-Israel Republican candidate, Mitt Romney by winning the heavily Jewish states of New York, Florida, and Pennsylvania.
How could Obama attack the Israeli Prime Minister and still win the American Jewish vote?
Much of that is due to the changing profile of the American Jewish voter and the Jewish community. Ironically, you are more likely to find pro-Israel voters in an evangelical Christian church than in an American Jewish community center.
A recent high-profile Pew Research Center survey of American Jews shows that, with the exception of Orthodox Jews, the typical American Jew has shifted his or her opinion on issues in the Middle East.
The fact is that the American Jew is losing their “Jewishness” and is becoming more American than Jewish. The Pew survey showed that 71 percent of non-Orthodox Jews intermarries and two-thirds of Jews do not belong to a synagogue. These have a strong correlation to their support for Israel.
So, what are American Jew’s opinions on Israel and the Middle East? 61% of American Jews say “Israel and an independent Palestinian state can coexist peacefully.” 54% of American Jews say American support of the Jewish state is “about right,” while 31% say the U.S. is not supportive enough. That’s a far cry from the first three decades of Israel’s existence, when there was very little daylight between the Israeli government and the overwhelming majority of American Jews.
There was a reason for that closeness in the early days. The majority of the American Jewish community and newly established Israel were European Jews, and mostly Central or East European Jews. Many came from the Russian Empire in the 1880s and 1890s, when there was a major immigration of Jews to both North America and Palestine.
There is a reason for the dramatic change in the last couple of decades.
In the early years of Israel’s existence, religious Jews in North America felt a keen affinity with religious Jews in Israel, just as most secular Jews in North America felt an affinity with Labor Zionism, which was responsible for the Israeli kibbutz movement. No matter the American Jew’s feelings – religious or secular – there was a reason to support Israel.
What has happened in the last few decades is that religion has created a dramatic shift. While the average American Jew has become less religious, Israel, especially its leadership, has become more religious. In fact, American Jews are nearly three times more likely to not believe in God than the average American according to the Pew report.
The religious bent of the Israeli government has alienated the secular American Jew, who has moved away from supporting Israel and given the Democratic Party more flexibility in its Middle Eastern policies. Lobbies like J Street allow a more flexible policy toward Israel that still receives secular American Jewish support.
Ironically, much of this ambivalence towards Israel by American Jews can be traced to the pro-Jewish attitudes of Americans in general. Unlike some of the Eastern European Christian attitudes, English Christian attitudes (which are the main contributor in American Christian tradition) has been pro-Jewish and focused on” Judeo-Christian traditions”. Consequently, unlike in other countries, where Jews have been forced to remain in tight Jewish communities that look inward, American Jews have felt more welcome in the Christian community and have assimilated at a rate much greater than in other countries. This has lessened their Jewish ties and made them better able to view Israel, not as a part of their religious or ethnic heritage, but from the point of view of American self-interest.
But, there is another political trend that has given Obama the flexibility to move Middle Eastern policy – the decline of the Judeo-Christian culture in America. America has become less religious – especially in regards to adhering to the Judeo-Christian tradition. The percentage of Americans who identify as Protestants (the most Judeo-Christian tradition) fell from 53 percent in 2007 to 48 percent in 2012 – the first time since the birth of the United States that Protestants were in the minority. Add to this the changing demographics of America, where whites, who are more likely to be Protestant, are becoming a smaller portion of the population. This means support for Israel, which is now based more on religious orientation, is dropping, although Hispanic Catholics are more pro-Israel than their white counterparts.
This is seen most in the Democratic Party, which polls show is more secular than the Republican Party. Last year at the Democratic National Convention that re-nominated Obama, a motion to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was met with boos from the assembled delegates – a reaction very different than what would be seen at the Republican National Convention.
So, where is the current support for Israel? Its strength is found amongst orthodox Jews, who remain faithful to their religious heritage (and are drifting towards the Republican Party) and evangelical Christians, who are now the cornerstone of American support for Israel.
According to the Pew Poll, “Twice as many white evangelical Protestants as Jews say that Israel was given to the Jewish people by God (82% vs. 40%). Some of the discrepancy is attributable to Jews’ lower levels of belief in God overall; virtually all evangelicals say they believe in God, compared with 72% of Jews (23% say they do not believe in God and 5% say they don’t know or decline to answer the question). But even Jews who do believe in God are less likely than evangelicals to believe that God gave the land that is now Israel to the Jewish people (55% vs. 82%).”
White evangelical Protestants also are more likely than Jews to favor stronger U.S. support of Israel. Among Jews, 54% say American support of the Zionist state is “about right,” while 31% say the U.S. is not supportive enough. By contrast, more white evangelical Protestants say the U.S. is not supportive enough of Israel (46%) than say support is about right (31%).
Part of the shift occurred as a result of the events of 9-11. The al Qaeda attacks on the US were seen by many evangelical Christians as an attack on their Christianity as much as on America. This feeling has been furthered by radical Islamic attacks on Middle Eastern Christians in Egypt and Syria. Meanwhile, Israeli leadership has fostered an evangelical Christian friendly policy that has solidified support in that sector of the American electorate.
This translates into pro-Israeli political views towards the Middle East. White evangelical Protestants are less optimistic than Jews about the prospects for a peaceful two-state solution to conflict in the region. When asked if there is a way for Israel and an independent Palestinian state to coexist peacefully, six-in-ten American Jews (61%) say yes, while one-third say no. Among white evangelical Protestants, 42% say Israel and an independent Palestinian state can coexist peacefully, while 50% say this is not possible.
This attitude shift hasn’t been ignored by Israeli leadership. No wonder that when Israeli PM Netanyahu comes to the United States, he is usually interviewed on the television network, the Christian Broadcasting Network – an evangelical Christian outlet. This gives him the perfect outlet to reach his most ardent supporters. And, since he has spent much of his life in the US, he is better able to connect with American evangelical Christians than many of his predecessors.
The result is that the political map of America’s Israel policy has changed. Where once a pro-Israel policy would reap political benefits in New York, Florida, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and other Atlantic Coast states, a pro-Israel policy wins votes today in the Mid-Western states and the South.
This does not mean that evangelical Christian support for Israel is inherently tied to Israeli policy any more than American Jewish policy was tied to Israeli policy or Democratic Party policy was tied to Israeli policy. It does, however, mean that policy towards America must be able to differentiate between evangelical Christian issues and Israeli policy.
Decoding the Summer of Snowden
By Julian Sanchez
Nearly 40 years ago, in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, Americans got an unprecedented look behind the cloak of secrecy shielding government surveillance — and what they saw was chilling. A Senate committee headed by Sen. Frank Church uncovered a train of abuses by intelligence agencies stretching back decades, under presidents of both parties. Employing illegal break-ins, mail-opening programs, concealed bugs, bulk interception of telegrams, and telephone wiretaps, these agencies had gathered information about domestic political dissidents, journalists, labor leaders, and even members of Congress and Supreme Court justices. Perhaps most notoriously, the Church Committee revealed that J. Edgar Hoover had conducted a 10-year campaign to destroy and discredit Martin Luther King Jr., seeking to blackmail him into retirement or suicide with illegal recordings of the civil rights leader’s extramarital liaisons. This summer, Americans got the most comprehensive look at the government’s massive surveillance machinery since the Church Committee, by way of leaked documents provided to the press by former National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden — as well as the government’s own grudging disclosures.
The Uncertain Strategic Case for the Zero Option in Afghanistan
By Anthony Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
December 4, 2013
It is far too easy to concentrate on the tensions with Afghan President Hamid Karzai over the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) and ignore the sheer lack of U.S. debate over the value of staying in Afghanistan. The key question is whether there is a legitimate case for something approaching a zero option and a full withdrawal of U.S. forces and aid. If there is, it does not really matter whether Karzai signs the BSA or in fact if the US has a good excuse to leave. If there is not a legitimate case, one needs to be very careful about setting artificial deadlines and red lines. The key problem in answering this question is that with little more than a year before the planned withdrawal of all U.S. troops, the Obama Administration has never provided any meaningful rational for staying Afghanistan or any plan for what happens after the end of 2014.
Recapturing U.S. Leadership in Uranium Enrichment
By George David Banks and Michael Wallace
Center for Strategic and International Studies
December 3, 2013
The United States is at risk of finding its nuclear weapons capabilities severely weakened by the absence of an available capability to enrich uranium. International legal obligations prohibit the United States from using, for military purposes, foreign-produced enriched uranium or uranium enriched here in this country by foreign-source technology. With the closure of the Paducah, Kentucky, plant earlier this year, the United States has no domestic facility that uses U.S.-origin technology to enrich uranium, which, for example, could then be used to produce tritium, a key component in maintaining our nuclear arsenal. Further, existing stockpiles of tritium and enriched uranium produced by U.S.-origin technology are limited. Efforts to deploy a next-generation American enrichment technology must succeed so that our nation has the ability to address the forthcoming shortage of this strategic material. This national security requirement could be met with little cost to taxpayers if the federal government implemented policies that ensure a strong U.S. enrichment industry.
Patronizing a patriot
By Thomas Donnelly and Roger I. Zakheim
American Enterprise Institute
December 4, 2013
The Weekly Standard
House Armed Services Committee chairman Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon doesn’t look like an insurgent. The quintessential Californian – a man of Reaganesque optimism whose congressional district now includes the Gipper’s presidential library – McKeon has been a steadfast supporter of House speaker John Boehner in turbulent times. Yet, to the green-eyeshade editorialists of The Wall Street Journal, McKeon is leading a “rebellion” of defense hawks, an “act of masochism” threatening the Holy of Holies: the sequestration provision of the Budget Control Act (BCA). McKeon’s crime is that he’s hoping for a 2014 budget deal that would reduce the amount of defense sequestration by half.
Egypt’s Draft Constitution Rewards the Military and Judiciary
By Nathan J. Brown and Michele Dunne
December 4, 2013
The draft constitution submitted to Egypt’s interim president, Adly Mansour, on December 2 settles a few important matters—it enhances the status of the state institutions that banded together against the Muslim Brotherhood, including the military, judiciary, and police. But it leaves other equally important questions unanswered. The sequencing, system, and timing for presidential and parliamentary elections remain unclear, for example, issues that are particularly fraught because Defense Minister Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who removed Mohamed Morsi from power in July, might run for president. The new constitution offers better human rights protections than the 2012 version forced through by the then president, Morsi. Yet it also continues a pattern of leaving much up to the vagaries of implementing legislation. And that legislation may be written—and implemented—in an atmosphere of government and public indifference, even hostility, to human rights concerns.
Rebels Consolidating Strength in Syria: The Islamic Front
By Aaron Y. Zelin
December 3, 2013
The recent merger of several Syrian rebel groups into the Islamic Front (IF) is one of the war’s most important developments. Although the political and military opposition has long been fragmented, the new umbrella organization brings seven groups and their combined force of 45,000-60,000 fighters under one command. It also links the fight in the north and the south. Most notably, though, it affirms the troubles Washington will have setting policy in Syria going forward. Formally announced on November 22, the IF includes groups from three prior umbrella organizations: the Syrian Islamic Front (SIF), the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front (SILF), and the Kurdish Islamic Front (KIF). From the SIF, Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya (HASI), Kataib Ansar al-Sham, and Liwa al-Haqq joined, as did the KIF as a whole and former SILF brigades Suqur al-Sham, Liwa al-Tawhid, and Jaish al-Islam. None of these groups has been designated by the U.S. government as a foreign terrorist organization.