Why American Jews Voted for Barack Obama

If the Republicans want greater Jewish support in the future, they will have to stop pandering to what they erroneously believe to be our fears, and instead move politically and ideologically in our direction.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

We know that while defeat is an orphan, victory's illegitimate fathers come out of the woodworks like cockroaches to claim paternity, but the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) claiming credit for Barack Obama's election? That's almost as credible as John McCain saying that he does not regret picking Sarah Palin as his running mate.

RJC executive director Matt Brooks has written that his group "helped the Jewish community get clear answers" on "critical issues like our troubled economy, the threat of a nuclear Iran, continued Hamas violence against Israel and the need for energy independence." Nonsense. Throughout the campaign, the RJC engaged in ugly fear mongering by attempting to smear Obama as a shadowy associate of anti-Semites and terrorists. The group's ads were so offensive that the Obama campaign refused to debate surrogates of the RJC, opting instead to share platforms with representatives of the more above-board McCain operation which, to its and John McCain's credit, stayed away from subliminal but blatant racist messages.

Brooks disingenuously argues that "Obama was unable to exceed Bill Clinton or Al Gore, and only slightly improved on John Kerry's support in the Jewish community." A more realistic assessment is that American Jews overwhelmingly rejected the RJC's propaganda designed to scare them away from Obama and instead remained true to their traditional ideals and values.

In fact, the expensive RJC ad campaign does not appear to have changed anyone's vote, giving new meaning to the Yiddish accounting term, aroysgevorfen gelt (thrown out money). The Republican base has a solid base of around 10-11% of the Jewish community - the proportion who voted for Barry Goldwater in 1964 against 90% for Lyndon Johnson, and for George H.W. Bush in 1992, against 80% for Bill Clinton and 9% for Ross Perot. This core group will vote Republican regardless of who is on the ballot.

Similarly, there are those Jews who will always vote Democratic - the 45% who voted for Jimmy Carter in 1980, against 39% for Ronald Reagan and 15% for John Anderson; or, more charitably, the 64% who voted for Michael Dukakis in 1988 against 35% for George H.W. Bush, the 67% who voted for Walter Mondale in 1984 against 31% for Reagan, or the 65% who voter for George McGovern in 1972 against 35% for Richard Nixon.

In other words, a controversial Democrat like Carter or McGovern will lose a chunk of traditional Jewish voters, and a highly popular Republican like Reagan can attract them. No great surprise there. Dwight D. Eisenhower, whom many Jews credited with liberating Nazi death camps, received 36% of the Jewish vote in 1952, and 40% in 1956.

But the 2008 results resemble those of more conventional, less extreme election years. John F. Kennedy in 1960, Hubert Humphrey in 1968, and Bill Clinton in 1992 received, respectively, 82%, 81%, and 80% of the Jewish vote, without any concerted, high profile attempt on the part of Republican Jewish operatives to depict them as dangerous, radical or disloyal. In 1996, Clinton won 78% of the Jewish vote - same as Obama this year; Al Gore won 79% in 2000, with Joe Lieberman on the ticket; and John Kerry 74% in 2004.

In other words, just about the same proportion of American Jews voted for Barack Obama as have historically supported mainstream Democratic presidential candidates. And John McCain's 22%, while better than Richard Nixon's 18% in 1960 and 17% in 1968, or Bob Dole's 16% in 1996, was in the same general ballpark as George W. Bush's 19% in 2000 and 24% in 2004, and not all that much lower than Gerald Ford's 27% in 1976.

What does this all mean? For starters, that the American Jewish community for the most part is smart enough to recognize and disregard unsavory scare tactics. Also, most American Jews are mainstream progressive, with a highly developed social conscience. They support civil and human rights. They are generally pro-choice, especially since even the strictest Orthodox interpretations of Jewish law require an abortion when the mother's health is at issue. They believe that protecting our environment is a good thing, and have spent too much money on their children's college tuition to dismiss science as somehow godless. They are, by definition, not fundamentalist or evangelical Christians, which means that Sarah Palin turned them off for many of the exact same reasons that she energized the Republican base.

The Republican attempts to depict Obama as less supportive of Israel than McCain had no traction because they were so obviously without foundation. Obama has had a longstanding close relationship with the Chicago Jewish community, and he has a consistent record of strong, unwavering support for Israel. Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch reflected the instincts of most American Jews when he said, "Take it from me, I know. I know Israel would be protected by an Obama-Biden administration."

If the Republicans want greater Jewish support in the future, they will have to stop pandering to what they erroneously believe to be our fears, and instead move politically and ideologically in our direction. Barack Obama received the support of 78% of American Jews because his values are our values, his principles are our principles, and his goals for the United States are our goals, too.

Menachem Z. Rosensaft, a lawyer in New York City, is the Founding Chairman of the International Network of Children of Jewish Holocaust Survivors, and a former National President of the Labor Zionist Alliance

Popular in the Community