Polling American Jews

By Elliot Jager
Wednesday, April 21, 2010

What does the predominantly liberal Asian-American community think of President Barack Obama's policies toward China, particularly on the issue of Tibet?  Where do America's 2.35 million Muslims stand on Washington's conduct of the war in Afghanistan-Pakistan? It's hard to say. Yet minute shifts in American Jewish public opinion are carefully tracked.

Why?  Because, says the Hebrew University political scientist Tamir Sheafer,  although comprising at most three percent of the population, America's Jews—well-educated, relatively affluent, and "over-represented" in medicine, science, law, media, entertainment, and politics—are perceived to be an important, well-organized, and powerful interest group. They are major financial contributors to political campaigns, and in certain states the high turnout of Jewish voters (usually in the Democratic column) can help swing an election. For Kenneth D. Wald of the University of Florida, "Jewish opinion matters because Jews, despite their small numbers, are hyper-political, far outperforming non-Jews in registration, turnout, volunteering, campaign activity, contributions and mobilization."  According to Wald, politicians pay attention to Jewish opinion because "passion and intensity outweigh numbers."

Late last week, a McLaughlin & Associates poll showed that if U.S. presidential elections were held now, only 42 percent of Jewish voters would re-elect President Barack Obama. This represents a precipitous drop from the 78 percent who according to exit polls gave their vote to candidate Obama in November 2008.  But what does it mean? Conservative analysts have attributed the president's loss of Jewish support to his adversarial approach toward the Netanyahu government; liberals, by contrast, point to Obama's perceived drift toward the pragmatic center on domestic issues.

Since the McLaughlin poll asked only about Israel, it is difficult to say which reading is correct. And even on this one issue, the numbers are not perfectly consistent. Indeed, when queried in the same survey about the president's overall handling of America's relations with the Jewish state, fully half of the respondents registered their approval, as against 39 percent who disapproved.  A somewhat earlier survey, conducted by the American Jewish Committee, found 55 percent approving of Obama's approach toward Israel.

Nor, finally, is it clear where Israel ranks on the roster of American Jewish concerns. Although 70 percent say they feel a bond with the Jewish state, many experts contend that this attachment does not top their agenda.

As for how all this might translate politically, Obama's is not the first  administration to dissociate its "rock-solid" backing for Israel from opposition to the country's settlements and its security policies; nor would it be the first to appeal to Jews themselves for support on this point. The Reagan administration's decision to grant diplomatic recognition to the PLO was closely coordinated with dissident elements in American Jewish leadership. The late Max Fisher, a Republican fundraiser, served as a conduit between George H.W. Bush and Yitzhak Shamir, quietly advocating the president's proposal of a freeze on West Bank settlements in return for U.S. loan guarantees to help resettle Soviet Jews in Israel. 

With only 39 percent (McClaughlin) or 37 percent (American Jewish Committee) of American Jews disapproving outright of Obama's handling of relations, some community leaders may thus be as likely to lobby the Netanyahu government to conciliate the American president as to pressure the administration to mend its currently broken fences with Jerusalem. When it comes to the sentiments of American Jewish voters in general, the two polls are hardly negligible indicators, but what their findings might signify for the mid-term elections this November will depend on developments on more than one front, and the presidential race of 2012 is far in the future.


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