Articles of Faith: Is Obama Really Losing His Jewish Support?

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Tell me where you’ve heard this before: Jewish voters are unhappy with Barack Obama. He’s seen as insufficiently supportive of Israel. There are questions about whether he can win enough Jewish votes to carry key states.

If you guessed “during the 2008 Democratic primaries,” then ding, ding, ding! A loaf of raisin-studded challah for you! Yes, the same concerns that political observers and commentators are raising now about Obama’s relationship with the American Jewish community dogged him as well in his race against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. Clinton forged strong ties with Jewish leaders in New York–who were willing to forgive the whole embracing-Suha-Arafat incident–during her time in the Senate, and her strong embrace of Israel contrasted with Obama’s typically measured stance. (At an AIPAC event in 2007, Obama commented that Palestinians suffered more than anyone else in the Middle East.) Overall, 54% of Jewish primary voters backed Clinton while 43% chose Obama.

Once Obama captured the nomination, his relationship with Jewish voters was seen as so wobbly that some Republicans even speculated that John McCain could peel off votes to win key states such as Florida and Pennsylvania. Yet on Election Day 2008, 78% of Jewish voters cast their ballots for Obama, just slightly more than voted for Kerry in 2004 and just slightly less than did the same for Gore in 2000. In fact, you have to go back to 1988 to find a presidential election in which the Democratic candidate captured less than three-quarters of the Jewish vote.

So why is the political class chattering once again about Obama’s vulnerability with Jewish voters? For starters, his support among Jewish Americans has indeed dropped this year. According to Gallup polls, Obama’s approval rating among Jews was 68% in May, 60% in July, and 54% in September. That’s a significant and steady decline. But the drop has been no steeper or more rapid than the overall decline of Obama’s approval numbers nationally. Jewish Americans continue to hold much more positive opinions of Obama than the average American–14 points higher over the course of his term.

Still, the surprise defeat of a Democratic congressional candidate in a special election for New York’s heavily Jewish 9th district led some observers to suggest that Jewish voters were abandoning Obama and the Democratic Party. The Democratic candidate David Weprin is himself an orthodox Jew, but lost the race by eight points in a district that had been under Democratic control for decades. Former New York City Mayor and Democrat Ed Koch endorsed the Republican candidate, explaining that he wanted “to send a message to President Obama that he cannot throw Israel under the bus with impunity.”

But are there broader lessons to be drawn from the special election results? The 9th district is not just heavily Jewish, but also heavily Orthodox–the segment of American Jews who are more likely to support Republican candidates. In addition, while Weprin initially polled very well among Jewish voters, exit polls indicate that he lost support from Jewish independents and Republicans who reconsidered their impulse to back a Democratic candidate. Republicans and conservative groups hammered Weprin over his support for the legalization of same-sex marriage in New York, a move that was generally opposed by the socially conservative Orthodox community. In retrospect, Weprin’s loss should not have been a complete surprise. But it’s also not transferable to the broader political landscape.

What about the perception that Obama has turned his back on Israel? Jewish leaders who were already somewhat skeptical of Obama were alarmed when he delivered a speech in May calling on Israel to return to its pre-1967 borders, which do not include the Gaza Strip, West Bank or East Jerusalem. The statement strained already tense relations with the Israeli government and opened the door for Republican presidential candidates to attack Obama’s loyalty to Israel. Just this week, Rick Perry accused Obama of betraying Israel and tried to tie the President to the push for Palestinian statehood at the United Nations. “We would not be here today at this very precipice of such a dangerous move,” said the Texas governor, “if the Obama policy in the Middle East wasn’t naive and arrogant, misguided and dangerous.”

But Perry went further in declaring his own unwavering support for Israel. “I also as a Christian have a clear directive to support Israel,” said Perry, “so from my perspective it’s pretty easy.” That statement may explain why Obama isn’t sweating the potential loss of Jewish votes too much. For if there’s anything that can cement his support from secular and moderately religious Jews, it’s the highly vocal evangelicalism of the GOP field. While many saw Perry’s remarks this week as part of an attempt to woo Jewish voters, it is much more likely that they were aimed at evangelicals in the Republican party who support Israel for their own reasons. And even when Republicans do focus on reaching out to Jewish voters, they still struggle to get the words just right. Last week, a spokeswoman at the Republican National Committee told CNN that many Jewish voters “feel like they were left at the altar after numerous broken promises from the President.” As CNN’s Dan Gilgoff pointed out later, Jews don’t tend to get left at the altar so much as left under the chuppah. At least she didn’t follow Michele Bachmann’s lead and talk about Obama’s “choot-spa.”

In the end, Obama’s ability to correctly pronounce chutzpah will matter less to Jewish voters than his speech before the United Nations on Thursday, opposing the Palestinian Authority’s bid for statehood:

America’s commitment to Israel’s security is unshakable, and our friendship with Israel is deep and enduring. And so we believe that any lasting peace must acknowledge the very real security concerns that Israel faces every single day. Let’s be honest: Israel is surrounded by neighbors that have waged repeated wars against it….Israel, a small country of less than eight million people, looks out at a world where leaders of much larger nations threaten to wipe it off of the map….These facts cannot be denied. The Jewish people have forged a successful state in their historic homeland. Israel deserves recognition. It deserves normal relations with its neighbors. And friends of the Palestinians do them no favors by ignoring this truth.

Jewish leaders who were looking for reassurance from Obama on Israel can’t ask for more than this speech. The Jewish New Year begins next week. Obama may have just laid the groundwork to start anew in his relationship with the American Jewish community.

Amy Sullivan is a contributing writer at TIME, and author of the book The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats are Closing the God Gap (Scribner, 2008). Articles of Faith, her column on the intersection of religion and politics, appears on every Friday.