Will Obama help carry Jews away from AIPAC?

By Emanuele Ottolenghi, June 2, 2011
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Bush: pro-Israel, but got minority support from Jews

Bush: pro-Israel, but got minority support from Jews

Is support for Israel in the US becoming the private domain of Republicans? Would this spell trouble for Jewish organisations like AIPAC?

The unprecedented departure from the bipartisan consensus on Israel that US President Barack Obama has undertaken since he came to power has raised this issue among Jewish Democrats.

The assumption is that Obama's slide toward Palestinian positions will force a choice on Jewish voters: either support Israel or a Democratic president. Given that there is a parallel trend among American Jews to become increasingly lukewarm toward Israel, the assumption here is that strong Israel supporters will become Republican, but most Jews will remain Democrat.

The consequence would be a decline in support for Israel among Jews, and a decline of influence for Jewish groups like AIPAC, who reflect that support in a bipartisan fashion. But anyone who knows the history of US Jews will find that hard to believe.

American Jews have, for three generations now, voted solidly democratic - much more so than any other minority in the US. Even Jimmy Carter - a president whose antipathy for Israel and incompetence in foreign policy was so strident - could still count on a majority of Jewish votes in his failed bid to win re-election in 1980.

His successor, then rightfully deemed the most pro-Israel president ever to be elected since Truman, could only muster 39 per cent of the Jewish vote in his 1984 re-election. When George W Bush sought re-election in 2004, only 35 per cent of Jews supported him - despite his unflinching support for Israel. For Republicans, supporting Israel is not about getting Jews to vote for them. They won't.

It is also a fact that throughout the ups and downs of presidential elections and developments in US-Israel relations, US Jewish support for Israel is rock-solid - and so is the success of AIPAC and other Jewish groups.

With all the angst about what it means for Jewish support for Israel to have a president like Obama, AIPAC's last annual conference was the biggest ever. With all the talk about apathy among the new generations, an unprecedented 1,300 delegates from campuses across America showed up.

Though no one presents their party affiliation at the door, it is safe to assume that a solid majority of these participants voted Democrat in the past and may do so again in 2012.

Still, a question lingers on - has President Obama alienated Jewish voters by making a radical departure from four decades of US foreign policy? Or will their loyalty to a liberal Democratic President trump their concern for Israel? And is that dilemma there at all, given how liberal many of these voters have become, and how distant from Israel they are in their daily concerns?

Time will tell, but the history of partisan loyalties and support for Israel among American Jews in the last 40 years suggests that fears of a divorce between Jewish Democrats and support for Israel is misplaced. As for AIPAC's fortunes - look no further than the stinging rebuke the President received from AIPAC's podium by the Democratic Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, and the House's ranking Democrat, Steny Hoyer, over his 1967 speech. If that is a sign of AIPAC decline, what would success look like?

Emanuele Ottolenghi is a Senior Fellow
at the Foundation for Defence of
Democracies

    Last updated: 2:31pm, June 2 2011