A key interest for Americans and Israelis in U.S. presidential elections every four years is the Jewish voter – where they are demographically, who they choose to vote for and over what issues. The Jewish vote drew attention this year mainly due to U.S. President Donald Trump’s perceived pro-Israel achievements he garnered over the last four years as well as the polarized view of him among Jewish Americans. So did those moves make an impact? How did they measure up against other pressing issues like the coronavirus pandemic and its effect on the economy? And what are the implications for Israel as a Biden administration is expected to take the reins of power in January?
The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA) held an online symposium this week titled, “The U.S. Elections and the Jewish vote: Priorities and Concerns of American Jews and the Implications for Israel” to discuss these questions and more. Dore Gold, president of the JCPA, noted that “a lot of the commentary [leading up to the elections] not just in the Jewish community was that different groups in American society were going to alter their orientation as a result of developments that had occurred since the last election.”
Indeed, according to numerous reports since the election, Trump appears to have picked up votes since 2016 in multiple demographics and racial groups. Yet some of this could be attributed to turnout, which was at its highest levels in decades and both candidates picked up records of amounts of votes with Trump over 73 million and Biden closing in on 80 million in the popular vote count.
An American Jewish Committee (AJC) survey of Jews in the United States before the election showed that 75 percent would choose former Vice President Joe Biden and 22 percent Trump. After the election, it appears than Trump exceeded expectations, garnering about 30 percent of the Jewish vote.
While Trump did do better than expected among American Jewish voters, his pro-Israel policies were not enough to convince most Jews, who are overwhelmingly Democrats, to support him. The AJC survey showed that the most important issue for American Jewish voters were domestic concerns such as COVID-19 (26 percent), with others prioritizing health care (17 percent), the economy (13 percent), race relations (12 percent), crime (6 percent), foreign policy (5 percent) or another issue (20 percent).
Gold emphasized the importance for Israel to keep its finger on the pulse of Americans across the country.
“If we can get a sense at the very beginning of where America is going, it will help us operate intelligently in the period ahead,” he said. “No one can really answer this with assuredness. Being cognizant of what is going on in the debates in different communities and geographic parts of America will help Israel understand its most important ally.”
‘Not allow Israel to become a wedge issue’
Michal Cotler-Wunsh, an Israeli Knesset member of the Blue and White Party, said it is “important to understand the elections so that we can improve and deepen the engagement not just between Israel and the U.S., but between Israel and North American Jewry.”
She also said it is “imperative” that there exists bipartisan collaboration and continued engagement between Israel and the United States.
“We need to depoliticize the relationship and not allow Israel to become a wedge issue,” she added.
Steven Windmueller, a Jerusalem Center Fellow and emeritus professor of Jewish Communal Studies at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, said this election was “a battle over the Jewish vote in terms of why and what it represents.”
“Over 73 million people voted for Trump, which is an extraordinary statement that his ideas, politics and imprint are not leaving the political scene,” he said. “And in many ways, the polling data suggests we have many multiple Jewish expressions in this election.”
Windmueller pointed to the outcome of the election as a sign that a core issue for American Jews is anti-Semitism.
“Every poll prior to the election pointed to the strong sense of insecurity and concern among U.S. Jews,” he said. “American Jews, for the first time in their history, are weighing pressures of having threats to their political right and left. How that will define Jewish political behavior moving forward will be the core story as an outcome of this election.”
Windmueller said it is important to understand that American Jews have a “deep and abiding love for Israel,” but that “it did not show up on Nov. 3 in the context of American Jewish voters.”
“As long as Israel is not in crisis,” he observed, “American Jewish voters will not bring that issue forward in the same kind of intensity as we have seen in the past.”
Windmueller concluded his remarks by saying that the “re-engagement of Israel is an important theme in helping American Jews understand the mix of interests they have along with other competing identities and values that are redefining who and what the American Jewish polity is about.”
‘Iranian aggression in the region must be countered’
Irwin Mansdorf, a Jerusalem Center Fellow specializing in political psychology, said that as far as the Jewish vote is concerned, “there is a difference between Jewish Biden and Trump voters overstating their love for Israel unconditionally.”
He said most American Jews “see themselves as liberal and do not always see anti-Israelism as anti-Semitism, which is viewed as a right-wing issue. Israel-related issues are not ‘make-or-break.’ ”
Mansdorf also noted a smaller, “hardcore” of Jewish Americans who are “openly antagonistic to Israel,” and that there is a “willingness to vote for candidates clearly unsympathetic to Israel even among ‘mainstream’ Jewish Americans.”
He found a large amount of unfamiliarity in the Jewish community of three important issues: Palestinian financial support for terror, Nazi-themed anti-Semitism within Palestinian media, and Iranian Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism.
One of the bottom-line conclusions, according to Mansdorf, is that being “pro-Israel” is not a yes-or-no answer and “may not be a term we can use anymore, and because of that, we need to pay attention to this issue and the conditional aspect of voters being pro- or not pro-Israel.”
William Daroff, CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, emphasized that “although the reins of power in Washington will be changing hands, the special U.S.-Israel relationship will continue to thrive, as it has for decades.”
“The big-picture, long-term policy decisions of the incoming administration will have a significant impact in the Middle East,” he said. “Iranian aggression in the region must be countered, and the Ayatollah [Iran Supreme Leader Ali Khameini]’s nuclear development cannot be allowed to continue unabated.”
With regard to the talk of renegotiating the JCPOA, Daroff said “it is our hope that any new Iran deal be more far-reaching and comprehensive regarding Iran’s actions in the region and its nuclear ambitions for the long term.”
Turning to the Palestinian issue, he spoke of the Biden administration’s interest in re-engaging the Palestinians to get them back to the negotiating table, as well as restoring aid to the Palestinian Authority and to UNRWA.
“Biden is committed to abide by the Taylor Force Act, a congressional act that forbids U.S. funding of the Palestinian Authority’s abhorrent ‘pay-to-slay’ program wherein terrorists and their families are rewarded for their murderous acts. So we’ll see how they thread this needle—hopefully, in a way that changes this noxious policy.”
Addressing the U.S.-Israel relationship, Daroff said “personnel is policy.”
“Certain appointments will have far-reaching consequences,” he pointed out, and those people in key roles “will set the tone for the special relationship under the Biden administration.”
Nevertheless, he emphasized, “I am optimistic about the path ahead.”
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