Will the "Israel Button" Backfire?

By Guttman, Nathan | Moment, September-October 2008 | Go to article overview

Will the "Israel Button" Backfire?


Guttman, Nathan, Moment


American Jewish voters--and political strategists might not be pleased to hear this--don't fall into one category. There is no one button that can be pressed to get their vote. Moreover, if there was, it wouldn't be the Israel button.

Support for the Jewish state has taken center stage in every interaction Barack Obama and John McCain have had with the Jewish community. Obama spoke about it extensively in his primary campaign town hall meetings with Jewish voters in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida, and McCain's chief surrogate to the Jewish community, Senator Joseph Lieberman, has also made the Israel issue a centerpiece of his stump speeches.

The common thread is clear: Politicians believe that the way to the heart of the Jewish voter goes through Jerusalem. The stronger your case is on issues relating to Israel, the more votes you get in Boca Raton, Cleveland and Philadelphia.

But this assumption is flawed and might even be dangerous.

Jewish voters--and political strategists might not be pleased to hear this--don't fall into one category. They are not just another narrow demographic like soccer moms or NASCAR dads, and there is no one button that can be pressed to capture their vote. Moreover, if there was, it wouldn't be the Israel button.

The polls are consistent. Ask Jewish voters what they care about when choosing their next president, and you'll get a set of priorities that matches, more or less, that of any Democratic-leaning American. According to the 2007 survey of American Jewish opinion conducted by the American Jewish Committee, the economy was the most important issue when deciding whom to vote for. After that came health care, the war in Iraq and the threat of terrorism. The issue of Israel came in way behind on the priority list, tied with immigration and energy.

One thousand self-identifying Jewish Americans took part in the survey, which, according to the pollsters who conducted it, presented an accurate portrayal of American society. The American Jewish Committee has been conducting similar surveys annually for the past decade.

None of this should come as a big surprise. After all, when asked to define themselves politically, 58 percent of Jewish Americans say they are Democrats. Only 25 percent say they are either extremely or slightly conservative. Priorities of Jewish voters are much the same as priorities of the voter population segment they belong to. So why the focus on Israel as the main election pitch to Jewish voters? …

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