For Israelis and Palestinians, as well for their friends and family around the world, these past few weeks have been torture. Each day for Israel brings new rocket attacks, new cross-border terrorist raids, new funerals and shivas for IDF soldiers. Each day for Palestinians in Gaza brings new rounds of artillery shelling, fresh explosions and devastation. We spend all day desperately wanting to avert our eyes from the carnage, and go to bed every night hoping that by morning, the fighting will have stopped.
As devoted friends of Israel and passionate advocates for Israeli-Palestinian peace, we at J Street have been clear since the fighting began that Israel has a definite and obvious right, as all nations do, to defend its citizens against terrorism. Hamas is a repugnant terrorist organization whose sworn aim is the destruction of the state and people of Israel. Failure to recognize this represents willful blindness.
We cannot, however, as American Jewish friends of Israel, turn a blind eye to the plight of Gazan civilians. Some deeply disturbing rhetoric has come from some in the American Jewish community - not just from the fringe, but from well-respected leaders. In an article last week, American Jewish Committee Executive Director David Harris wrote bitterly of the international community’s concern for “poor, defenseless Gaza.” Responding to the recent tragedies of Palestinian children dying in United Nations schools, he correctly noted several documented instances of Hamas hiding weapons in such schools. Instead of condemning Hamas and expressing sympathy with the plight of the defenseless children, Harris attributed their deaths to “patterns of behavior” of Palestinian parents, who “allow [their] children to go to a school which is used as an arms depot.”
This conflation of all Gazans with Hamas is untrue and unacceptable. The article did not mention that children killed at the UN school in Jabalya were there seeking shelter because Israel had told them, and hundreds of thousands of others, that their homes could face bombing and shelling. It omitted that all exits and entrances to Gaza are controlled by Israel and Egypt, leaving Gazan civilians with nowhere to go and nowhere else to hide. The White House has condemned the shelling of the school as “totally indefensible.”
Harris wrote that for Jews, “our corner of the world is about the affirmation of life. That defines the core of our being, the essence of the societies we aspire to build, and the way we conduct ourselves.” We agree. Affirming and respecting life is exactly what Jewish people should aspire to.
Sanctions bill sponsor Sen. Robert Menendez addresses AIPAC annual policy conference, Washington Convention Center, March 5, 2013. / Getty Images
In American politics, do Jewish voices count more on Israel than others? Should they? And who’s counting? UCLA professor Mark Kleiman, for one, who called on his Washington Monthly blog for readers to lobby their senator against a new Iran sanctions bill especially “if you’re Jewish, or have a Jewish-sounding name.” The anti-Zionist writer Phil Weiss responded that Kleiman’s appeal proves that, on this issue, “we [Jews] are 5/3 of a man, to reverse the old voting fraction of black people.”
Weiss has picked an obnoxious analogy. Even those who talk about Israel as an “apartheid state” rarely have the chutzpah to include Washington D.C. in the supposed ethnocracy. But Weiss is also wrong in a more interesting way. Talk of how much Jews count is hopelessly naïve, because in fact, American foreign policy — in many areas — responds far less to mass demographics than to small, committed ideological elites.
Why is that? First of all, American Jews don’t care much politically about Israel. Most feel emotionally attached to Israel, but in 2012, only four percent considered it their most important political issue, classing it with sleepers like the environment and immigration. Nor is our apathy atypical: Americans just don’t care much about foreign policy. Less than ten percent of us vote primarily on foreign policy. When asked what is the most important issue facing the country, we show no interest in other countries (well, a little when people leave them to come here). Government, policy, and media elites love to talk about an increasingly globalized world, but most Americans think of foreign affairs as politically remote and irrelevant.
There’s good news and bad news for President Obama in a new survey of American Jewish opinion released Thursday by the Workmen’s Circle. First, the bad news: Jewish voters favor Obama over Mitt Romney by about two to one — 59% to 27%, with 14% undecided. If undecideds follow the same 2-to-1 split, the result will be 68% to 32%. This points to a 10% drop from November 2008, when Obama got 78% of the Jewish vote, according to national exit polls at the time. The good news is that it’s not November yet, and if you compare June 2012 to June 2008, Obama is doing considerably better now than he was then. At this point in 2008 Jews were backing Obama by only 62% to rival John McCain’s 31%, according to Gallup’s tracking poll. Obama dropped further in July 2008, to 61-34, before beginning a steady rise in August. In fact, a surge might already be discernible this year, if we compare the Workmen’s Circle survey with a similar survey released two months ago, April 3, conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute for the Nathan Cummings Foundation.
Will the president repeat his 2008 late-summer uptick? Hard to say. Romney isn’t likely to give him the sort of gift McCain offered when he chose the spectacularly unqualified Sarah Palin as his running-mate. On the other hand, everything else in the Workmen’s Circle poll, which was conducted by Professors Steven M. Cohen and Samuel Abrams, points to a Jewish public that remains solidly liberal. Given the starkly conservative cast of the Republican campaign so far, it seems unlikely that Romney could muster more enthusiasm among Jewish voters than the more moderate McCain did in 2008. It could be that distress over Obama’s Israel policies will lower his Jewish support, but both surveys show Israel playing very little role in Jewish voters’ thinking. In fact, Cohen’s statistical analysis of respondents’ preferences and demographic characteristics indicates that people who have strong opinions about Israel tend to show a host of other tendencies that factor as strongly if not more so into their decisions.
In some ways the Workmen’s Circle survey confirms the trends that turned up in the Cummings Foundation survey in April; in other ways the WC sample is more conservative (I’m not sure why, and I won’t speculate right now). In certain ways, both polls — and a third one, the American Jewish Committee annual survey, released April 30 — look remarkably similar. Remarkable, that is, considering that they use different methodologies, draw on different population samples and reflect a variety of sponsors’ ideologies from the upscale liberal Cummings Foundation to the grittier left-liberal Workmen’s Circle to the devoutly centrist AJC.
The foreign policy chief of the European Union, Catherine Ashton, is under furious attack for a speech she gave March 19, several hours after the deadly shootings at the Ozar Hatorah school in Toulouse, in which she mentioned the Toulouse attack and deaths of Palestinian youths in Gaza in the same sentence.
First Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, called the supposed analogy “inappropriate.” Then others piled on: Defense Minister Ehud Barak called her words “outrageous.” Interior Minister Eli Yishai demanded she resign. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticized her more indirectly, just before a meeting with French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, who had flown to Israel for the funerals of the Toulouse victims. The Anti-Defamation League expressed “outrage.” The American Jewish Committee expressed “profound dismay.” For a more detailed critique, here’s Middle East scholar (and my old high school chum) Barry Rubin, dissecting what’s wrong.
Actually, what’s wrong is the false notion that Ashton’s words were, as Barry puts it, “a statement” issued “in response to the Toulouse shooting.” They were nothing of the sort. As I write in my latest Forward column, she was delivering the keynote address at a U.N.-E.U. conference on the challenges facing Palestinian refugee youth. She concluded with a sad litany of unrelated tragedies around the world that clearly share nothing except that young people die. Here’s the video of the speech.
How did everyone get it so wrong?
The Palestinians’ United Nations statehood ploy has drawn an array of responses around the world, from enthusiasm in Turkey to anxiety to Washington and panic in Jerusalem. And one prominent Israeli center-left politician, Isaac Herzog, proposes a counter-intuitive Israeli gambit of voting for the statehood bid—under certain conditions (as I’ll explain below).
Nothing, however, quite matches the sublime pragmatism of the American Jewish Committee. The organization, once known for its patrician reserve, sent out an e-mail fund-raising pitch today urging readers to click on a link to donate money and save Israel from imminent disaster.
With only hours left until the start of the UN debate and our critical, round-the-clock diplomatic marathon, I’m hoping you’ll help with a generous gift today.
How will a gift to AJC stop the apocalypse? Simple:
Our team here at AJC is gearing up for 70 face-to-face meetings with high-ranking diplomats in the next 10 days.
Our goal? Persuade countries to oppose Palestinian efforts to attain UN endorsement of a unilaterally declared state…
The Palestinian leadership, the letter explains,
has been charging relentlessly down this path. If they get their way, it could effectively end the peace process and instigate a new cycle of violence.
AJC is leading the effort in calling for cooler heads to prevail and for charting a course to peace.
We’re counting on you for your help. Please, don’t wait to make your gift.
A very different approach to empowering cooler heads came over the weekend from Isaac Herzog, a leader of the Israel Labor Party’s centrist wing. Writing on CNN.com’s Global Public Square blog , the former senior cabinet minister (in the Sharon, Olmert and Netanyahu governments, until Labor quit last January) offered the following proposal: