Obama’s Jewish Problem

While much has been made of Barack Obama’s problems with white working class voters, especially in Appalachia, a more problematic trend may be signs of trouble with Jewish voters, a strong if relatively small part of the Democratic base.

Today’s NYT features Jodi Kantor’s story, “Many Florida Jews Express Doubts on Obama.”

On Thursday, Mr. Obama will court Jewish voters with an appearance at a synagogue in Boca Raton, Fla. A longtime Democratic constituency with a consistently high turnout rate, Jews are important to his general election hopes, particularly in New York, which he expects to win; in California and New Jersey, which he must keep out of Republican hands; and, most crucially, here in Florida, where Jews make up around 5 percent of voters. This is the most haunted state on the electoral college map for Democrats, the one they lost by hundreds of votes and a Supreme Court decision in 2000, and again in 2004.

“The fate of the world for the next four years,” mused Rabbi Ruvi New as his Sunday morning Kabbalah & Coffee class dispersed in East Boca Raton. “It’s all going to boil down to a few old Jews in Century Village,” he added, referring to a nearby retirement community.

Jews, of course, are just one of the many constituencies Mr. Obama must persuade: Latinos, women, working-class whites and independents are vital as well. Thanks in part to enthusiasm from younger Jews, he won 45 percent of the Jewish vote in the primaries (not counting the disputed ones in Florida and Michigan), a respectable showing against a New York senator, Hillary Rodham Clinton. But in recent presidential elections, Jews have drifted somewhat to the right. Because Mr. Obama is relatively new on the national stage, his résumé of Senate votes in support of Israel is short, as is his list of high-profile visits to synagogues and delis. So far, his overtures to Jews have been limited; aside from a few speeches and interviews, he has left most of it to surrogates.

And, frankly, a lot of bizarre rumors linger.

Because of a dispute over moving the date of the state’s primary, Mr. Obama and the other Democratic candidates did not campaign in Florida. In his absence, novel and exotic rumors about Mr. Obama have flourished. Among many older Jews, and some younger ones, as well, he has become a conduit for Jewish anxiety about Israel, Iran, anti-Semitism and race.

Mr. Obama is Arab, Jack Stern’s friends told him in Aventura. (He’s not.)

He is a part of Chicago’s large Palestinian community, suspects Mindy Chotiner of Delray. (Wrong again.)

Mr. Wright is the godfather of Mr. Obama’s children, asserted Violet Darling in Boca Raton. (No, he’s not.)

Al Qaeda is backing him, said Helena Lefkowicz of Fort Lauderdale (Incorrect.)

Michelle Obama has proven so hostile and argumentative that the campaign is keeping her silent, said Joyce Rozen of Pompano Beach. (Mrs. Obama campaigns frequently, drawing crowds in her own right.)

Mr. Obama might fill his administration with followers of Louis Farrakhan, worried Sherry Ziegler. (Extremely unlikely, given his denunciation of Mr. Farrakhan.)

How widespread these beliefs are is hard to measure. But it goes well beyond that.

But the resistance toward Mr. Obama appears to be rooted in something more than factual misperception; even those with an accurate understanding of Mr. Obama share the hesitations. In dozens of interviews, South Florida Jews questioned his commitment to Israel — even some who knew he earns high marks from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which lobbies the United States government on behalf of Israel.

“You watch George Bush for a day, and you know where he stands,” said Rabbi Jonathan Berkun of the Aventura Turnberry Jewish Center.

Many here suspect Mr. Obama of being too cozy with Palestinians, while others accuse him of having Muslim ties, even though they know that his father was born Muslim and became an atheist, and that Mr. Obama embraced Christianity as a young man. In Judaism, religion is a fixed identity across generations.

“His father was a Muslim and you can’t take that out of him,” said Ms. Chotiner, 51, who said she would still vote for Mr. Obama, out of Democratic loyalty. “Do I have very strong reservations? Yes, I do,” she said.

Several interviewees said they had reservations about Mr. Obama’s stated willingness to negotiate with Iran — whose nuclear ambitions and Holocaust-denying president trigger even starker fears among Jews than intifada uprisings and suicide bombings. American Jews are by no means uniformly opposed to negotiations with Iran, the leaders of several Jewish groups said, but there is no consensus, and everyone fears that the wrong choice could lead to calamity. Israelis fear Iran “could be the first suicide nation, a nation that would destroy itself to destroy the Jewish nation,” Mr. [Alan] Dershowitz said.

While most of this report is anecdotal, there are some data supporting the trend. The latest Rasmussen poll in Florida shows McCain beating Obama 50-40. More interestingly, “Just 57% of Florida Democrats say they will vote for Obama while 27% plan to vote for McCain. The two candidates are essentially even among unaffiliated voters.” To be sure, part of this is a function of Hillary Clinton supporters who haven’t accepted that Obama will be the nominee yet, combined with some bitterness over how the DNC has treated the state. Regardless, Obama has to view this with some concern.

Dave Schuler, Alex Knapp, Dodd Harris and I talked about this phenomenon in passing on last night’s edition of OTB Radio, mostly inspired by a RealClearPolitics piece by former NYC mayor Ed Koch, a liberal Democrat who backed President Bush in 2004 “saying at the time that I did not agree with him on a single domestic issue, but I did believe he was the only one running who appreciated the threat of Islamic terrorism to American values and Western civilization and was prepared to wage a war to defend those values.” Despite Bush’s horrendous approval ratings, Koch argues history will vindicate him precisely because of his stance on terrorism and, in particular, his staunch support of Israel.

I’m dubious of Koch’s claims on a variety of fronts. But there is likely a strong contingent of “Ed Koch Democrats” out there who vote with a keen eye toward America’s policy toward Israel. That both baffles and concerns me but it’s a reality.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. SDM says:

    Anecdote aside, the best poll that exists to confirm this theory shows Obama beats McCain among Jewish voters by nearly two-to-one – 61% to 29%. Clinton does somewhat better, but the Jewish vote is, as always, strongly Democratic.

    That said, there’s a continued attempt to drive a wedge between Jewish voters and the Democratic party, so Obama will need to pay attention to that, especially in Florida. But the idea that Jewish voters, as such, would prefer McCain to Obama is more anecdotal than factual, and is being intentionally driven by the right in the hopes of making it a self fulfilling prophecy.

  2. cian says:

    McCain has a bigger problem here I think. Turns out Pastor Hagee believes Hitler was just doing God’s work. And this is an endorsement he sought!
    Can’t imagine too many of our Jewish brothers being happy with this.

  3. John425 says:

    “…out there who vote with a keen eye toward America’s policy toward Israel. That both baffles and concerns me but it’s a reality.”

    That baffles you? I’m a Christian conservative (albeit a metaphysical Christian) and see Israel as the first line of defense against Islamist terrorism. I was raised in tenement district Boston and our downstairs neighbor was an elderly Jewish lady with a forearm tattoo. Get it?

  4. Fence says:

    The Israel angle is so vastly overrated in terms of deciding how most Jews vote. You can’t quote AIPAC and a rabbi at a Kaballah class to get an idea of how typical reform and conservative Jews view the two parties. Kerry’s near-record of 77% against pro-Israel Bush illustrates quite well.

    Obama will probably underperform versus Kerry (in terms of the spread between his Jewish vote and national vote), because (1) Bush isn’t running and (2) because Obama doesn’t seem to do as well with older voters and, hey, Florida Jews are OLD. But go to a Hillel event or a Jewish preschool with 30-something parents dropping off their kids, and virtually the only bumper stickers you will see are for Obama.

    If McCain picks Crist Florida will be irrelevant anyway. If Obama can win Florida with Crist on the ticket he will winning the election with or without Florida’s EVs.

  5. James Joyner says:

    I’m a Christian conservative (albeit a metaphysical Christian) and see Israel as the first line of defense against Islamist terrorism.

    How so?

    I was raised in tenement district Boston and our downstairs neighbor was an elderly Jewish lady with a forearm tattoo. Get it?

    Not really, no. I’m not sure what an Israel first foreign policy has to do with ensuring that a sui generis historic tragedy doesn’t repeat itself.

  6. gary says:

    Think Obama’s bigger problem in florida will be how he answered the capital gains tax question in the ABC debate. If Mccain plays that up among the retiree’s it could do quite a bit of damage.

  7. Elmo says:

    both baffles and concerns me

    No baffle …. as having travelled the route (and now familiar with the signposts along the way). It is indeed a cold realization to come to, that one has been abandoned in spirit and thought. By their own party. Either through inertia or incomprehension, the Dems cannot see the international writing on the wall. Almost a willfull ignorance.

    So, while one can spot the beginning of their divergence … relative to their own past place along the political continuum. It does take more than that first initial energy, to take more than one step. And cross all the way over the divide. From left to right. A little fear, uncertainty. The unknown.

    Myself, still registered as a Dem. But obviously forsaken by the loons some time ago. And proudly stand among the right. As in a side different from the one running a candidate who is truly out of his depth on the international stage.

    There’s politics … and then there’s reality.