Commentary Magazine


What Would He Have to Do?

Seventy-eight percent of American Jews voted for Obama. So how’s he doing after nearly nine months of beating up on Israel, cowering from a confrontation with Iran, and telling Jewish leaders (with a large measure of disdain) that they should go engage in some self-reflection on the Israeli-Palestinian question? Well, his poll numbers are not stellar among American Jews–but not as bad as you might expect given his conduct.

The highlights: Fifty-four percent still approve of Obama’s handling of relations with Israel. But 51 percent disagree with Obama’s call for a settlement freeze. (Yes, the two items seem contradictory, but we’ll get to that. This isn’t about logic.) Fifty-one percent don’t think Israel should compromise on the final status of Jerusalem. Also notable is the fact that American Jews are gloomy about the outlook for peace: 75 percent think the goal of the Arab states is the destruction of Israel rather than the return of occupied territories, and by a 51 percent to 43 percent margin, American Jews don’t think there will be a time when Israel will live in peace with its neighbors.

As for Iran, American Jews approve of Obama’s performance by a 49-35 percent margin. Fifty-six percent support an American military action, while 66 percent would support an Israeli action. In 2008, American Jews opposed military action by a 47-42 percent margin.

The most sobering numbers may be these: 41 percent feel fairly close to Israel, 22 percent very close, and 30 percent fairly or very distant from Israel.

From the executive summary, we learn:

Among age segments, AJC found little distinction in approval of the Obama Administration’s handling of U.S.-Israel relations, with 54 percent of those under 40; 57 percent aged 40-59; and 49 percent over 60 expressing approval.

On the other hand, denominational affiliation appears to be a key factor in determining attitudes. While majorities of Conservative (54 percent) and Reform Jews (59 percent) approve, only 14 percent of Orthodox Jews approve of the Obama Administration’s handling of U.S.-Israel relations. . . .

The AJC survey found that a majority, 51 percent of U.S. Jews, disagree with the Obama Administration’s call for a stop to all new Israeli settlement construction, while 41 percent agree with that tactic.

Disapproval is fairly consistent among age segments — 49 percent of those under 40 disapprove and 38 percent approve; 53 percent ages 40-59 disapprove and 42 percent approve; and 51 percent over 60 disapprove, while 41 percent approve. Among the denominations, 74 percent of Orthodox, 62 percent of Conservative, and 46 percent of Reform Jews disapprove of the call for a full settlement freeze. In contrast, 21 percent of Orthodox, 33 percent of Conservative and 45 percent of Reform approve.

What to make of all this? Well, sadly it provides further support for the thesis of Norman Podhoretz’s book Why Are Jew Liberals? It seems there is virtually nothing Obama could do to offend a significant segment of the American Jewry. Even if a majority of American Jews disapprove of the main focus of Obama’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to date –the effort to foist a settlement freeze on Israel–they still feel compelled to effectively “vote” for him by indicating approval for his Israel policy. It isn’t rational. But then the “Torah of liberalism,” as Podhoretz describes the substitution of liberal faith for religious faith, is not grounded in reason.

And as Podhoretz also argued, the more religiously observant the respondent, the less likely he/she is to support Obama. (Those Jews have no need for the Torah of liberalism; they are quite attached to the original one.) These Jews have soured on Obama,  apparently clear-eyed in their assessment of his stance toward Israel.

But there is something else quite alarming here. If 30 percent of those Jews surveyed feel very or fairly distant from Israel, then Obama’s anti-Israel stance and his desire to put “daylight” between the U.S. and Israel may line up quite well with their own views. In a sense, these Jews don’t care much about Israel, so they aren’t much bothered if Obama doesn’t either. And, more importantly, it is further evidence for the proposition that pro-Israel Jews who want additional support for their cause should consider being less dismissive of evangelical Christians who have unbridled affection for Israel. (I suspect that the percentage of evangelical Christians who feel fairly or very distant from Israel is less than 30 percent.)

Whether Obama’s support among American Jews will hold even at current levels remains to be seen. It seems Jews are increasingly supportive of military action against Iran, oppose a settlement freeze, and are quite skeptical about the “peace process.” Logic would tell us that if Obama acts in ways contrary to these views, that support will erode. But maybe not–this isn’t about logic for many Jews who will find some reason to justify their continued fidelity to the most liberal president we have ever elected. And for the disturbingly large segment of Jews whose affection for Israel is minimal, their focus will continue to center almost exclusively on Obama’s ultra-liberal domestic agenda. For them Obama’s unwillingness to promote a robust U.S.-Israeli relationship and deal forthrightly with an existential threat to Israel isn’t all that relevant.

So it may turn out that there is not much–short of renouncing his ultra-liberal domestic agenda–that Obama might do to lose the support of a significant percentage of American Jews.

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