J Street’s Silent Majority
Survey emphasizes ‘majority,’ results emphasize ‘silent’
BREAKING: Last night, a majority of American Jews voted for Democrats. Shocked? Of course not: Everyone (even those who hate it) knows that Jews are among the most steadfast Democratic partisans around. But, according to a national survey of Jewish voters released this morning by the left-leaning Israel lobby J Street (which I profiled last week), conducted by Democratic pollster Jim Gerstein (whom I have also profiled), far fewer Jews voted for various Democrats this year than voted for President Barack Obama in 2008—only 66 percent, to be precise, down from about 78 percent. Given the national outpouring of anti-incumbent (and anti-Democratic) feeling this year, this disparity is hardly surprising—and, given that only 21 percent of respondents indicated a favorable feeling toward the Republican Party, it is hardly indicative of a deep realignment in the American Jewish electorate. (Although 19 percent of polled American Jews looked favorably on the Tea Party, and 16 percent reported warm feelings towards Sarah Palin.)
So, how did J Street do? Well, all three of the Senate candidates it endorsed—all of whom went into Tuesday with the odds against them—lost, though Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pennsylvania) ran a tighter race than expected. On the House side, where J Street endorsed 58 candidates (all Democrats), 11 lost, all in races projected to be tight.
In other words, J Street showed that its money—$1.5 million raised this cycle through its PAC—isn’t toxic, as its opponents sometimes suggest. “There is political support for politicians who take pro-Israel, pro-peace views,” J Street head Jeremy Ben-Ami said on a conference call earlier today. “They will win, and they will win with the support of Jewish voters.”
However, J Street’s own polling data also shows, and has repeatedly shown over the past two years, that only a tiny number of American Jews—seven percent, according to this latest data—rank Israel among even their top two concerns when they go to vote; the most frequent top two concerns are the economy and health care. Sure, 83 percent said they support the United States playing an active role in helping resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, and a solid majority of those support putting pressure on the Israelis to reach a deal; sure, Prime Minister Netanyahu received a lower favorability rating (49 percent) than Obama (51). But it is not the issue most of them are voting on.
Maybe just as problematically, the survey respondents were overwhelmingly unaffiliated as Jews: Fewer than half belong to a synagogue, participate in Jewish community organizations, or give money to Jewish charities; two-thirds have never been to Israel, and almost as many don’t discuss Israel with friends or family more than a few times a year (eight percent said they never talk about it).
Come January, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida), a Cuban-American who has been a staunch hardliner on Israel, will take over as chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee; it’s hard to imagine her playing nice with members who sign on to J Street’s letters, let alone insert provisions urging pressure on the Israelis to settle with the Palestinians into foreign-aid bills. It’s harder still to imagine members of the new GOP caucus who will be willing to side with the group, which just before the election lost the support of its only Republican endorsee, Rep. Charles Boustany, a Lebanese-American Christian who ran unopposed in Louisiana. Finally, it’s not clear whether the Obama administration, beset with a host of pressing concerns heading into the 2012 campaign, will have the bandwidth to wade much deeper into the donnybrook of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
As I reported last week, J Street has an identifiable base of support among wealthy, liberal Jewish donors, many of whom are seasoned Democratic operatives with significant pull in the party. But the question remains: Can J Street mobilize the unaffiliated Jews into a real peace movement? Or will the much-touted J Street majority choose to remain silent?
How Did J Street Fare In the 2010 Midterm Elections? [The Jewish Channel]
Related: Heads Up [Tablet Magazine]
The Pulse-Taker [Tablet Magazine]
Why Are Jews Liberals? [Tablet Magazine]