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Since the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, American Jews have organized our political activism around advocating for Israel’s survival. For these past seven plus decades, Jewish institutions such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the American Jewish Committee, the Jewish Federations of North America and multiple other groups have sought to define the meaning of support for Israel, and, by extension, to create political backing for that position.
These groups have executed their strategy by organizing members of the Jewish community and the broader American electorate into putting Israel at the top of their agenda for lobbying in Washington, for assessing where to make political contributions, and for pressuring politicians on the question of what it means to be a friend of the Jews.
But a broad shift is underway in how American Jews — and Americans overall — are making their political decisions regarding Israel. And despite the decades-long Israel advocacy effort, the data is clear that, today, American voters place very little value on Israel when making their choices at the polls.
The diminishment of the Israel vote presents an existential challenge to Israel’s allies in this country, and alarm bells should be ringing in the Israel advocacy world. This is the nightmare scenario that American Jewish leaders have been working for more than seven decades to avoid.
A series of recent polls of Jewish voters, active Democrats, and a broad cross-section of American voters concerned about national security bears this out. These polls make it empirically clear that American voters have Israel political fatigue. Israel simply just doesn’t figure into these voters’ political calculations.
The first poll, published in May by the Jewish Electorate Institute, surveyed Jewish voters — Democratic, Republican, and Independent — about their political priorities. Israel ranked 16th out of 16 when these Jewish voters were deciding upon which candidate to support. Combatting anti-Semitism by white supremacists in the U.S. far outpaced Israel as a voting threshold issue, and another domestic issue — protecting Social Security and Medicare — came in first place.
Next, a J Street poll of base Democratic voters who will likely participate in the upcoming presidential primaries showed something similar: less than one in five of these voters said that they followed Israel closely. And when voters were asked about the core Israel advocacy issue of the day — countering the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel — only 9 percent had read more than “a little” about BDS, and less than a quarter supported it. It’s just not an important issue for progressive voters.
Lastly, in a National Security Action poll of likely American voters asked about their views on national security, only 7 percent said that “dealing with Israel/Palestinians” was a priority. That ranked 10th out of 10 issues. And within that, 13 percent of Republicans said it was a priority while only 3 percent of the Democrats did.
What all this means for the upcoming 2020 elections is clear: Israel policy is not a threshold issue for Democratic primary voters; American Jews will not vote for a candidate because of Israel policy; and for Americans who vote based upon concerns about national security, Israel barely registers in importance.
These paltry numbers also represent a notable shift from recent decades. As a child of the 70’s, I grew up in the shadow of the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and remember the “Israel Day” parades that would march through the heart of my Squirrel Hill neighborhood. I remember the appeals made for families to donate money to organizations like the Pittsburgh Jewish Federation and the Jewish National Fund. And I remember the signs we put out in front of our synagogue to “Save Soviet Jewry” from the repressive Soviet Union.
These were the halcyon days of American Jewish political life, where rising up after the Holocaust to build vibrant institutions to aggressively advocate for Israel was the community’s mandate. It goes without saying that American politicians quickly learned that if they wanted American Jewish votes and political money, they would have to adopt the pro-Israel line that our community wanted. It was assumed that American Jews voted based upon Israel. It may or may not have been true back then, but it certainly isn’t true now.
In practice, this fatigue reflects a deep ambivalence and even political anger towards Israel that exists within the Jewish community, most publicly seen in my hometown in 2018 when Israeli rightist politician Naftali Bennett visited Pittsburgh after the Tree of Life massacre and was confronted by Jewish protesters. These protestors rejected his toxic views of Palestinians and overt support for President Trump, whom many identified as a source of inspiration for the white supremacist who shot up the synagogue in the name of both anti-Semitism and hatred of refugees.
This protest was a feature, not a bug, of American Jewish feelings right now towards Israel and it viscerally reflected the moment we are in.
That American voters are in this place represents a strategic failure by Israel advocates to keep Americans and American Jews politically motivated about Israel. And it also means that those most responsible for creating this strategy — American Jewish leaders — have not taken the right steps to fix this crisis. With the 2020 elections just around the corner, there couldn’t be a worse time for Israel advocates to have both American Jews and the broader American electorate tune out.
The gap between institutions promoting Israel and voters can be mended, but a strategic course correction that takes into account what these voters want from Israel is long overdue.
Which brings us back to Tree of Life, the scene of the worst terrorist hate crime against Jews in U.S. history. Just as Tree of Life 40 years ago advanced Jewish issues that mattered most to American Jews at the time — Israel, Soviet Jewry, and recovery from the Holocaust — it now symbolizes the issues that matter most to American Jews today: combatting rising anti-Semitism here at home; supporting diversity and inclusion; and promoting peace. That same Jewish Electoral Institute poll that found Israel ranked 16th out of 16 for American Jews also found that 73 percent of Jewish voters believed they were less secure here at home than they were two years ago, and nearly 60 percent believed the President bore at least some responsibility for the shootings at synagogues in Pittsburgh and Poway, California.
Israel advocacy needs to get its finger back onto the pulse of what both American Jews and the broader American public want from Israel today, including issues such as these. If it doesn’t, the gap between what these voters want and what they’re getting will continue to grow, with political support for Israel falling deeper into that ditch.
Joel Rubin is a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Obama Administration and the President of Washington Strategy Group, a national security and foreign policy advisory firm. He’s also a locally elected Town Council Member in Maryland and can be followed on Twitter @joelmartinrubin.
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