Despite a targeted anti-Obama campaign directed at Jewish Americans by right-wingers, using racism, anti-Muslim slurs and lies about Obama’s character and political stances, Jewish Americans voted overwhelmingly for Obama last month, giving him 78 percent of their votes. Jewish support for Obama nationally was second only to that of African Americans among the various sectors of the U.S. population, and showed Jewish Americans are a solid stream in the multiethnic, multiracial movement for progressive change.
Figures from the National Jewish Democratic Council show Obama’s support among Jewish voters exceeded John Kerry’s 74 percent and was on a par with the 79 percent for Al Gore in 2000 and Bill Clinton’s 80 percent in 1992, and in general far exceeded Jewish support for Democratic presidential candidates in the 1970s and ’80s.
In Florida, where Jews are a significant section of the electorate, the NJDC estimates that the Jewish voting margin for Obama was larger than Obama’s overall margin of victory in the state. Other states where the Jewish margin was a sizeable chunk of Obama’s overall margin are North Carolina, New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, California and Nevada. Thus Jewish voters were in sync with African Americans, Latinos, women, union voters, the GLBT community and young voters, who also made the difference for Obama in these and other states.
Despite all the anti-Obama deceptions and smears promoted by the Republican Jewish Coalition in full-page ads in the Jewish press and in e-mails and whispering campaigns, Jewish voters were simply not swayed by the slime and slander. Dire innuendoes of Muslim associations and Iranian nuclear threats failed to impact Jewish voters fed up with Bush’s policies and confronting the same realities that faced every voter: the economy, jobs, endless war, health care, education, the environment.
In addition, McCain’s choice of running mate Sarah Palin and the revving up of the religious far-right was surely a turnoff to the majority of Jewish Americans. All one had to consider were such issues as separation of church and state — an issue of deep importance to Jews — or Supreme Court appointments, or reproductive rights, and the Jewish vote was lost right there.
And many Jews had more confidence that Obama rather than McCain would prevent war between Israel and Iran. Obama throughout the campaign argued for diplomacy, and while expressing support for Israel also said on a number of occasions that being pro-Israel did not necessarily mean supporting the right-wing Israeli Likud party. These positions, rather than McCain’s militarism, coincided with the majority sentiment among Jewish Americans, as shown by polls, for peace and a just two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem.
The election campaign gave rise to the formation of several Jewish groups for Obama that played a significant role. They included such groups as Jews for Obama; Rabbis for Obama, with several hundred rabbis signed up; and the Great Schlep, a campaign sparked by humorist Sarah Silverman urging Jewish young people to travel to Florida to visit their grandparents there and talk to them about Obama, which generated visits, phone calls and e-mails, and much publicity. A number of powerful videos aimed at Jewish voters got wide circulation, including several featuring well-known Jewish Hollywood personalities and one showing Israeli Obama supporters. Another featured seniors in Florida, including Holocaust survivors, volunteering for Obama, and hearkened back to the historic Jewish/African American alliance for civil rights and labor rights.
Jewish participation in the Obama campaign took many forms, including phone banking, travel to battleground states (in New York the United Federation of Teachers, with a large Jewish membership, sent busloads of volunteers to Pennsylvania), chain e-mails and pro-Obama ads in Jewish newspapers in major cities.
In addition, a new Jewish lobbying group was formed last year — J Street — focused on pressing for action on a two-state solution, a kind of anti-AIPAC.
J Street backed 41 candidates for Congress, of whom 33 won, including several in very tight races. These candidates all support proactive measures toward achieving a just two-state solution in Israel/Palestine. Indeed, the day after the election, J Street ran a full-page ad in The New York Times calling for speedy appointment of a high-level special envoy to achieve an Israel-Palestine agreement.
Right-wing groups within the Jewish community have worked for years to represent themselves as speaking for all Jewish Americans, and have sought to intimidate those who dissented, particularly on U.S. policy on the Israel/Palestinian crisis. But the election results and other developments over the past months show that these right-wing elements may be losing some of their clout. Jewish Americans are not one-issue voters, and concern for social and economic justice, racial and ethnic equality and inclusiveness, civil liberties, democracy, separation of church and state, peace and internationalism — major themes in the Jewish historical tradition — came to the fore in this presidential election.
The election results indicate the prospects are good for a continued resurgence of the majority progressive trend among Jewish Americans and for their participation in renewed and widened alliances to help advance a progressive agenda under the new Obama administration.
Ari Goldman is active in the progressive Jewish American movement.