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Exile and the Prophetic: Obama’s (and our) Jewish politics

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This post is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.

During the Presidential election some wondered about the Jewish vote and whether it would continue to be overwhelmingly Democratic. One pundit argued that the idea of a Jewish vote is a myth.

There was Jewish money galore in the campaign, most notably on the Republican side. President Obama’s testy relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu was highlighted. Would this muddy the electoral waters send Jews, Mitt Romney’s way?

Jewish voting patterns are only part of the political story. Despite the Jewish Republican billionaires, Jews heavily fund Democratic Party politics. As important, Jews historically set the tone for Democratic and progressive policy discussions.

Jews are known for not voting their pocketbooks. Translated, this means that Jews remain Democrats though their financial and class status suggests a Republican orientation. So it is typically analyzed. Indeed, Jews have been influenced by the Jewish tradition’s emphasis on ethics and social justice. But if you look at Jewish support for progressive policies and government largesse in those pursuits, both have historically been good for Jews. The long and the short of it – this applies to the Civil Rights movement in particular and the pursuit of an open and inclusive society in general – the desire for social justice and self-interest has guided Jewish involvement in American politics.

Self-interest is confirmed by the opposite trend: When Israel is challenged Jews threaten to pick up their ball and choose another party. First, of course, the party of choice, the Democratic Party, is cautioned. Come back to bedrock Israel support and all will be forgiven. Not only will all be forgiven, Jewish support for liberal issues will continue unabated. This is another veiled threat. If support for Israel is withdrawn, Jews will withdraw their support from other liberal agendas.

Take Gay rights. Though there are straight and Gay activists that see the broader spectrum of justice issues to include Israel/Palestine, most are naturally focused on their main issue. If the choice is to keep to the broader spectrum and jeopardize your main issue, which one do you choose? This is true with feminist issues as well.

Not only can the support of influential Jewish supporters be lost, those critical of Israeli policies can also be branded as outside the mainstream of the issue focused on. The question isn’t only finding other supporters when some Jews drop out. The reputation of the critical thinker is at jeopardy within his own issue.

Being seen as ‘anti-Israel’ carries a double risk. On the one hand, those so branded can lose some of their most enthusiastic supporters and funders. On the other, one’s work can be so severely challenged that you become a liability to others within your primary issue.

So the Jewish vote is more complicated than usually thought. Has it become less or more so over the years? My sense is that though a good percentage of Jews have changed their perspective on Israel/Palestine over the years, most of the changed are already marginalized within mainstream politics for reasons other than Israel/Palestine. The choice presented for those outside the political mainstream is remaining on the margins or reappearing in the mainstream part-time – with a silence on the issue of Israel/Palestine.

Call the latter the Obama/Hillary option. That is, if things don’t change soon. There is talk of an Obama ‘get tough on Netanyahu/Israel turn’ since Obama is free of reelection worries. But how far can Obama go without jeopardizing his power within the party itself? Remember, as well, that Obama’s second term effectiveness time frame is two years or less before he assumes lame duck status.

What Obama will do with his life after his second term is fascinating to contemplate. If Obama goes the way of Carter, he may end up as the political pariah, Carter has become. The alternative is to go the way of Clinton and bask in a political afterlife that is financially remunerative and egoistically gratifying. One wonders, though, about Obama’s post-Presidency options. Either because of his natural distaste for retail politics and/or his Blackness, Obama may simply fade away.

Activists on Israel/Palestine have to go with the possibility that Obama will get tough with Israel soon. Yet what does ‘getting tough with Israel’ mean in the American political lexicon?

When justice in America is the issue by and large the Jewish community has been there and done that.

When justice in Israel/Palestine is the issue by and large the Jewish community hasn’t been there and hasn’t done that.

Getting behind any Obama initiative on Israel will mean dropping Palestine – at least as Palestine is increasingly thought of on the Left, Jewish and otherwise. It means considerably narrowing the vision of what has to occur if Palestinians are to be free. It means keeping silent on the history that befell Palestinians. It means favoring a two-state solution that isn’t two real states. It means jumping on the J Street bandwagon.

Any volunteers?

So President Obama’s second term (Jewish) politics is complex. He has to deal with the Jewish vote in the broadest sense of the term. At least, the Jewish vote that registers on the Democratic Party’s radar screen. But, then, (Jewish) politics on the Left, doesn’t register at all.

Jews of Conscience are off the (Jewish) politics radar screen. So what’s a Jew of Conscience to do?

Marc H. Ellis
About Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is Professor of History and Jewish Studies and Director of the Center for the Study of the Global Prophetic. His latest book is Finding Our Voice: Embodying the Prophetic and Other Misadventures.

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14 Responses

  1. Betsy
    November 9, 2012, 11:25 am

    perhaps could work to build electoral muscle of people of conscience from many faiths — in collaborative alliances that reclaim public voice & witness? There are good new collaborations emerging between mainline Christianity & ‘Jews of Conscience’ (for a recent Presbyterian take on this, see last paragraph of today’s press release If can strengthen alliances w/ other faiths (Islam, Hindu, etc.) emerging in new multicultural America — this could add up to a big chunk of the electorate. There once was a time when social justice faith blocs were very powerful in US politics (e.g., the 19th c. social gospel coalitions). But, the voices of mainline Christianity were marginalized by the Far Right grabbing of public space in 1970s & 80s — which redefined what “Christianity” meant in public life. But, why not work to get it back — by building more effective public alliances & working with progressive politicians (& many progressive politicians actually draw on their faith backgrounds — e.g., Eliz Warren, Ted Strickland, Jimmy Carter — plus remember Paul Wellstone). This is doable w/ some of the terrific new progressive politicians.

    I’m not sure that ‘pariah’ is the right label for Jimmy Carter. He is widely respected by the American people as a moral figure (and Gallup found 3 years ago that 64% approved his presidency retrospectively It’s a narrow slice of the elite who are marginalizing him. Let’s ignore them & go to the American people directly!

  2. LeaNder
    November 9, 2012, 11:36 am

    The alternative is to go the way of Clinton and bask in a political afterlife that is financially remunerative and egoistically gratifying.

    very good article, Mark, if I may, besides I am lately pondering how I should call it, article, series of reflections, anything else?

    This is a random pick, since we are on MW. And as I understand it, our dear host Phil, once clashed or was crunched between folk’s feeling out there and US mainstream’s take or media power. Long before he got interested in what we all more or less noticed, the prominent Jewish voices and their hero worship of George W. Bush in the neocon media during the run up to the Iraq war. Phil’s little excursion in the larger Clinton universe was interesting only if you look at the aftermath, Clinton the lover of female groupies, or what was it he exactly? Why should it be interesting? Were his hunters really concerned about the decency of their public leader or did they want to exploit it for their own advantage and a GOP agenda?

    Which strictly leads us to Obama. Hard to believe he will disintegrate into oblivion. Over here the tale has been during the for me long election night, that he is ultimately a family man. His wife is the ultimate leader. In a nutshell: Obama the withdrawn, Michelle the ultimately outgoing, the leader. To what extend was this produced by the necessary presence of the wifes? Stereotypes, realities, a strong man always has a strong wife backing him? The average German does not know much about Merkel’s husband. Last I knew or read he was a prof in the States. But strictly I wouldn’t have learned from the usual media reports about Merkel. Concerning publicity he is absent.

    To leave out many, many more things that this brought up in my mind.

  3. Citizen
    November 9, 2012, 11:40 am

    That’s why Bibi is not worried about Obama; sure it would be easier with Mitt at the helm since Mitt already said he’d defer to Israel on anything Israel decides to do, no matter how it will very likely negatively impact the USA for many years to come, but Bibi knows he has the US Congress, 100 senators for his tiny state the size of NJ, and that the US House is his too, with only a handful of dissenters. And, didn’t we all see on prime time TV what happened when Jerusalem’s status was addressed by Amendment of Democratic Platform at the DNC?

    Obama wants to leave a great legacy, but first, he wants to have fun (girls just wanna have fun); he knows he will get nowhere by stressing America First and World First rather than Israel First. As to his post-POTUS career, I’m sure he’d rather be lovable (“it all depends on what is, is” and “doncha just love how we got rid of Glass Steagal?)Bill than earnest (anti-apartheid, free home building) Jimmy Carter. Obama is no Lincoln.

  4. Citizen
    November 9, 2012, 12:20 pm

    @ Betsy
    I don’t think most Americans have ever had a grasp of Carter; he is routinely disparaged in the media, when he is mentioned at all. I’d say for every one thousand mentions of Clinton or Regan, Carter gets one-and its always negative. If Carter is known at all to Dick and Jane, it’s for Habitat For Humanity, and Peace Not Apartheid. In fact he made the 30 year peace between Israel and Egypt, within which not the Egyptians but the Israelis benefited for that long time, but he never gets credit. Who has in fact done more to secure Israel than Carter? Yet he is known in the chatting class for being anti-Israel. So, there you go. It’s beyond me how this actual carpenter for Humanity has earned his weak reputation among Christian political pundits and Christians generally. Because of the likes of Krauthammer and Hagee? Bill Krystol? What does the alter boy, Chris Matthews say? What’s the MW take?

  5. clubroma
    November 10, 2012, 5:49 am

    I agree with your general ‘take’ on Carter’s legacy, but your blog points to a major problem in the Palestine/Isreal issue. The media coverage !!! More specifically, the Western media coverge. When they write up the history of the Palestinian/Isreal conflict, the role of the Western media will receive a whole chapter. For the last 40 -50 years, the Western media has appeased the State of Isreal. I’m sure that if most people in the West knew what was happening in the West Bank and Gaza they would be horrified. I emphasise the Western media because ,what a lot of people don’t realalise is that in the Muslim world, Indonisea, Malaysia, Pakistan etc. etc. , they know exactly what’s been going on in the West Bank and Gaza. The main stream media in the muslim world informs them of the situation. And they’ve known it for the last 40 -50 years .
    Citizen, you have to ask yourself 2 questions, knowing that , for the last 40-50 years, the Muslim world has known about the daily abuse, humiliation, degredation of the Palestinian people.
    Q 1; What are the reasons for the increase in Islamic extremism, in the last 40 -50 years?
    Q 2; Why does the Muslim world hate the West?
    The answer to both questions is Isreal, but the part played by the Wetern media has effectively changed the course of history.
    Its a disgrace to humanity.

    • Citizen
      November 10, 2012, 8:12 am

      @ clubroma
      I agree with you completely. The US “Fourth Estate” aka “Fourth Branch of US” system of checks and balance government, has been AWOL, for a long, long time when it comes to anything Israel. Most Americans have no clue just how “special” the US government’s relationship with Israel actually is. The cover up by the Johnson regime of the ’67 attack on the USS Liberty, the fact that the press has never called for a full congressional investigation, is a big marker, and so is its complicity in Bush Jr’s attack on Iraq. Now, Americans are not being given an objective view of Iran and Syria, and most have no clue Israel has been grabbing land since ’67. It’s a disgrace to humanity, and yet most Americans have never heard of blogs, such as this one, or, IfAmericansOnlyKnew… but our girls know a good handbag or pair of shoes, and our guys know the ball scores.

  6. Citizen
    November 10, 2012, 6:08 am

    MW readers may wish to read the detailed survey of Jewish voters produced by J Street:

    Note the responses going to choice of a 2-state solution (with rump demilitarized P-state & settlements mainly staying, with land swaps elsewhere for the natives), Bill Clinton as broker, and unease at US government being publicly critical of Israel even if warranted. And note there is no question concerning the ever-expanding settlements

  7. Citizen
    November 10, 2012, 10:00 am

    As you all no doubt know, Petraeus, is being replaced (after first telling congress our unbalanced special relationship with Israel threatens US boots on the ground across the ME, then accidentally releasing his own email which shows how he was sucking up to Israel Firsters), so I thought you might like to know Obama is considering an arch Israel Firster, Jane Harmon, to replace him:

    “Obama, who accepted Petraeus’ resignation in a phone call with him Friday afternoon, said that Michael Morell, the agency’s long-time deputy director, would serve as acting CIA chief.
    Morell, who is well respected at both the White House and on Capitol Hill, had previously served as acting director following the departure of former CIA chief Leon Panetta.
    He is a leading candidate to be Petraeus’ permanent successor, sources said. Other possible candidates being discussed on Capitol Hill include John Brennan, Obama’s chief counter-terrorism adviser; Obama national security adviser Thomas Donilon; and former congresswoman Jane Harman, who chaired the House intelligence committee.”

  8. Citizen
    November 10, 2012, 10:05 am
  9. Citizen
    November 10, 2012, 10:35 am

    Our beacon, the NYT, does not like Palestinian self-determination:

  10. brwencino
    November 10, 2012, 11:30 am

    I would like to see the so-called “Jewish vote” analyzed differently. J Street brags that 70% of US Jews voted for Obama, but the fact that 85% of US citizen Jews who live in Israel voted for Romney leads me to suspect the 70% claim. I would like to see the US vote broken down into two categories: 1. Those Jews who belong to a religious or any other Jewish organization (including so called liberal ones) and 2. Those persons who are usually identified as Jews because of heritage, but belong to no Jewish organization, religious or otherwise. I think you would find that a majority of those in group 1 voted for Romney, not Obama and those in group 2 voted overwhelmingly for Obama. Just a thought.

  11. Mooser
    November 10, 2012, 12:28 pm

    “are usually identified as Jews”

    I don’t mean to be picky, but I would like to point out that in America nobody is “identified as Jews”. People may, if they like identify themselves as belonging to or believing in their choice of religions, or identify with certain culture.
    And you can be a Jew on Saturday and a Christian on Sunday, if you like, nobody checks.

    • Citizen
      November 11, 2012, 1:19 pm

      Gee, Mooser, not even Bernie Madoff, Joe Lieberman, or Pollard? S Adelson? What’s your logic and/or experience: Nobody in America is identified as Christian? Not even Pat Boone? Hagee? Huckabee?

  12. piotr
    November 10, 2012, 2:49 pm

    brwencino: it is clear that the decision to emigrate to Israel has a strong relationship or correlation with the ideology of a person. I guess it is beyond dispute that a large majority of Jews self-identified in exit polls voted for Obama. Note also last minute endorsement of Obama by leading Jewish public figures, notably including Dershovitz and Edward Koch, both very zealous Zionist, both with history of attacking Democratic politicians and insufficiently supportive of Israel.

    I a nutshell, they decided to maintain credibility in USA. It is nice of Adelson to be ideologically consistent by hating unions, not giving a damn about social issues and demanding the level of support for Israel that is sheer nuttiness. But it is not even the position of the majority of rich Jews, and much less so of the middle class American Jews. Adelson, by the way, becomes a laughing stock, a stock sterotypical figure of a billionaire wasting his money — in mainstream journalism.

    Of course, it is a fact that most of American Jews are not religious, but it is a bit complicated here. For example, it is easier to be elected as an openly gay person than as openly atheist person. I have no idea if most of Reform Jews are really believing in the reform theology of Judaism, or just pick a denomination because it is nicer to have a denomination in USA. The thing remains that Republicans scare big majorities of non-religious and “Other” religions, and Other races and so on.

    Among strictly observant Jews in USA, I suspect a larger percentage (than in Israel) of those who are outright anti-Zionist, and those who are simply indifferent to the Jewish state.

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