I think it is the very last thing Barack Obama, Mitt Romney, Joe Biden or Paul Ryan intend. When they do their formulaic shout outs to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and to the State of Israel, I have no doubt that they believe both that it is good politics and that, if anything, they are flattering Jews.
After all, no other foreign country or foreign leader gets anything like this kind of attention during the American election season. Jewish voters must be pleased.And, no doubt, some of them are, especially the organizational leaders who promote the idea that American Jews care about Israel above all other issues. But, as the candidates surely know, Israel is far from the top of Jewish concerns.
According to the American Jewish Committee poll (the annual survey of Jewish attitudes that is respected as the most authoritative survey), just six percent of Jews choose Israel as their number one issue. Twenty-nine percent choose the economy. Twenty percent choose health care. Nine percent National Security. And eight percent choose Social Security. When asked for their top three issues — so that first, second and third choices are put together — 80 percent had the economy in their first three. Fifty-seven percent chose health care. Twenty-six percent choose national security. Twenty-six percent choose taxes and another twenty-six percent choose social security. Twenty-two percent choose U.S.-Israel relations.
What does it mean?
It does not mean American Jews don’t care about Israel. They do and poll after poll shows it (although they disagree as to what the best course for Israel is). But they are Americans before they are anything else. And their top concerns are issues that affect their fellow Americans.
They also believe that both candidates, in fact all the candidates for president since the State of Israel was established, support Israel’s security. There is, then, no reason to vote on the basis of that issue despite the partisan efforts to portray one or another of the candidates as anti-Israel. If, perhaps, there was an anti-Israel candidate, Israel would loom larger as a voting issue. But there isn’t one now and no major candidate has ever nominated one or is likely to do so.
But, listening to the candidates, one would think that Jewish voters (and donors) only care about Israel. I doubt very much that the candidates talk about Israel to please so-called Christian Zionists who are safely in the Republican camp due to issues like marriage equality and abortion. No, the candidates are talking to Jews. And it is insulting.
No other group is appealed to with reference to a foreign country. The candidates don’t fall over themselves praising Ireland, Italy or Poland, to name just three of the countries many voters identify with. They don’t talk about Africa to appeal to African Americans. No, only Jews are addressed as if we are some sort of foreign enclave that happens to live here.
That is wrong and it’s offensive. America is the most secure haven Jews have ever had. It has allowed us something no other diaspora country allowed us: the right to be identified as loyal citizens of the country, not on the basis of our faith or ethnicity. To treat us as something else is deeply offensive to almost all of us. It is certainly no compliment.
So candidates, enough with the shout outs to Bibi. He is not our leader. Today our leader is Barack Obama and, in just four weeks, we will discover if he will continue in that position or be replaced by Mitt Romney.
In any case, it won’t be Netanyahu.