Analysis: Israelis, American Jews watch Romney trip from different perspectives

Republicans target Jewish voters
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Story highlights

  • Romney's trip to Israel may help him win support in battleground states
  • Jews make up about 2% of the U.S. population but about 4% of the U.S. electorate
  • "Jews are news," and the battle for the Jewish vote is widely publicized, an expert says
  • Only with deep dissatisfaction will Jews buck Democrats and vote Republican, expert says

All politics is local, the Massachusetts sage Tip O'Neill was known to say, an adage that applies to Mitt Romney's trip to Israel.

The presumptive Republican nominee for president of the United States included the so-called Holy Land in his itinerary for secular purposes, seeking support in precincts with concentrations of Jewish voters, including those in so-called battleground states, such as Palm Beach and Broward counties in Florida, Clark County, Nevada, and Cuyahoga County, Ohio.

"...Jews have devoted themselves to politics with almost religious fervor," Mitchell Bard, director of the Jewish Virtual Library, has written.

The math behind Bard's observation: Jews make up about 2% of the U.S. population but about 4% of the U.S. electorate, with turnout in presidential elections estimated to be as high as 80% among eligible voters, compared with the 57% of all eligible voters in the 2008 election.

Israel re-enters focus ahead of Romney trip

Romney's trip may have the added benefit of shoring up support among evangelicals, whose biblical faith is the foundation of their support of modern Israel; many of whom expressed wariness about Romney, a Mormon, during the primary season.

President Barack Obama has not visited Israel since taking office (and is not alone in this distinction) but did during the 2008 campaign, meeting (as will Romney) with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli officials as well as leaders of the Palestinian Authority. Obama also visited Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial and museum in Jerusalem, and traveled to Sderot, a town in southern Israel that had suffered from missiles fired from inside the nearby Gaza Strip.

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Shmuel Rosner's review in the Jewish Journal of the ebb and flow of Jewish political leanings and their potential to shape the 2012 race is worth reading.

"Here is a truism we all already know: Jews are news. The fact is, no matter how tiny the American Jewish community might be -- between 1.5 and 2 percent of the population -- the battle for Jewish votes will be extensively reported and analyzed," Rosner wrote in a Jewish Journal article titled "So, how many Jews will vote for Mitt Romney?"

Reviewing a study by The Solomon Project of voting trends since 1972, Chemi Shalev wrote in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz: "Only deep Jewish disaffection with President Barack Obama and a dramatic shift in the general political beliefs of American Jews will buck the historical trend and yield the kind of swing in American Jewish voting patterns that Republicans are hoping for in the upcoming November 2012 elections."

In a piece of understatement, Chris Collison of Jewish News One, observed, "Obama has had a fickle relationship with Jewish voters since 2008" when he received roughly three out of every four Jewish votes.

Polls this year have put Obama's support among Jewish voters at a shade more than 60%. Only once since 1928 (Jimmy Carter in 1980) has estimated Jewish support for a Democratic presidential candidate dropped below 50%.

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Israel, itself three-quarters Jewish, is home to about 42% of the world's Jews, while the estimated nearly 6.6 million Jews living in the U.S. comprise about 39% of the total. It is fair to say -- and controversial -- that Israel counts on the contribution that American Jews make to ensure U.S. government political and financial support.

While some surveys have found Israel not at the top of a list of issues that sway the votes of American Jews, the response to matters affecting Israel can be -- as comments on online articles indicate -- visceral.

The relationship between American Jews and Israelis is not without its divisions. In a poll conducted May 28-June 1 for the Anti-Defamation League, 60% of 540 adult Jewish Israelis surveyed believed that American Jews continue to feel close to Israel (up from 45% in 2009), while 26% feared a drift away from Israel.

"The bedrock of the U.S.-Israel relationship is found in the people of Israel and the people of the United States. Poll after poll shows broad support for Israel among Americans and that Israelis just as broadly support America," said Abraham H. Foxman, ADL National Director. "That mutual reinforcement, based on shared values and interests, explains the historic and lasting alliance between the two countries."

"I also found the fact that 90 percent of Israelis believed that in an existential moment, the United States will be with Israel -- and we're talking about the president being either Obama or someone else -- evidence that attitudes have changed for the better."

In May, Israel's ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, spoke about differences in perspective that divide American Jews and Israelis.

"Sometimes it seems that we -- Israelis and American Jews -- not only inhabit different countries but different universes, different realities," Oren told an American Jewish Committee gathering in Washington of young supporters from around the world.

"Ironically, at a time when support for Israel in this country is at a near all-time high -- indeed it's one of the few truly bipartisan issues -- we Jews seem increasingly divided," Oren said. "Let me be clear: At stake is not merely Israel's policies or rights of American Jews to criticize them. At stake is nothing less than the unity of a Jewish people."

While most estimates are than only 20%-35% of American Jews have traveled to Israel, in a recent survey of more than 1,000 American Jews by the American Jewish Committee 41% said they had visited.

"That a majority of American Jews have never been to Israel, and that those who have are, for the most part, infrequent visitors, is an old and sad story," the AJC's media director, Kenneth Bandler, wrote in The Jerusalem Post.

That American Jews are not shy about offering opinions on what Israel should do vis a vis this or that tends to annoy Israelis who say, "We live here, we take the risks, we made the commitment, so please, regardless of whether you visit or whether you send a check, visit, don't presume to tell us how to live." In that ADL poll, 61% of Israelis say that American Jews have a right to freely and publicly criticize Israel and Israeli policies under some or all circumstances, while 36% say they do not.

Wolf Blitzer to interview Mitt Romney in Jerusalem

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert displayed this reaction before an audience of American Jews when, as The New York Times reported, he was booed when he suggested that military action against Iran be a response of last resort.

"As a concerned Israeli citizen who lives in the state of Israel with his family and all of his children and grandchildren. I love very much the courage of those who live 10,000 miles away from the state of Israel and are ready that we will make every possible mistake that will cost lives of Israelis," he chided.

Differences between American Jews and Israeli Jews may not be limited to geography, but famed Israeli author A.B. Yehoshua seemed to suggest that geography plays a role.

"They are partial Jews while I am a complete Jew," Yehoshua said during a lecture on relations between Israel and Diaspora Jews, referring to American Jewry, according to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. "In no way are we the same thing - we are total and they are partial; we are Israeli and also Jewish," he said.

Opinion: Will Israel trip help Romney?

Writing in the Jewish newspaper The Forward, Leonard Fein offered this explanation for Yehoshua's viewpoint: "For Yehoshua does not rely on the more conventional argument, the one that holds that it is only they who dwell in Israel who face life and death choices, that the rest of us cannot be more than sideline kibitzers; he is saying that we are Jewishly flawed -- indeed, he later implies, deeply morally flawed -- by virtue of our refusal to live where Jews are meant to live."

Fein offered a measured rebuttal: "As offensive and inappropriate as those of us here in America for whom being Jewish is central, not peripheral, may find the word "partial," the real issue is Yehoshua's utter disrespect for America's Jews, a disrespect born, I believe, out of misunderstanding. Specifically, he fails to understand that Israel's Jews and America's are, each of us, full-fledged participants in very different cultures."

Though they are "full-fledged participants in very different cultures," with "values and interests" not always in synch, American Jews and Israelis will pay the same pay close attention to Romney's visit to Israel.

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