Obama angst spreading, Jewish leadership gap widening
07/02/2009 - 09:59
James Besser
A while back I wrote a story suggesting the Obama administration is highly confident it can push Israel on the issue of Jewish settlements without risking a big political backlash from Jewish voters. That story ignited a flurry of calls and emails from readers disagreeing with me, many from Jewish leadership types, and I had to concede they were right, up to a point: there is a spreading feeling of anxiety about Obama policies in the  circles in which these responders move. But they were also wrong, as far as I can tell, about the Jewish community as a whole.  I've seen no evidence the almost 80 percent support the president received from Jewish voters in November has eroded significantly. That points to the likelihood the always-significant gap between an Israel-focused  Jewish leadership and rank-and-file Jewry is becoming a yawning chasm. If you're an active, involved pro-Israel activist, chances are most of the people you come into contact with are worried about President Obama's stern position on Jewish settlements in the West Bank, either because they have sympathy for settlers or because they hate the idea of new conflict between Washington and Jerusalem, and are inclined to blame Washington every time tension surfaces. But if you're an average Jew on the street, you don't have much contact with Jewish organizations, almost none with Jewish leaders.  If you're a pro-Israel activist, chances are  AIPAC's words are gospel to you; if you're not, it's just another spoonful of alphabet soup. Polls show a diminishing level of involvement with Israel in the Jewish community at large. Jewish voters in general, unlike the nominal leadership of the community, don't put Israel at the top of their list of political priorities, to the exclusion of almost everything else. Israel continues to be a “threshold” issue for many; if a candidate meets minimal standards of support for the Jewish state and doesn't set off any alarm bells with harsh language about Israel or its supporters here,  MOST Jewish voters are inclined to move on to other issues in making their political judgments. It's sort of like the Catholic Church, says Jacques Berlinerblau,  associate Professor and Director of the Program for Jewish Civilization at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University (isn't THAT a mouthful?) .  American Catholics demand respect for their church and for its leaders, even if they pay little attention to their dictates on issues such as birth control and stem cell research.  Politicians can disagree with the church on these issues without incurring widespread Catholic anger, as long as  they do it politely and respectfully. Jewish leaders are right that in their own narrow world, there's a lot of ANGST about where the Obama administration may be heading.  Jewish VOTERS, though, don't seem to be sharing those concerns. We saw a similar gap last fall. If you listened to Jewish leaders and the commentators who listen to THEM, you'd have been absolutely certain Sen. John McCain would shatter modern records for Jewish support for a Republican presidential candidate and that  then-Sen. Barack Obama was heading to an embarrassing defeat among Jewish voters. In Jewish boardrooms and in the conservative press the conventional wisdom said Obama was in deep trouble. You know what happened; on election day,  some 78 percent (and maybe more, according to some analysts) of Jewish voters lined up for Obama. The same gap is evident today.  Jewish leaders see nothing but concern among their colleagues and among the pro-Israel activist core.  But there's no evidence that concern has trickled down to the broader Jewish electorate Also, that broader electorate isn't much interested in or supportive of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and it's probably not overly enamored of Prime Minister Netanyahu. Go through an Orthodox neighborhood in New York, and almost everybody has friends and relatives living in settlements; go to a suburban Reform shul in Chicago, and you'll find few. I remain  convinced Obama administration officials have an unusually sophisticated understanding of these political realities. They realize they can push Israel on settlements pretty hard, as long as they wrap their pressure in strong statements of support for Israel and a vibrant U.S.-Israel relationship, without much risk of a backlash (the Catholic analogy again). They know they have a lot more latitude with Jewish voters than the Jewish leadership claims, but they also know that latitude isn't unlimited. Pushing on settlements is fine, but slamming Israel and its supporters like the first President Bush did could touch off a genuine backlash. So could reaching out too energetically to Hamas without the terror group supporting the conditions laid out by the international community. Georgetown's Jacques Berlinerblau said the administration has been “devastatingly effective” in its outreach to most religious groups – in part because it understands that gap between the leadership and the rank and file. He said the administration uses a system of  “firewalls”  in its dealings with the Jewish community -- “movers and shakers in the Jewish community who are respected and listen to....who provide strategic intelligence for the administration. They have circuit breakers that helps keep public opinion from boiling over.” That, plus insiders with a sophisticated knowledge of Jewish politics – starting with Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel – has kept pro-Israel discontent from moving beyond Jewish leadership circles, he said. “You have a lot of Jewish leaders who are up in arms about administration policy,”  Berlinerblau said. “But it hasn't caught fire among the Jewish laity.” It would be a mistake to think that can't change, he said; the Jewish community is nothing if not volatile when it comes to Israel. But at this stage, there's no indication this remarkably surefooted administration is likely to make THAT mistake.  

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