“You called me to be menachem avel [comforting a mourner]?”
Such was the way Jeff Wiesenfeld, a Republican insider, answered the phone on the day after the elections.
The percentage of the Jewish vote went 69-30 for President Barack Obama, according to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. That left almost a third of Jewish voters wrestling with postmortems and what-could-have-been’s.
Wiesenfeld, a former aide to Gov. George Pataki, Sen. Al D’Amato and Mayor Ed Koch, said, “If we were a normal group of people we would reward our friends and punish our enemies. But we didn’t punish Obama, or the booing that you heard at the Democratic convention.”
He was referring to an initial voice vote reacting to the proposed plank to restore support for Jerusalem as Israel’s capital; the plank passed according to what many felt was a generous decision by the convention’s chair. At that moment, it was clear to Wiesenfeld that he was someone else’s enemy. “Those boos,” he said, “weren’t for Jerusalem. Those boos were for Israel. Those boos were for you. Those boos were for the Jews.”
Fred Zeidman, a major financial supporter of Romney, and a vice chair of the Republican Jewish Coalition, took solace in that “the Republican Jewish vote was up significantly, and I’ll bet a lot of that was a fear for Israel’s security and future.”
Nevertheless, he understood that fears for Israel were pretty much negated for many Jewish voters when Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and prominent Israel supporters such as Alan Dershowitz and Koch, vouched for Obama’s credentials as a reliable friend of Israel. “All the Democrats needed was someone, such as Barak, telling them [Obama] was all right. That’s where we lost it.”
The Orthodox vote, presumed to be the most passionate about Israel, hardly was as lopsided as the passions would have you believe. In New Jersey, according to figures from the Orthodox Union, Teaneck’s core Modern Orthodox neighborhood (including synagogues Beth Aaron, Bnei Yeshurun, Keter Torah and Rinat Yisrael, went for Romney 52-47 percent, after going 47 percent for George W. Bush in 2004 and 49 percent for John McCain.
Wickliffe, Ohio, home neighborhood to the Telshe Yeshiva, a nationally known Agudah institution, went for Romney 55-42 percent, down from the 59 percent that supported McCain.
In Beachwood, Ohio, a heavily Orthodox suburb, Obama actually won, 65-34 percent.
(The Teaneck, Beachwood and Wickliffe results include non-Orthodox voters, but are seen as bellweather precincts by the OU because they contain very high concentrations of Orthodox voters.)
Jonathan Tobin, senior online editor of Commentary, told The Jewish Week, “It would be unfair to say that the Republicans didn’t make any progress. They clearly did and devoted a lot of effort to it. It should be acknowledged that getting to 30-32 percent from 22 percent is significant, and a reflection of Obama’s clear animus for the Israeli government.
“However, for over 30 years, Republicans have been pining for another Ronald Reagan,” who got 39 percent of the Jewish vote in 1980. “But they’re looking through the wrong end of the telescope. What they needed [as an opponent] was another Jimmy Carter, and in Obama they had someone as close to Jimmy Carter as they are ever likely to get, and still barely cracked 30 percent. If that’s the best they can do under largely favorable circumstances, I’m hard-pressed to see how they’re going to better that in 2016 when facing a Democrat who won’t be [as was Obama with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] identified with hostility to whatever Israeli government will then be in office.”
Phil Rosen, a New York attorney and a vice chair of the Republican Jewish Coalition, says, looking back, “Governor Romney is a wonderful person and could [have been] the greatest presidential candidate we’ve ever had.” Rosen says he raised $3 million from the Orthodox community alone, from hundreds of people making relatively small donations, mostly $1,000 to $2,500. “That meant a lot to me. It was a good sign for our community. People in our community cared, and cared enough to put their dollars on the table.”
Rosen, who says, “I sat in on policy meetings, worked hard with foreign policy advisers,” was disappointed in Romney’s reluctance to do battle in the third campaign debate, focusing on foreign policy. “I was very unhappy that [Romney] didn’t hit one out on the Benghazi catastrophe, very unhappy.” And when Obama said he supported Israel, “he got a pass. [Romney] should have listed the many instances in which the president didn’t sufficiently support Israel, if at all and, in fact, put Israel’s existential threats out there. There were many instances in which the president was insufficiently supportive of Israel, if at all.
“On foreign affairs, Romney had the winning hand,” Rosen continued, “but backed out and threw in his chips. That was amazing to me. Whoever is the next nominee needs to know how to fight.”
Steven Bayme, the American Jewish Committee’s director of Jewish communal affairs, said that what we’re clearly witnessing “is an Orthodox exception to the overall patterns of Jewish political behavior” of voting Democrat. “Since the 1972 election, Orthodox Jews have been moving to the right,” the exception being 2000 when Sen. Joseph Lieberman, who is Orthodox, was running for vice president.
However, added Bayme, “with the Orthodox demographic growing, that may mean the Jewish vote will be less predictable. A less predictable Jewish vote is all for the good because it is important that Israel not be perceived as a single-party cause.”
Orthodox Jews are not the only fast-changing demographic. On the flip side, half of all non-Orthodox marriages in recent years have been intermarriages. Whereas 69 percent of Orthodox Jews, according to a recent UJA-Federation of New York population study, feel “very attached” to Israel, as do 50 percent of all in-married Jews, only 17 percent of intermarried Jews feel “very attached” to Israel. They may in fact be less likely to vote with Israel as a major consideration, observers say.
“Intermarriage is where the real distancing is taking place,” said Bayme, “though we can’t say that the distancing is locked in stone; it’s still fluid.”
Whatever the shifting Jewish votes between the parties, what remains a positive factor, Bayme adds, is that “so much of the intellectual discourse in America, so much of the political conversation, is being articulated by committed Jews, in both parties. It’s not so much the number of Jewish votes that’s at stake but the strength of Jewish opinion leadership. There are many Americans, who may not be Jewish or not intensively Jewish but they’re reading and hearing what these people are saying.”
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