Israel Must Not be a Wedge Issue

The statistics are in.  It seems that American Jews voted 69% for President Obama in the recent election.  This represented a five percent decrease from 2008.  However, historically this is pretty much in line with the recent historical averages concerning Jewish support for Democratic Presidential candidates.

When looking at the 2012 results, I believe that there were two possible reasons for the 5% decrease.  The first is that in 2008, American Jews were really “put off” by John McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin as his running mate.  Palin’s lack of understanding of international affairs was indeed appalling and the fact that she would have been one heartbeat away from the presidency and that heartbeat was of a seventy two year old man who had had two heart attacks, made American Jews wonder about the judgment of John McCain.

The second possible reason for the decrease was that the Republican efforts to paint President Obama as being non-supportive of Israel apparently had some traction.

The facts on the ground, however, concerning Obama’s support for Israel did not convince most American Jews that the president was not a strong supporter of Israel.  President Obama’s administration had a stellar record on increasing military aid to and cooperation with Israel. The President’s speech at the United Nations when the Palestinian Authority was pursuing recognition of statehood was the most pro-Israel speech by an American president at the United Nations ever. The efforts by the current administration concerning tough Iranian sanctions were greater than those of the previous administration.

The support for the president by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak as well as the endorsement of the president by the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz were significant in this regard.  In addition, influential leaders of the American Jewish community such as Edgar Bronfman, the former president of the World Jewish Congress, Professor Alan Dershowitz of the Harvard Law School, former Ambassador Dennis Ross and Kathy Manning the chair of the Board of Trustees of The Jewish Federations of North America helped to reassure American Jews of Obama’s support for Israel. Finally, there were more than 600 rabbis, most of them Reform and Conservative, who signed on in support of “Rabbis for Obama.”

However in light of the above, there were certain things which were of concerning the US-Israel relationship during the past four years.  First and foremost among these was the perception of tension between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu. In the spring of 2011, President Obama gave a major speech on the Middle East the night before he was to meet in Washington with the Prime Minister. This certainly was a strong arm tactic by the president as was one which was not appreciated by Israel and its supporters.  In most cases, such statements occur only after meeting between heads of state and certainly not the night before!

The debacle over the issue of Jerusalem during the Democratic National Convention was also of great concern to Israel’s supporters in both parties and shows that there is considerable work to be done within the Democratic Party in terms of maintaining its support for Israel.

Sadly, the Israeli Prime Minister deserves a fair share of the blame for this tension.  The announcement of new construction in Jerusalem while Vice President Biden was in that city was certainly an embarrassment.  A year ago, I was told that American Jewish leaders at the highest levels had warned the Prime Minister not to get involved in the US presidential election.  Netanyahu was told that Obama would probably be reelected and that a perception of political support for his friend Governor Romney could really backfire. Netanyahu ignored this advice.  This fall prior to his coming to the US to speak at the United Nations, leaders with the American Jewish community warned the prime minister to “tone it down” and avoid being perceived as being as a partisan supporter of Governor Romney.  This time, Bibi followed their advice, but much of the damage had already been done.   I can only hope that the lesson has been learned and that in the future, barring of course irrefutable evidence that an American President is indeed anti-Israel, the Israeli political establishment will avoid involving itself in American elections.

During the election, there were numerous highly partisan articles by Jewish political pundits on both sides.   While nothing can be done to stop such articles, I believe that making Israel into a political wedge issue by either political party is not in the best interests if Israel and its security and does not serve the interests of the American Jewish community.

Making Israel into a “wedge” issue for partisan advantage is a serious mistake.  God forbid that there really was a candidate who really is not a supporter of Israel and her security.  It is very dangerous to use Israel as a grossly partisan political tool.  It is my hope that in the future those in the Jewish community, whether they be Democrats or Republicans, will refrain from unwarranted and highly partisan attacks on candidates because of perceived or made-up issues regarding Israel.  Again, such attacks do not serve the legitimate and long term interests of Israel and her security.

Frankly, the support for Israel among both Democrats and Republicans is deep and is one of the few things upon which they agree.  In my lifetime, every President, Democrat and Republican has during his term of office been a good friend of Israel.

Israel needs all the friends in Congress it can get.  Occasionally, there is a congressman or a senator who is indeed anti-Israel, but thank God that these seem to be few and far between.   No matter who wins presidential elections, Israel will always need friends in the White House and in Congress.

Rabbi Fred Guttman is a member of the Commission on Social Action and is the senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Greensboro, NC.