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Jacques Berlinerblau Jacques Berlinerblau is an Associate Professor and Director of the Program for Jewish Civilization at the School of Foreign Service. Berlinerblau has published on a wide variety of issues ranging...

A collaboration with Washingtonpost Newsweek Interactive's On Faith site, The God Vote explores the role of faith in this year's election. It is featured here as well as on Georgetown/On Faith.

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>> more

Jewish Religious Imaging for Sarah Palin?

October 30, 2008

Georgetown University had the pleasure yesterday of hosting a variety of scholars, analysts, and activists at a conference devoted to the Jewish vote and the 2008 election. Many of our guests addressed issues that I have been writing about in this column and I'll discuss some of their views below. But remember that I am refracting their opinions through my own lens (and my lens is darkening at this late hour). So the opinions I attribute to them are, if you will, solely my own:

The Palin Effect: Two of the speakers observed that John McCain's selection of a running mate may have turned away Jewish voters who were once supportive of him. On Wednesday, I pointed out that this apparent "Palin Effect" has occurred despite the fact that the Governor of Alaska has made no egregious errors in her dealings with the Jewish community and has, in many cases, said the right things and cultivated the right relationships.

How might Palin rectify this problem were she to run for president in 2012? Can you say "Jewish religious imaging consultant"? One of the big stories of the 2008 election was the manner in which all the major candidates conscripted professional "Faith and Values gurus" and "religious outreach teams" to advise them on how they could better connect with given constituencies. It is not a coincidence, I think, that Barack Obama appears to have overcome the "Catholic problem" that he experienced during the primaries. Nor are the inroads he has made into the Evangelical community a mere accident.

In short, 2008 has demonstrated the strategic importance of having skilled advisers and operatives in the domain of faith-based politicking. Accordingly, nothing precludes Palin from someday reversing negative perceptions among Jewish voters. And while she's at it she might find a receptive audience because . . .

Jews are going Republican?: Speaker Ira Forman of the National Jewish Democratic Council pointed out that rumors about Jews defecting from the Democrats to head over to the GOP have been around since the time of McGovern. He views this as a "man bites dog story," of great interest to the media if only because it is so counter-intuitive. The truth of the matter is that Jews are solid, true-blue Democrats who have given the party more than 75% of their ballot in the last 4 elections.

Point well taken. I am still, however, intrigued by the slow, steady rise of Jewish support for Republican presidential candidates across the last 16 years (1992, 11%; 1996, 16%, 2000, 19%; 2004, 24%). If yet another small increase is seen on Tuesday, then the hypothesis of a gradual, Jewish shift to the Right strikes me as worthy of further scrutiny. As do suggestions that the shift is being driven by younger Jews, orthodox Jews and immigrants from the ex-Soviet Union.

Obama, McCain, and Israel: Two of my colleagues in the Program for Jewish Civilization gave sober, well-reasoned presentations on the subject of the candidates' approaches toward Israel. On the basis of an extensive comparative study of Senators Obama and McCain's platforms on Israel, Dr. Michael Oren concluded that their positions are strikingly different, not identical on the basics as is often alleged

My reading of Professor Oren's comments is that he viewed McCain's approach to Middle Eastern foreign policy as meshing better with the security interests of the Jewish State. In response to a question, he pointed to McCain's tendency to look for a bilateral resolution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict (i.e., the two parties negotiating with one another) as opposed to Obama's regional solution (i.e., involving multiple Middle East players). He did not have time to follow up on a fascinating aside that Obama's approach to Israel and the peace process more closely resembles that of the current administration than does that of McCain.

Ambassador Dennis Ross, by contrast, would see a similarity between McCain and Bush, namely an unwillingness to speak with adversaries. Ross views this as a threat to both Israeli and American security interests. Having traveled with Senator Obama on his recent trip to Europe and Israel, Ambassador Ross pointed to Obama's detailed grasp of policy complexities, his openness to views that challenge his own, and the disciplined, ego-less nature of his team as assets in high-stakes Middle East diplomacy.

Jews and abortion: Speaking in perfect compliance with the IRS 501 (c) 3 provision, the learned and engaging Dr. Rabbi Barry Freundel discussed traditional Jewish views on health care. For kicks (and knowledge) I asked the rabbi a paraphrase of the question Rick Warren put to (a puzzled) Barack Obama--"when does a baby get rights?" To which, Freundel responded that Jewish law places a premium on the health of the mother, not the developing fetus. There are, in other words, scenarios in which abortion is perfectly permissible under Jewish law (May Governor Palin's forthcoming National Jewish Outreach Director take heed).

Is the Jewish vote really that important?: Professor Yossi Shain of Georgetown's Government department made the provocative argument that polling data on Jewish voters is highly problematic and misleading. Drawing a distinction between Jewish citizens of the United States and eligible Jewish voters, Professor Shain cited the number of 2.8 million in the latter category--a number that decreases their already minor electoral significance.

Shain's observation corresponds with one that I have been making here: we should study and contemplate American Jewish voting behavior in all of its glory. But we should not overestimate its electoral import. At less than 2% of the American population (and only 3.6% of the population of Florida) Jewish-Americans do not stand to dramatically affect the outcome on November 4th.