On Election Day, the relationship between Jewish-American voters and Barack Obama will be like a big midterm in a graduate course on coalition politics. It's a trust walk between the Democratic Party's two most reliable constituent demographics and a test of the bond between two minority groups that have marched arm-in-arm at times and feuded at others. Black-Jewish relations at their worst gave us Crown Heights, and at their best gave us Rashida Jones. It's about "hymietown," but it's also about Richard Pryor writing jokes for Mel Brooks. It's the martyrdom of Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney.
I'm African-American and Jewish-American. For me, it's about enjoying my kreplach with a side of collard greens.
As comedian Sarah Silverman riffs in her widely publicized video for the pro-Obama Jewish Council for Education and Research, "Jews are the most liberal, scrappy, civil-rights-y people there are." To the extent that Jewish Americans place a premium on cultural and religious tolerance, it's unlikely that any appeal of the McCain-Palin ticket would be based on John McCain's past opposition to the MLK national holiday or Sarah Palin's radical anti-choice views. Rather, as Democratic Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz says, "Jewish voters want a president of the United States that supports all of our values, not just some of them—and that's Barack Obama."
So, if Jewish-American voters are more up-for-grabs this year than in recent presidential elections, the question is why? A just-released paper by NYU Wagner's Berman Jewish Policy Archive indicates "overwhelming support for Senator Obama among American Jewry, even though concerns about Israel's security worked somewhat to the advantage of the McCain candidacy."
And a September poll by the American Jewish Committee estimated that 57 percent of Jewish voters were likely to vote for Obama, compared with the estimated 78 percent of Jewish Americans who voted for John Kerry in 2004 or the estimated 79 percent who voted for Al Gore in 2000—a difference that could tip a swing state with a significant Jewish population, like Florida or Pennsylvania. Reports suggest, anecdotally, that some older Jewish Americans who are otherwise Democratic voters are unsure about Obama. It's not only because of misleading Republican push polling implying that Obama is anti-Israel, but also because the McCain campaign has mocked Obama's preference for aggressive diplomacy with Iran and other Middle East countries in order to portray him as a "typical liberal" (read: "wuss"), and trying to create a wedge between Obama and Jewish voters.
Yet, no one has made a compelling case as to why American Jews who are concerned about the future of Israel should not vote for Obama, or, why they should vote for McCain. At the outset of the campaign, Sen. Joe Lieberman, a McCain supporter, former Democratic vice presidential candidate and the most recognizable Jewish-American politician, told the prominent Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz that Obama is "naïve" when it comes to Middle East affairs. Lieberman, regularly campaigning at McCain's side, has continued his crusade of dissuasion, including a recent warning about who Obama "will listen to" if he becomes president.
But Obama does not claim to hold some magic solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict—a position that is more sober than naïve. It's a recognition that many attempts at compromise have been tried and failed, and that lasting peace between Israel and Palestinians is still a delicate work in progress.
Obama has argued for more military focus on Afghanistan and Pakistan, and less on Iraq, and reaffirmed this view in his second debate with McCain, saying: "If we have Osama bin Laden in our sights, and the Pakistani government is unable, or unwilling to take them [sic] out, then I think that we have to act."
What remains a central feature of Obama's approach to foreign affairs is his consistent view that America's involvement in Iraq has made us less able to combat al Qaeda worldwide and a weaker partner for Israel. In contrast to McCain or President Bush, Obama's stance on the Iraq war allows him to act as an honest broker in the region. And the next president has to be seen as an honest broker in the Middle East, as U.S. foreign policy over the last seven years has proved a disincentive for moderate Arab and Muslim leaders to make a case for working with, rather than against the U.S. or Israel.
It's possible that Jewish-American reluctance toward Obama has less to do with him as an individual than it does with the differences in the ways that Jewish Americans and African Americans view the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Many African Americans sympathize with Palestinians, not based on ideology or culture, but because many African Americans perceive ordinary Palestinians (not their leadership) as a people in distress. African Americans tend to believe that the world can do better for Palestinians, and perhaps ironically, this sentiment stems from the same humanitarianism that for many years has underpinned Jewish support for African-American civil rights.
But with regard to Israel, Obama's feelings are clear. In a key interview with The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg, Obama outlined his view that "the idea of a secure Jewish state is a fundamentally just idea, and a necessary idea, given not only world history but the active existence of anti-Semitism, the potential vulnerability that the Jewish people could still experience." At the same time, he staked out an independent position on the Middle East stating, "I'm not going to blindly adhere to whatever the most hawkish position is just because that's the safest ground politically."
Why does all of this matter when Jewish Americans make up only about 2 percent of the U.S. population? Few Americans understand the specifics of the Israel-Palestinian issue, like all the complex reasons the U.S. embassy is in Tel Aviv, and not Jerusalem, where Sarah Palin sophomorically claims she would "build it."
It matters because despite the recent widening of Obama's lead in national polls, this remains a close election. Extremely thin margins in Florida and Ohio, in 2000 and 2004 respectively, were responsible for electing and re-electing George W. Bush. And so in 2008, every vote will count in swing states, and Jewish voters could make a difference.
It matters because McCain, who is supposedly "trusted" on foreign policy, talks stridently about Israel, reminding voters at every opportunity (and with an unsettling relish) that Iran's president calls Israel a "stinking corpse." But Obama is labeled as "risky" even though he is the one candidate in the presidential race who made the right call on Iraq back in 2002, and even though observers like Shmuel Rosner have noted that being "pro-Israel" is not always a question of who exclaims it the loudest.
It matters because an African-American diplomat and Nobel laureate, Ralph Bunche, was a central figure in brokering the United Nations resolution that created the state of Israel.
It matters because the relationship between African Americans and Jewish Americans is the relationship between an immigrant community that to its credit has thrived in America in the face of ethnic prejudice and economic segregation and another community of originally unwilling immigrants that, to its credit, has survived generations of slavery and decades of legally enforced second-class citizenship. Obama is not only an African-American leader, but an American leader. Jewish Americans are a community that over the course of American history has stood for a set of principles in which Obama also believes. It matters to me because where I come from, blacks and Jews are family.
David Swerdlick is a regular contributor to The Root.
David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.