Obama and the Jewish votes

obama kah2Here we go again. Remember our discussion of the “Catholic vote”?

The reality, in this post James Davison Hunter world, is that there are Catholic votesplural.

Now the hot story (click for new Politico report) is that Sen. Barack Obama is focusing special attention on the “Jewish vote.” As a matter of fact, during the last election I lived in South Florida, in West Palm Beach, to be precise. I followed the run-up to the election, including all the post-9/11 debates on U.S. policies affecting Israel, and I watched the results.

The bottom line: The variation on the pew gap affected Judaism, as well as the Catholic and Protestant voting. Bush did not do as well as expected among Jewish voters, in general, but won in Orthodox Jewish settings. The press took this as strictly a commentary on Israel policies, but some Orthodox Jewish writers said that social and cultural issues came into play as well.

So here we are in 2008 and you can see some similar ghosts haunting the New York Times piece entitled, “Many Florida Jews Express Doubts on Obama.”

The really interesting thing to note is that religious faith appears to play zero role in the current debates about Obama and the Jews. The really interesting thing to note is that this cultural definition of Judaism, and faith in general, appears to be hurting Obama. Say what? Check this section out:

… (The) resistance toward Mr. Obama appears to be rooted in something more than factual misperception; even those with an accurate understanding of Mr. Obama share the hesitations. In dozens of interviews, South Florida Jews questioned his commitment to Israel — even some who knew he earns high marks from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which lobbies the United States government on behalf of Israel.

“You watch George Bush for a day, and you know where he stands,” said Rabbi Jonathan Berkun of the Aventura Turnberry Jewish Center.

Many here suspect Mr. Obama of being too cozy with Palestinians, while others accuse him of having Muslim ties, even though they know that his father was born Muslim and became an atheist, and that Mr. Obama embraced Christianity as a young man. In Judaism, religion is a fixed identity across generations.

In other words, if religious identity is primarily a matter of ethnicity and culture and one cannot change that through, well, mere religious conversion, then that means that Obama is still in some way — Muslim. So the purely cultural approach to Judaism, which is normally identified with secular Judaism and more liberal cultural views that are far, far from doctrinal, Orthodox Judaism, may not be something that helps Obama in some settings, especially among the elderly.

And the Orthodox? They are not going to be happy at all with Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Jr., no matter what happens. They are also not going to be happy with Obama’s very liberal stands on crucial moral and cultural issues. And then there is the issue — Wright or wrong — about Obama’s enthusiastic support for his mainline Protestant denomination, the United Church of Christ. There is a history there, as in many mainline flocks, of fierce debate about the status of Israel.

Stay tuned. Read the whole Times report. Very complex and confusing stuff.

But keep in mind: There is no one Jewish vote, either. It’s Jewish votes. Plural. You might want to keep your eye on Sen. Joe Lieberman.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Paul Barnes

    Actually, religion and ethnic identity is fairly common across the globe. In Eastern Europe, Russian, and Asia Minor, ethnicity basically determines religious identity.

    This is so different from how North Americans conceive of religion in general (except for maybe Jews). I find this contrast interesting.

  • David F., Evanston IN

    Terry… you missed the most damning part of the tensions between the WHOLE Jewish community (Conservative, Reform or Reconstructionist movements) and the United church of Christ. This is a bigger deal than is being reported on in the media. Here is what they have said about the UCC and it’s leader, John Thomas:

    “Thomas’ screed is a stain on a church with a rich moral tradition.”
    -A. James Rudin, senior interreligious adviser of the American Jewish Committee and author of “The Baptizing of America: The Religious Right’s Plans for the Rest of Us.”

    “At least you are honest. You used to rail about the pressure from the “pro-Israel lobby.” You’ve dropped the code language. It’s Jews you’re talking about, as you admit in your current letter. Your irritation is puzzling, though. You have done a near perfect job keeping those pesky Jews from your offices, and from your convention floor when resolutions about the fate of Israelis came up. If we didn’t know better, we would think you simply don’t like outside interference and pressure. But you have no problem with the pressure from organizations like Sabeel and Al-Awda, both of whom reject the legitimacy of a Jewish state, and both of whom have either partnered with the UCC, or have been listed as a resource. And you don’t mind twisting a few arms yourself, do you? Remember the infamous “midnight meeting” at your General Synod in 2005, when you didn’t like the committee recommendation to the floor, so you substituted your own language, without anyone realizing it and had delegates adopt a resolution different from what they thought they were approving?”
    -Letter to John Thomas from the Simon Wiesenthal Center, July, 2006

    “While it is heartening that the United Church of Christ has come out strongly against those who advocate for Israel’s destruction, it is troubling that church leaders continue to embrace the Sabeel Center while ignoring statements from its leader questioning Israel’s right to exist. You can’t have it both ways.”
    -Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, Anti-Defamation League, Director of Interfaith Affairs, January 2006

    Eight Jewish groups rebuked the United Church of Christ for what they said was an imbalanced statement on Israel. Joining the JCPA in the letter were the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements; the American Jewish Congress, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and B’nai B’rith International.
    -JTA, June, 2007

    “UCC President John Thomas’ recent comments concern us on a number of levels. Some time ago, we reached out to John Thomas and the leadership of the UCC to engage in dialog. We have always believed that it is important for Christians and Jews of good will to keep the lines of communication open even if we may not agree on specific issues. In regards to the crisis in the Middle-East, we simply wanted to encourage the leadership of the UCC to proceed with caution and balance as it addressed this very complicated issue. Each time we reached out to the leadership of the UCC, it went without acknowledgment. In light of the UCC’s General Synod and considering John Thomas’ lack of response to our reasonable request to discuss these issues, we are extremely concerned. The hostility to the State of Israel and to Jewish people appears to be firmly entrenched in the leadership of the UCC. We know this hostility is not shared by the membership of the UCC and we still seek ways of reaching out to the UCC community.”
    -The Simon Wiesenthal Center, March, 2006

    “I will tell you this in all candor and with a certain measure of anguish – because of I have so many friends, not only at Wayzata Community Church, but in the UCC and in the Presbyterian and Episcopal movements in much of the liberal Protestant world – I’m embarrassed… I’m embarrassed at positions that some of the liberal Protestant churches have taken advocating divestment from Israel. Those are not balanced positions even if they try to condemn both sides. It’s like passing a law that says “in an effort to reduce urban homicide, we insist that no federal funds be spent on sending weapons to either the police or the criminals”. I’m sorry, that is not a balanced statement. I’m afraid that the UCC at it’s recent Atlanta convention was seduced by a very slick propaganda campaign into abandoning Christian principles and taking one side of a very complex situation.”
    -Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of the best selling ‘Why Bad Things Happen To Good People’ September, 2005

    “Criticizing Israel is not anti-Semitic, and saying so is vile. But singling out Israel for opprobrium and international sanction out of all proportion to any other party in the Middle East is anti-Semitic, and not saying so is dishonest.”
    -Thomas L. Friedman, NY Times columnist

    “By treating Israel within a different moral yardstick that the rest of the world, these moves are functionally antisemitic, undercut the forces of peace and moderation, and embolden the forces of terrorism. Finally, these resolutions make a mockery of a previous commitment by the UCC to combat antisemitism. The concerns, hopes and aspirations of world Jewry have been swept aside and relations with the Jewish community have been severely damaged”
    -The Simon Wiesenthal Center, July 2005

    I cannot overstate the negative consequences of these resolutions within the Jewish community, and the need for repair and healing.
    -Neil B. Goldstein Executive Director American Jewish Congress, July 2005

    Jewish groups were sucker punched last week when the United Church of Christ (UCC) abandoned a carefully crafted compromise and instead voted to support “divestment” from Israel. “Some outraged Jewish leaders publicly suggested anti-Semitism as a motive. Others were uncomfortable with the label, but a growing number of Jewish officials don’t see any other explanation for a divestment push that defies logic and turns fairness on its ear.”
    -Jewish Journal, July 2005

    It is disappointing and disturbing that while assuring us of the importance of interfaith dialogue, the UCC leadership has taken actions that ignore the primary concerns of the Jewish community, especially at a time when the Israelis are taking painful steps toward peace, including disengagement from Gaza.
    -The Anti-Defamation League, July 2005

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    The UCC angle was not the primary point of my post.

    I am well aware of the oldline Prot tensions with the whole Jewish community on Israel issues.

    It is an interesting wedge issue on the left.

  • Stephen A.

    I do find David’s point a valid one, since it’s impossible to de-link the UCC with it’s ordained pastor, Rev. Wright, and Obama is a proud member of the denomination that has routinely condemned Israel.

    It’s clear that this connection with a rather Leftist church is a major point of contention and for an article to ignore it is baffling. Terry even found it an obvious thing to mention in this posting.

  • Jerry

    especially at a time when the Israelis are taking painful steps toward peace,

    I suppose from this perspective, expropriating Palestinian land for settlements as well as running the wall on the Palestinian side of the 1967 border constitutes “painful steps toward peace”.

    This is a classic illustration of the assumption in the media and elsewhere that to be against the de facto and de jure land grab policies of Israel is to be anti-Israel or even anti-semitic. To be sympathetic to the voices in Israel that decry this aggressive behavior is conflated with being anti-Israel and even anti-Jewish.

  • http://www.misterdavid.typepad.com David (in Edinburgh)

    What Jerry said.

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