‘The Jewish vote is really not about Israel’

‘The Jewish vote is really not about Israel’

Questions for… J.J. Goldberg

As columnist and editor-at-large of the Forward and its former editor-in-chief, J.J. Goldberg is a keen observer of United States and Israeli politics and how both affect American-Jewish voters. That interplay will be the foundation of his April 27-28 scholarship-in-residence at Temple Sinai in Summit.

After the regular Shabbat service on Friday evening, Goldberg will discuss “The Changing Political Profile of American Jewry.” On Saturday evening, he will speak on “The 2012 Elections and Jewish Concerns.” He will be joined in a panel discussion by Jeffrey Plaut, a senior partner with Global Strategy Group of New York, a political consulting firm.

Goldberg, the author of Jewish Power: Inside The American Jewish Establishment, spoke about President Obama, Iran, and the state of Zionism in an April 3 phone interview with NJ Jewish News.

NJJN: Your topic will be “The Jewish Vote, Looking Back 60 Years, Looking Forward.” Can you give us a sneak preview of what that might be?

Goldberg: The main point about the Jewish vote is that it is really not about Israel. American Jews, like all other Americans, vote on what they think is good for them…. Politicians generally go after Jewish voters by thumping their chests about Israel. That is not what moves most Jewish voters.

My understanding is what will move swing voters — half of it is based on Israel, and half of it is based on the fears of the Christian Right. If Rick Santorum were the Republican nominee, he would get a very small percent of the Jewish vote. Most Jews have to be really scared to vote for him, and Obama’s record on Israel just isn’t that scary to most people.

NJJN: How would you assess that record?

Goldberg: Even [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu on his good days would tell you that President Obama has militarily been more supportive of Israel than any administration before. Now, some people will say it is because he is scared of Jewish voters, that it is not his gut instinct, that he feels pressure by Jewish voters. If that is the case, it proves the efficiency of campaigning for the Jewish vote.

NJJN: There are liberal Democratic Jews who don’t trust Obama’s commitment to Israel. Some have said they fear that in a second term, when he doesn’t have to worry about reelection, Obama will bring pressure on Netanyahu. How do you react to that argument?

Goldberg: The question becomes: Is it good or bad to pressure Netanyahu? I don’t know where the evidence comes that Obama will pressure Netanyahu…. There is a backward notion about what is in Israel’s security interest, that if you talk tough and you point your finger at the enemy, you’ve done your job, but if you sit down and meet your enemy and try to convince him not to shoot you, there is something wrong with you.

NJJN: Do you believe war is likely between Israel and Iran?

Goldberg: The notion that Iran will attack Israel is not even on the agenda. What people are talking about is whether Israel will attack Iran. Those scenarios are very unlikely. They are far-fetched. Of the 19 living heads of the Mossad, the Shin Bet, and the Israel Defense Forces, there are precisely two who are in favor of a preemptive strike against Iran. Three have been silent on the issue. Fourteen are outspokenly against an attack on Iran, and they support the Obama policy of sanctions and diplomacy. There is a strong sense that even if Netanyahu wanted to attack Iran, he couldn’t get the votes in his own security cabinet.

NJJN: Yet there is so much fealty toward him on the part of many American Jews.

Goldberg: Netanyahu and Natan Sharansky are widely admired by American Jews because they talk tough. They are not taken seriously in the Israeli defense community. Netanyahu has been able to hold together a coalition because of the incompetence of the opposition.

NJJN: How do you react to Peter Beinart and his critique of mainstream Zionism? Do you have issues with him?

Goldberg: No, but I have issues with people who try to shut other Jews up. Even if I have major disagreements with him, I would be repelled by the people who think he should not be saying what he is saying…. A central thesis in his doctrine is that young American Jews are distancing themselves from Israel because they do not like its policies. There is a lot of evidence that that is not the case. The young American Jews who are distancing themselves from Israel are doing so because they are not that Jewish….

But there is the Seinfeld-Jon Stewart-Barbra Streisand Phenomenon: Being Jewish is cool. Elena Kagan and Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer and the 13 Jews in the Senate. Being Jewish is socially advantageous and appealing in America. But if it becomes the case that being Jewish means pushing America into a war it doesn’t want, and [Israel] being identified on college campuses as an abuser of human rights, the less people will want to identify. So, if Jewish continuity is a big issue, we want the Jewish public image in America to be appealing.

If it is truly in Israel’s existential interest to behave with a strong hand and an outstretched arm on the battlefield and it is worth alienating a generation of semi-attached American Jews for Israel’s survival, Israel must go the way it must go. But if American Jews who care about Israel are sympathizing with a doctrine that is bad for Israel and bad for American Jews, then we have got a poisonous mix that Peter Beinart is describing.

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