Jewish Americans and the power of politics

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A man wears a Trump kippah while waiting for Trump to address the Republican Jewish Coalition 2019 Annual Leadership Meeting in Las Vegas. Photo courtesy of KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS at https://www.jpost.com/us-elections/why-are-so-many-orthodox-jews-voting-for-trump-analysis-647681.

By Mitzpeh Staff
@Mitzpeh

With a lot at stake for the Jewish community in this presidential election, the ability for Jews to voice themselves through voting is more important than ever. The Jewish community often bases its support in the presidential election on a series of pressing issues, both domestic and foreign. On the home front, the Jewish community is deeply concerned about the rising rates of antisemitism. Internationally, the Jewish community largely evaluates the views of the candidates over their intended goals for U.S.- Israeli relations. Whichever candidate wins the upcoming election will have a significant impact on these issues, as well as maintain a place where American Jews can uphold their Jewish values.

Biden’s pitch

First, former vice president and Democratic nominee Biden has a whole section on his website called “Joe Biden and the Jewish Community: A Record and a Plan of Friendship, Support and Action,” which Trump lacks on his official website. In this section, Biden details how he’ll address the antisemitism that has risen under the Trump administration, support Israel and reflect the values of the Jewish community. This detailed mission statement shows that the Jewish community is important to Biden’s platform and the platform of the Democratic party. The Republican party typically does not prioritize fighting forms of hate, such as antisemitism, as much as the Democratic party does. 

Additionally, Biden has shown unwavering support for Israel and his dedication to a two-state solution in the Middle East. While Trump has shown support for Israel as well, he does not have as much of an understanding of the issues at hand and does not have the years of foreign policy experience Biden does. For example, Biden fought in the Senate for critical aid to Israel, calling it “the best $3 billion investment we make,” according to his website. During the Obama administration, Biden championed support for Israel and had accomplishments such as shaping “the unprecedented $38 billion, ten-year memorandum of understanding for defense assistance to Israel signed in 2016” and helped garner support for the “Iron Dome, David’s Sling, and Arrow 3 anti-rocket and missile defense systems,” according to his website.

Trump’s pitch

Some Jews say that because Trump is the only president since Bill Clinton to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel rather than Tel Aviv, he supports Jewish people. 66.3% of Israelis seem to think so too, according to a poll from JPost. Also, he reprimanded a synagogue shooting in Poway, California, saying this to his supporters: “Our entire nation mourns the loss of life, prays for the wounded and stands in solidarity with the Jewish community. We forcefully condemn the evil of anti-Semitism and hate, which must be defeated.” 

Another of Trump’s major achievements is that he helped negotiate the United Arab Emirates Peace Deal with Israel. However, this action did not change many Jewish voters’ views on Trump, and Jewish Americans overwhelmingly disapproved of Trump’s performance as president. Additionally, most Jews plan to vote early and use non-in-person voting methods, which is something that President Trump has constantly criticized, saying that there is more of a chance for voter fraud. 

Why do these pitches matter?

While the issues listed above are crucial to consider, there is a misconception that these are the most important issues to Jews when voting. Many American Jews value more general election issues than the ones which directly impact their community. For example, according to the Jewish Electorate Institute, “Less than one-fifth of respondents said Israel is one of the most important issues when deciding which candidate to support.” While some Jews do view this as important, and we should definitely ensure that we vote for someone who will support Israel, this is not the first concern for many.

According to an American Jewish Opinion Survey, “for American Jewish voters, the most important issue in deciding for whom to cast a ballot for president is the COVID-19 pandemic (26%), with others prioritizing health care (17%), the economy (13%) and race relations (12%).” This aligns with what many other American voters are thinking about, especially during this all-consuming pandemic.

The inherent harm

Over the past few years, the prevalence of antisemitic rhetoric and attacks significantly increased across the country. The Anti-Defamation League, an organization that works to “stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all,” reported that in 2019, the American Jewish community experienced the highest level of antisemitic incidents since tracking began in 1979. Even before that, there had been many attacks. According to FBI statistics, 57.8% of 2018 hate crimes based on religious bias were anti-Jewish, which was significantly higher than any other religion. A notable attack was the shooting in Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue on Oct. 27, 2018. The shooter was a white nationalist and believed in antisemitic conspiracy theories, so his action was an act of domestic terrorism against the Jewish community.

Therefore, antisemitism is a larger issue for Jewish voters than it has been in previous elections. Antisemitism was thrust more into the spotlight for the 2018 election following the Charlottesville, VA “Unite the Right” rally in 2017. Additionally, Jews are a marginalized community in this country, and we face hatred from both political sides. About 7.5 million Jews live in the U.S., making up only approximately 2% of the population. This makes it even more important for Jews’ voices to be heard in our government. 

Even though we are a small group, we still have a large impact on voting and social change. According to Brandeis Now, “historically, Jewish adults vote at rates higher than the national average, with some estimates putting the rate between 80 to 85%.” Even though older people tend to vote for Republican candidates, Jews still tend to continue to vote for Democrats as they get older, according to a Pew Research Center study

Historically, the majority of the Jewish community has supported the Democratic Party in elections. For example, in the 2018 election, 79% of Jews voted for Democratic candidates while 17% voted for Republican candidates, according to a Pew Research poll. According to Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper, “in the 2016 election, 71 percent of the U.S. Jewish community voted for Clinton, and 23 percent voted for Trump.” This trend is likely to continue in this election. 

Yet many Jews have supported and will continue to support Trump, who has Jewish grandchildren and many personal friendships with Jewish individuals. Trump’s loyalty to Israel has also demonstrated he has the ability to be a critical ally for the Jewish people.

The bottom line

So why vote?
Are we “Jewish Americans” or “American Jews”? That is, are we American first and Jewish second or the other way around?

Despite what the prevailing belief might be for many presidential campaigns, many Jewish voters put domestic issues before Israel-related issues. For these people, being an American comes before being Jewish. However, the way that American Jews view candidates regarding certain policies should be the main focus of the election, rather than insisting that American Jewish people must either be American or be Jewish.

It is demeaning to force American Jews to pick between one identity or the other and, frankly, a bit antisemitic. Whatever happened to freedom of choice? Jews should focus on issues closer to their hearts, and it is fine if Israel is not their highest priority. Let people choose what issues they want to focus on for this election, whether it is the coronavirus, the economy or relations between foreign countries like Israel and the United States.

We aren’t in it for Jewish life at home or overseas at our homeland; we in it for the world. We want to see it become a better place, just like any American does. For some American Jews, this would start in the United States by ending racism in our backyard. For others, it could start internationally, but it all depends on what the voter thinks takes priority.