OP-ED: What happens when Israel is your lowest priority?

By JONATHAN S. TOBIN

 The good news for U.S. President Donald Trump coming out of a new poll of Jewish voters is that he shouldn’t take their indifference about his pro-Israel policies too personally.

The survey published this week that was conducted by Greenberg Research for the Jewish Electoral Institute tells us a lot of things that we already knew. The vast majority of Jewish voters identify as Democrats and are, when compared to other Americans, disproportionately liberal. They also really, really don’t like Trump, with 71 percent disapproving of his presidency and only 29 percent approving of his performance in office.

That may strike Trump and other Republicans as astonishing considering that by any objective standard, Trump has been the most pro-Israel president America has ever had, as his policy shifts on Jerusalem, the U.S. embassy, the Golan Heights, Iran and accountability for the Palestinians have demonstrated.

But if there is one number that you can learn from a deep dive into the survey’s findings, it’s that only 28 percent of the Jews polled say that support for Israel is one of the most important issues that determine how they vote. That puts it on the bottom of a list of issues presented to them, ranking far below concerns about protecting Medicare and Social Security (the No. 1 issue), health care, gun control, abortion, the Supreme Court, education, taxes and immigration, among others. As the executive summary of the poll summed it up, “Israel is the lowest policy priority for Jewish voters.”

Greenberg Research is a liberal Democratic polling firm. That bias was reflected in the wording of some of the questions and the fact that it asked respondents their opinion of “white supremacists and the far right,” though didn’t ask about left-wing anti-Semitism. Still, the results do seem to reflect the reality of a voting bloc that remains firmly in the pockets of the Democrats.

That only Orthodox and politically conservative Jews consider Israel a priority is not really news. But the poll demonstrates anew that nothing Trump might do for Israel would impact the opinions of Jewish voters much one way or the other. Indeed, the favorable/unfavorable numbers for Trump are almost identical to the breakdown of the Jewish vote in the 2016 election, when 70 percent of Jewish voters backed Hillary Clinton.

That level of partisanship and personal animus for the president is also reflected in Jewish views about anti-Semitism and the security of the Jewish community. The Pittsburgh and Poway synagogue shootings are the reason why the survey said that 73 percent of Jews felt less secure than two years ago. Yet a stunning 59 percent agreed with a leading question posed by Greenberg that asked whether Trump “was at least partially responsible” for the attacks on synagogues in Pittsburgh and Poway. When given a choice of factors that might cause attacks on Jews, the most popular response was “President Trump encouraging ultra-right extremists committing violent attacks.” And when asked about the best way to ensure Jewish security, 39 percent thought defeating Trump was the answer. By contrast, only 12 percent thought adding “armed security” at synagogues and Jewish institutions might help.

Trump is a flawed leader, and he is guilty of helping to coarsen our public discourse and holds views about issues like immigration that most Jews find abhorrent. But the belief that he is encouraging those committing violent attacks on synagogues doesn’t stand up to scrutiny when you consider that those responsible were deeply opposed to Trump specifically because they considered him too friendly to the Jews. The notion that anti-Semitism was somehow lying dormant until January 2017 and that throwing the most pro-Israel administration to date out of office and replacing it with the party that is prepared to tolerate the likes of BDS supporters and anti-Semites like Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) will make Jews safer strains credulity.

In an era of almost unprecedented levels of partisanship, and in which Americans view those with different political views with the same sort of suspicion they once reserved for believers in other religious faiths, it would seem that Jews—who, along with African-Americans are among the most reliable supporters of the Democrats—are also prepared to believe the worst of those on the other side of the political divide. That doesn’t give Trump or the Republicans much reason for optimism in 2020 with respect to a Jewish community that seems to subscribe to the “everyone I don’t like is Hitler” view of politics.

There is, however, one reason for a sliver of hope for Republicans in the future. Greenberg’s summary notes that Jewish millenials are, like other young voters, more inclined to be culturally liberal. Yet the divide in other groups shows that older voters are more conservative and inclined to support Trump. However, in the Jewish population, it’s the reverse; even among the non-Orthodox, older Jews are more against the president than the young. Trump’s levels of support among Jewish millenials and those under 30 are significantly higher than among those who are older, even if those that back him are still a clear minority.

When you factor in the fact that the Orthodox—a majority of whom back Trump—are the only demographic slice of the community that is actually growing, and that the non-Orthodox population is declining, it’s clear that the Democrats advantage among Jews is likely to decline in future elections.

But anyone wondering why the Democrats’ toleration of Omar and Tlaib in their ranks hasn’t moved the needle in terms of Jewish opinion need look no further than Greenberg’s findings about Jewish priorities. When Israel isn’t one, then there should be no surprise about the willingness of so many Jews to believe in unsubstantiated allegations about Trump’s anti-Semitism and to be indifferent to his Middle East policies.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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