Why Israel is red and American Jews are blue

Israel would have voted for Mitt Romney by a 2-to-1 margin, but American Jews voted for President Obama by almost the same margin.

J Pat Carter/AP
A woman wears Obama campaign buttons, in both English and Hebrew, as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright speaks to a group of women at the Michael-Ann Russell Jewish Community Center in North Miami Beach, Fla., Sept. 13, as she campaigned for President Obama.

Exit polls from the US presidential elections highlight a gap between American and Israeli Jews.

At the conclusion of a campaign in which loyalty to Israel played an outsized role in the debate because of Republican claims that the administration had neglected the alliance, voter surveys indicated that American Jews maintained their decades-old support for the Democratic Party. Some 70 percent voted for President Obama – a proportion that was nearly the mirror image of public opinion polls indicating that Israelis backed Mitt Romney by a 2-to-1 margin.

"It’s true that Israel is a red state and that American Jewry is a blue state," says Yossi Klein Halevy, a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.

Though that seems to indicate a rightward shift in Israel away from America’s liberal Jewish population, Mr. Halevy and other experts say it’s not that simple. Some even caution the very comparison is awkward because Israelis aren’t citizens.

That said, surveys indicate that American Jews vote primarily on economic and social issues, while considerations about Israel and foreign policy are secondary. By contrast, Israelis focus on a more narrow view of candidates' approach to the Middle East and don’t focus on domestic policy, which they think has no impact on them.   

"American Jews are overwhelmingly democratic because of social issues, not because of foreign policy," says Shaul Kelner, a sociology professor at Vanderbilt University who focuses on ties between American Jews and Israel. "It’s easy for Israelis to be hawkish about American foreign policy when they don’t have to live here and deal with consequences of the social policy."

Indeed, on domestic policy Israelis are significantly more blue that the average republican: Gays have openly served in the military for years and few would support dismantling Israel's state-funded public health system. Meanwhile, American Jewish views on the Middle East and the Arab Spring are closer to Israeli skepticism about the prospects for democratic change than the views of the average democrat, Mr. Kelner says.

Despite the robust Jewish support, Mr. Obama's approval numbers did decline to about 69 percent compared with 78 percent four years ago according to exit poll data. Jewish democrats assert that support for Obama in 2008 was actually 74 percent, and argue the drop was less pronounced, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Israel wasn't always red

Back in the 1990s, Israel wasn’t a "red state." The most popular US figure was President Bill Clinton, who moderated peace negotiations that would have required significant territorial concessions. The floundering of the peace process and the outbreak of a Palestinian uprising have made Israelis more cautious about diplomatic compromise.

"Israelis have fought one continuous war against terrorism since 2000," says Mr. Halevy. "The result of that is that Israelis view their surroundings with deep fear, while American Jews understandably view their surroundings as benign."

American Jews are less likely to base their vote solely on Israel because they consider support for the Jewish state to have bipartisan backing in Washington. Instead, they focus on a loyalty to the Democrats’ policy of liberal inclusiveness going back to the administration of Franklin Roosevelt.

Indeed, Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, an energetic advocate for Israel, cited in a Jerusalem Post op-ed the need to protect abortion rights, church-state separation, and civil rights for gays in the Supreme Court as a justification for supporting Obama.

Americans hew to their liberal tradition because of the conviction that "the nature of being a minority is having a stake in social domestic peace," says David Makovsky, a fellow at the Washington Institute. Israelis "often have viewed a muscular American foreign policy, or at least muscular rhetoric, as something that would deter extremist forces in the region."

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