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Israel doesn't swing Jewish voters

By Amitai Etzioni, Special to CNN
November 4, 2012 -- Updated 1207 GMT (2007 HKT)
A banner touts Mitt Romney's support for Israel in Boca Raton, Florida, on October 20.
A banner touts Mitt Romney's support for Israel in Boca Raton, Florida, on October 20.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mitt Romney is trying to outdo President Obama in his support for Israel, says Amitai Etzioni
  • It's a myth that the Jewish vote goes to whoever supports Israel more fervently, Etzioni says
  • Only 4% of American Jews cite Israel as their most important voting issue, he says
  • And 51% of those registered to vote cited the economy as the most important issue, he says

Editor's note: Amitai Etzioni, professor of international relations and director of the Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies at George Washington University, is the author of "Hot Spots: American Foreign Policy in a Post-Human-Rights World."

(CNN) -- Mitt Romney is trying to cut into the considerable lead President Obama had among Jewish voters by showing that he is even more of a supporter of Israel than his rival.

After suggesting the Obama administration threw Israel "under the bus," Romney made an even stronger warning to Iran not to go nuclear, and pledged to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Romney is hardly the only one who believes that the Jewish vote swings to the candidate in presidential elections who is the most fervent supporter of Israel. The same position was given voice in a 2007 book by two highly regarded political scientists, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, which suggests that Jews have undue influence over U.S. foreign policy by making campaign contributions, pressuring members of Congress, and by casting their votes to support Israel.

Amitai Etzioni
Amitai Etzioni

A controversy erupted in 2011-12 concerning "Israel Firsters," a term referring to American Jews who are said to promote Israeli policies to the point where they "put the interests of the Israeli right above everything else," as one writer put it.

A recent survey shows that Romney will be disappointed. If Jewish votes follow what this survey reveals, Obama will gain somewhat less support from Jews this year than he gained in 2008 -- but the same will be true for other groups of voters, including African-Americans. And most Jews who will change the party they vote for will not "swing" because of his position on Israel.

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For the vast majority of Jews, Israel ranks surprisingly low in their considerations as voters. Early in 2012, the Public Religion Research Institute found that among self-identified Jewish adults, 51% of those registered to vote cited the economy as the most important issue driving their voting decision. Fifteen percent cited the growing gap between the rich and the poor, while 10% cited health care and 7% the deficit. Only 4% cited Israel as the most important issue to their vote.

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As David Harris, Executive Director of the nonpartisan American Jewish Committee, put it, "Jews are multi-issue voters. The notion they are single-issue voters is simply wrong."

Despite criticism of Obama's handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for instance by three Brookings Institution scholars in the book Bending History, approximately 60% of Jewish voters in the Public Religion Research Institute survey reported a very favorable or mostly favorable view of Obama and said that they approve of the way he is doing his job.

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On the specific issue of how Obama is handling the Arab-Israeli conflict, the survey found Jewish voters to be divided: 20% of the Jews surveyed said that they agree with the president's policies and his execution of them, while 15% reported that they agree with his policies but not his execution of them. Twenty-eight percent reported that they disagree with his policies, while 36% said that they are not sure of their opinion of how Obama is handling the conflict. Hardly a bloc vote.

Indeed, evidence shows that Jews tend to vote as a group no more than -- and often less than -- several other key groups.

A Pew Research Center poll conducted in 2011 found that 65% of the Jews polled reported leaning Democratic and 29% reported leaning Republican. The same poll found white evangelicals reporting a 70-24 split in favor of Republicans. Eighty-eight percent of black Protestants reported leaning Democratic, with 6% leaning Republican. Mormons leaned Republican by an 80-17% margin and atheists leaned Democratic by a 71-21% margin. A Gallup poll conducted in April also showed 70% of Latino Catholics favoring Obama, with 20% supporting Romney, and 10% remaining undecided.

Opinion: Both parties have a huge race problem

All this is not to question that Jews care about Israel -- although many liberal Jews are very critical of its policies, and there are many liberal Jews -- just as Irish, Polish, Armenian and other Americans care about the nation they or their forefathers are from and to which they feel an ethnic affinity.

However, to jump from noting such sentiments to the conclusion that therefore members of these groups will put these concerns above their commitment to America or allow these concerns to determine their vote must be supported by data. At least in the case of the Jewish vote, data show the opposite is the case. Israel is a decisive factor in shaping the vote of only 4 out of 100 Jewish voters. Romney's campaign team better keep its Champagne bottles corked.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Amitai Etzioni.

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