The Column: The hunt for the Jewish vote

I’m continually astonished by how much attention is paid to the Jewish vote. Considering that we’re less than 2 percent of the population, does it really matter whether 78 or 74 percent of us voted for President Obama in 2008?

Some Jewish pundits point to South Florida, which proved key in the 2000 and 2008 presidential elections. See, we’re important, they say. When we mess up our chads, Gore loses.

But this time around, Florida didn’t even count.

Nevertheless, we in the Jewish media continue to fret over the Jewish numbers in this election — as we do every four years — trying to parse out their significance.  Does the slight dip in Jewish support for Obama since 2008 indicate an end to the historic coziness between Jews and the Democratic Party? And what does a 4 percent difference matter, anyway?

The Republican Jewish Coalition, however, is taking the numbers very seriously. When you’ve got a minority of Jewish support from the get-go, every percentage point counts. This November, the main national exit polls found that 30 percent of Jewish voters went for Romney, versus the 22 percent who voted for Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee, four years ago. The RJC fudged those numbers a bit, with the group’s director, Matt Brooks, crowing to the JTA that the party has increased its share of the Jewish vote by “almost 50 percent.” Sounds big, but is it really?

Surveys show that Jews care about the same issues as non-Jews, in about the same percentages: the economy, education, social issues, national security.

Yet, the catchphrase lingers: Is this candidate good for the Jews? And by that, what it really means is: Is this candidate good for Israel? Does this candidate like Jews? Is there any ugly anti-Semitism in his or her past, any politically distasteful stunts we should know about (like Vanessa Redgrave dancing with the rifle over her head in “The Palestinian,” a film she bankrolled)?

To give the question historical context, I called Denis Brian, a former London-based reporter who now lives in West Palm Beach, Fla., and has more than 16 books to his credit, including the just-published “The Elected and the Chosen: Why American Presidents Have Supported Jews and Israel.”

His thesis? Israel and the Jewish people have had no greater friends than the leaders of the United States. “Almost without exception, each U.S. president has been concerned with the welfare of the Jews, at home and abroad,” Brian told me.

Brian’s narrative follows the arc of American history, president by president, detailing each one’s record, beginning with George Washington’s famous letter to the Touro Synagogue in which he laid out his belief in the protection of religious minorities.

Less well known are other tidbits. John Adams, our second president (1797-1801), believed that no other nation had done more for civilization than the Jews and was eager, Brian writes, “for an army of Jewish soldiers to invade their ancient homeland, Palestine, and take it back from Turkish rule.” During his presidency, Martin Van Buren helped save Jews from massacre in Syria during a blood libel in 1840. And Abraham Lincoln’s Jewish chiropodist, who treated his frostbitten feet, became a close friend and political adviser.

The narrative goes on, to FDR’s creation of the War Refugee Board, which helped save the lives of more than 200,000 European Jews threatened by Nazism, to unwavering presidential support for Israel from 1948 until today.

Just one president can be called an anti-Semite, Brian maintains: Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Lincoln after the latter’s assassination and was noted for his anti-black and anti-Jewish diatribes, both before and after his presidency. And Johnson, Brian points out, was the only president who never went to school.

Where did this love affair come from? The Bible, Brian says. “The basis of all this is that the founders had great respect for the Old Testament on which they were brought up,” he told me. “They compared the Jews going through the desert [from Egypt] to their own voyages to America.”

Even Dwight D. Eisenhower, who infamously supported Egypt during the 1956 Suez Crisis, later admitted he was wrong. Must have been his boyhood lessons kicking in — Brian says Ike was brought up on Old Testament tales, and because he didn’t know any Jews in his native Kansas he believed they must all be angels in heaven. He found out he was wrong when he visited New York City.

That’ll do it.

Sue Fishkoff is the editor of j., and can be reached at [email protected]

Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].