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"You see that man?" my friend asked me, pointing out a portly gentleman on the other side of the conference hall. "He's one of the most powerful Jews in the United States, the Republicans and Democrats are both after him."

The last role you would have cast this unobtrusive businessman and philanthropist in was that of a political operator. He owns and manages one of the largest networks of retirement homes in Florida and there are few people as in touch with the hundreds of thousands of elderly Americans who have retired to the Sunshine State, a great many of them Jewish, as him.

At the time of our meeting, at the annual gathering of a major Jewish organization in Jerusalem, he was in demand by the campaign managers of both parties' various candidates, all wanting to get an early crack at that vital demographic in the swing state.

Does he let all the candidates campaign in his retirement homes, I asked him.

"Only those who behave nicely to my clients," he answered.

And does that include Obama?

"You've got to be joking."

At the time, almost a year ago, I thought I was.

Seventy-eight percent of American Jews voted for Barack Obama, according to exit polls. That's better than John Kerry, who only got 74 percent four years ago, and almost as good as Al Gore, who captured 79 percent of the Jewish vote with Joe Lieberman as his running-mate.

I haven't yet seen the figures for Florida, but the polls done in that state the last few days before the elections indicate that the Sunshine State was in line with the national trend.

"Fuck the Jews, they don't vote for us anyway," former secretary of state James Baker famously said, justifying putting pressure on Israel.

Statistically, at least, he was correct.

The last time the Republicans won the most Jewish votes was in 1920, when Warren Harding received 43 percent of the Jewish vote. In every presidential election since, the Jews have overwhelmingly voted Democrat.

But it wasn't all easy sailing for Obama and the Jews. As recently as July, he was polling under 60 percent, very low for a Democrat and those crucial swing state enclaves looked especially worrying for him.

A true 'natural'

Long before Obama won the Democratic primaries and emerged as the front-runner, there was reluctance among many senior American Jewish figures to discuss worries about his candidacy. The last thing they wanted was the perception that the Jews were against the first viable black candidate.

But Obama himself changed all that. He felt natural addressing the concerns of a significant minority.

He spent valuable campaign time talking to Jewish leaders, Jewish media and specifically targeting Jewish voters.

American Jewry is arguably the most successful Diaspora community in history, but even in the land of the free, there was a feeling that in some matters it was better to keep a low profile.

Soft power and backroom dealing are seen as safer methods. They worry about charges of dual loyalties and the insidious power of the "Israel lobby."

This campaign blew away all those fears. The Jews were given full legitimacy to act as a pressure group for their own particular interests.

In an unprecedented development, both candidates, at the height of their campaign, took time to travel to Israel and express their unwavering support for its security.

Whether or not Obama's whirlwind 19-hour trip - including Yad Vashem, Sderot and a midnight prayer at the Western Wall - was what clinched it, he obviously felt it was time well spent.

But perhaps Israel wasn't such an important factor. A recent survey by the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at New York University that dissected Jewish voting patterns discovered that Israel was only number eight on a list of 15 voting considerations, and that only 15 percent of Jews (mainly Orthodox ones, who are the only overwhelmingly Republican segment of U.S. Jewry) placed Israel in their top three concerns.

Liberal values

The survey suggests that more than anything else, American Jews' long identification with the Democratic Party and its liberal values was what secured their vote. However, the survey detected a higher degree of uncertainty than usual, meaning that the candidates still had to work hard.

So what has changed? In the voting patterns, nothing. The great majority of American Jews remain as left-wing as ever. But the atmosphere is different.

Despite the reticence of the establishment, a younger generation of leaders and pundits were able to discuss Jewish concerns and preferences openly and with an unprecedented degree of self-confidence.

This openness was met with a corresponding degree of candor by the candidates, especially Obama, who did not take the Jewish vote for granted and appeared to respect their concerns.

This new 21st century American Jew is embodied in many ways by Obama's choice for his White House chief of staff.

Rahm Emanuel was selected for his political skills and experience, not his background. But he is still unabashedly Jewish in every way, doing nothing to hide his family and personal ties to Israel.

He served as an Israel Defense Forces volunteer not once, but twice. Despite this, during the 1998 Wye Plantation talks, the Israeli delegation was more wary of him than any other member of President Clinton's staff.

His knowledge of Hebrew and appreciation of the Israeli psyche enabled him to advise his boss on just how to handle the recalcitrant Israelis. The Israeli media has been speculating that therefore his appointment might not be that good for Israel's interests.

But the reality is much simpler. Emanuel is the new American Jew. Comfortable in his identity, his loyalty is to his homeland, and naturally to his own career in its service. And as a Jew, he loves Israel and isn't ashamed of that.

It means he isn't going to bow down every time an Israeli says to him that he's acting like the "court Jew," and he's not afraid that any fellow American will accuse him of having conflicting loyalties.