So Few Jews, So Much Clout in U.S. Polls

Yisrael Fischer
Yisrael Fischer
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Yisrael Fischer
Yisrael Fischer

"To be pro-Israel doesn't mean to be unconditionally pro-Likud." Such is the conflict many American Jews grapple with as they prepare to head to the polls on Tuesday to help choose the next president of the United States. It is the same sentiment that Barack Obama himself expressed in 2008 when he met with Jewish community leaders in Cleveland.

It's no secret that President Obama is not one of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's biggest fans. At the same time, Obama's Cairo address in 2009 didn't win him any fans among the right-wing in Israel, either, and rumors about his Muslim origins just added fuel to the fire. It seems as though Obama indeed has a somewhat softer support among American Jews, who tend overall to vote Democratic.

By even the most generous estimate, Jews make up only slightly more than 2 percent of the U.S. population. The highest percentage is in New York State, of course, where Jews constitute 8.4 percent of the populace, but there are few other states where Jews comprise more than 1 percent. This statistic raises the question of why the Jewish vote is considered so important. Perhaps the power of Jewish communities stems from the simple fact that they are better off economically than other ethnic or religious groups.

The U.S. government does not gather statistics about household income by religion. A survey by the Jewish Federations of North America in 2001, however, found that 34 percent of Jewish households reported an annual income of more than $75,000, compared to only 17 percent of all U.S. households. Only 22 percent of Jewish households reported annual incomes of less than $25,000, compared to 28 percent of all U.S. households.

A Pew survey in 2009 that compared incomes by religion illustrates these differences even further. According to that survey, 46 percent of American Jews had household incomes of more than $100,000, and 12 percent take in $75,000-$99,000 a year. Only 18 percent of U.S. households had incomes of more than $100,000, and an additional 13 percent showed incomes of $75,000-$99,000.

But according to Jonathan Mann, a political commentator for CNN who hosted a panel on the U.S. elections at Tel Aviv University last week, the source of Jewish influence is no great secret.

"The problem is that many groups [in the United States] don't vote. American Jews vote," he said.

Because American Jews are so politically active, they have influence, he added. Other groups - single women, for example - tend not to vote, and thus have less influence; any group that is organized and gets its voters to the polls is heard.

American democracy, Mann stressed, does not favor Jewish voters over black or Irish voters - if you get out the vote and donate money, it helps.

"This has nothing to do with religion or ethnic origin," he said.

Prof. Sergio Della Pergola, a scholar of Diaspora Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, agrees that Jewish participation in elections is what gives Jewish voters such influence.

"The voter participation rate in the elections will be maybe 50 percent. Among Jews, the voting rate is much higher, and their weight in the elections could reach some 3 percent, compared to their 2 percent of the population," he says.

"In Ohio and Florida [which are swing states, with no clear preference for either Obama or Republican challenger Mitt Romney], the Jewish vote could be critical," he notes.

Della Pergola also believes that Jewish influence stems from the fact that a greater proportion of Jews donate to political campaigns than the percentage of the population they make up. Still, Della Pergola says the degree to which candidates court the Jewish vote is exaggerated.

"The assumption that Jews are a population that must be courted is very problematic, and there's a speck of concealed anti-Semitism there," he says.

During the presidential race, the role of one very wealthy American Jew, Sheldon Adelson, who Forbes says is worth $20.5 billion, has been especially evident. Initially he supported Newt Gingrich, but when he dropped out of the race during the primary elections, Adelson swung his support to Romney.

Mann said that Adelson had indeed been an enormous force during this election cycle, but stressed, "Money buys a lot of things in American politics - but not votes."

Although Adelson and his wife donated an estimated $36.25 million dollars to the Republicans, American Jews have traditionally voted Democratic for decades.

But Della Pergola sees that traditional Jewish-Democratic link weakening.

He noted that Jewish assimilation on the one hand, and the growth of the U.S. ultra-Orthodox community on the other, have led to changes in the voting patterns of American Jewry, and he expects more Jews to vote Republican, including for president, this time around.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney talking to Sheldon Adelson in Jerusalem in July.Credit: AP