By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.
As America awaits next year’s Presidential election, various studies are already seeking to capture the political pulse of this nation. Just last week, a new poll focusing on Jewish voters was released. While this survey provided a broad range of data concerning Jewish political behavior, the following findings are introduced here:
- 70% disapproved of the President’s overall job performance
- 71% were dissatisfied with the way the President has handled anti-Semitism
- 73% believe Jews are less secure than they were two years ago
- The Jewish community continues to identify as strongly pro-Israel, but Israel ranks at the bottom of a list of 16 policy priorities of Jewish voters
Over the last several months, Jewish Democrats, Republicans and Independents also had the opportunity to participate in a series of focus groups. The issues collectively raised by these 30 participants are reflected in the comments introduced below. Some of the commentary extracted from these conversations reflects on the themes also present in the Jewish Electorate Institute’s report. While these particular statements are designed to demonstrate the issues that are of importance to these specific Jewish voters, they must also be seen as a snapshot taken at a particular moment in time:
- One participant, who defined himself as an “Independent,” commenting on Bernie Sanders, suggested that the Senator may have worn out his welcome. “I find his views on Israel to be problematic and his socialist agenda, some of which is being adopted by a number of his Democratic colleagues, is driving the Democratic Party too far to the left, for my taste.”
- “I can’t believe what I am seeing. I am mystified that my Republican friends seem to lack a moral compass by supporting their President. The defense of the President to me as a Jew and as an American is damaging our country and this democracy,” suggested by a Democratic Jewish voter.
- A contrary view was offered by the following Trump supporter: “I don’t get are my Jewish friends, who still can’t accept the election results from 2016? Why are the Democrats so hell bent on bringing down this President? He has been great for Israel and for America.”
- One independent vote offered the following commentary: “I really don’t care for the President but can anyone realistically defeat him in 2020?”
- A Democrat raised the following concern: “Is it really good that there are so many Democrats running for the Presidency? Will they ‘kill each other off’ leaving the stage in 2020 to Trump?”
- A Jewish Independent voter expressed his frustration: “I am feeling conflicted. I like his (Trump) actions on behalf of Israel. However, there is little else that really resonates with me about this President, so do I support him only because he’s good for Israel?”
- “I am very concerned about the anti-Israel and anti-Semitic statements coming from some Democrats. Why hasn’t the Democratic leadership in the Congress been more forthcoming in denouncing these messages?” A Jewish Republican voter offered these sentiments.
- A Democrat observed: “I worry about the loss of civility in this country. I can’t have a reasonable conversation about US politics or Israel, without someone walking out of the room or employing a series of expletives when talking about their opponents.”
- A Republican who indicated that he was not a supporter of the President stated: “Am not sure what I am going to do now or in the future in connection with my vote. The far right white nationalists scare me on the Republican side, while the anti-Israel voices within the Democratic Party are correspondingly upsetting to me.” A broad number of individuals confirmed that the rise in anti-Semitism was particularly worrisome.
- A Democrat observed the following: “If this comes down to the economy, the Republicans are likely to win.”
- “Any one but Trump, please!” A Jewish Democrat offered this one sentence commentary.
- A first time eligible voter in 2020 noted that she was excited to vote, adding “I am committed to elect individuals who reflect my generation’s concerns, including the environment, quality job creation, infrastructure, and an equitable immigration policy.”
How Recent Events Impact Voters?
The recent incidents of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel rhetoric will no doubt impact voter concerns. Some focus group participants indicated a new level of uncertainty about the best way for Jews to be able to express their political concerns, as threats appeared from both the political right and far left. As one participant noted: “So, where do we go, when you see hate emerge from both ends of the political spectrum?”Another voter articulated the case that the current environment confirmed for him a commitment to oppose extremism in all of its forms, whether emerging from his own political party or the other side. “Our job must be to call out those who are our enemies.” Yet, many of those interviewed shared similar concerns related to anti-Semitism as reflected in the Jewish voter survey introduced above.
What Issues Define their Politics?
When asked about the issues that informed their political choices, two groups of answers emerged. One cadre of voters indicated that the welfare and security of the State of Israel was an abiding concern.
A second group of voters, somewhat larger in number, identified a whole litany of priorities, primarily domestic in nature. These included health care and medical costs; immigration issues; the composition of the Supreme Court; and economic justice (here respondents expressed concerns both about the top 1% and the economic hardships facing the very poor and undereducated in this society). Most focus group members (over 80%)indicated their concerns about the rise of hate within the society, referencing anti-Semitism as well as other manifestations of prejudice.
There appears to be a class of voters who are specifically committed to environmental issues. These were generally younger voters who had grown up with a particular concernaround the impact of climate change.
Where Does Israel Fit into their Political Priorities?
The mix of reactions to the Israeli elections was likewise instructive. A third of the focus group participants (10 individuals) did not appear to have followed the results of the April elections. Collectively 15 participants seemed uncertain what the outcome might mean for Israel or its relationships with world Jewry and its major international partners. Five focus group members seemed very engaged with the details and implications. Three of these participants were extremely concerned, possibly even critical of the Prime Minister in connection with some of his policies, including the proposal to annex the West Bank Jewish Settlements. Two seemed to believe that this option was extremely important to Jewish security and to the future of the Jewish State. All of the respondents however were uncertain what this policy position would mean in connection with achieving some type of final resolution to the Israel-Arab conflict. Only one individual weighed in on endorsing a one-state option as a viable alternative political option.
Respondents were generally aware of the American administration’s plan to release a peace plan but few believed that it created any new formula for a lasting peace with the Palestinians. Others were concerned about recent American government statements concerning a possible military build up against Iran, expressing reservations about creating new tensions and potential threats impacting Israel.
Implications for 2020:
Certainly, no single poll or small focus group sample can reflect the political disposition of a larger class of voters. At best, such data may reflect some generic trends as well as identify core issues of interest to a specific sector of the voting public. Almost all of thefocus group respondents felt that the 2020 election would be highly contentious, further dividing the nation. Many of these participants expressed a concern that the election campaign would accelerate an already intense environment of hate and possibly create additional acts of violence directed against minority groups, including American Jews.
Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of HUC-JIR, Los Angeles.
 Series of focus groups conducted during the period of late March through the middle of May (2018) with some 30 individuals, representing a cross-section of American Jews (by age, gender and political affiliation).