John McCain's bid for American Jewish votes

Do American Jews form their political views based on what is best for another country? John McCain seems to assume so.

By Glenn Greenwald

Published April 28, 2008 11:20AM (EDT)

John McCain was in South Florida yesterday bidding for Jewish votes by explicitly articulating the right-wing, fear-mongering strategy to secure this vital voting bloc: namely, exploiting the devotion which many American Jewish voters have to Israel by scaring them into believing that Barack Obama will jeopardize Israel's security while only McCain will protect that country (by copying the Bush/Cheney approach to Israel's enemies):

When asked about the Jewish vote in South Florida, a bloc that typically votes Democratic, McCain said he wanted the votes of all Americans.

"There are many Jewish Americans who are committed to the state of Israel and its existence and realize it is under incredible threat -- the Iranians, Hamas, Hezbollah, all of the other threats that they face including the president of Iran, who Sen. Obama wants to sit down and negotiate with face to face, who is dedicated to the extinction of the state of Israel," McCain said.

There are a couple of points worth noting here:

First, as is true for virtually every aspect of foreign policy, McCain's position -- that the U.S. should consider as our Enemy all enemies of Israel and refuse even to talk to them -- is a carbon copy of the neoconservative Bush/Cheney policy, one that has been so destructive to the U.S., Israel and the Middle East generally. Yet it reflects the destructive equation in American political life between "mindless Middle East militarism" and "support for Israel." American political orthodoxies hold that one must embrace the former in order to prove the latter.

But this equation is not even shared by actual Israelis, nor is it shared by the majority of Americans. An overwhelming majority of Israelis -- 64% -- favor negotiations with Hamas. Two-thirds of American voters generally "believe that Israel should continue to negotiate with the Palestinian Authority, even in the face of terrorist attacks." Yet John McCain seems convinced that he knows better than the overwhelming majority of actual Israelis themselves about what is good for Israel. If the vast majority of Israelis reject the mindless belligerence embraced by McCain, shouldn't that preclude him from trying to scare American Jews into voting for him based on the claim that he's more supportive of Israel?

More importantly, of all the incoherent and manipulative orthodoxies permeating our political discourse, McCain's comment reflects one of the most incoherent and manipulative of all. The core premise of McCain's appeal to American Jewish voters is unmistakably clear: namely, that American Jews cast their votes in American elections based on their perception of which candidate will be most "supportive of Israel." This is the same premise that right-wing polemicists repeatedly espouse in order to argue that American Jews should feel obliged to vote for Republicans in American elections: because Republicans are supposedly "better for Israel" and, therefore, that should determine the vote of American Jews.

McCain's premise is undoubtedly true for some portion of the American Jewish electorate. A recent poll from the American Jewish Committee found that 69% of American Jews agree with the statement: "Caring about Israel is a very important part of my being a Jew." Political operatives in both parties constantly acknowledge that the reason political candidates must demonstrate what is perceived as devotion to Israel's security is because that is the issue which many Jewish donors and voters care about.

And this premise -- that American Jews form political views based upon Israel's interests -- has long been assumed to be true by all sorts of American political figures, as illustrated by the extremely interesting 1956 letter from then-President Dwight Eisenhower to Edward Hazlett, Jr., as Eisenhower simultaneously ran for re-election and tried to contain growing instability in the Middle East as a result of tensions between Israel and its neighbors (h/t L.W.M.):

Of course, nothing in the region would be so difficult to solve except for the underlying cause of the unrest and dissension that exists there -- that is, the Arab-Israel quarrel. This quarrel seems to have no limit in either intensity or in scope. Everybody in the Moslem and Jewish worlds is affected by it. It is so intense that the second any action is taken against one Arab state, by an outsider, all the other Arab and Moslem states seem to regard it as a Jewish plot and react violently. All this complicates the situation enormously.

As we began to uncover evidence that something was building up in Israel, we demanded pledges from Ben-Gurion that he would keep the peace. We realized that he might think he could take advantage of this country because of the approaching election and because of the importance that so many politicians in the past have attached to our Jewish vote. I gave strict orders to the State Department that they should inform Israel that we would handle our affairs exactly as though we didn't have a Jew in America. The welfare and best interests of our own country were to be the sole criteria on which we operated.

Yet only one side of the debate -- the side that favors endless American militarism in the Middle East -- is allowed to point out this undeniable connection. By contrast, when opponents of our current Middle East policy make the exact same claim -- when they argue that many American Jews support aggressive American policies in the Middle East because they are devoted to Israel -- all sorts of ugly invective and accusations of bigotry rain down upon them. When they point it out, they promptly stand accused of anti-semitism for suggesting American Jews possess "dual loyalty," of displaying "a species of prejudice so extreme as to border on obsession."

It is virtually forbidden for one side of the debate over our Middle East policies to point out that some American Jews act out of devotion to Israel. So why, then, are John McCain and his supporters allowed to run around without recrimination and openly state -- as a central part of their electoral strategy -- that American Jewish voters should and will cast their votes based on what is best for another country (Israel)?

That question is particularly compelling in light of recent polling data from the nonpartisan Israel Project, which found that the vast majority of American Jewish voters have priorities that are indistinguishable from American voters generally, and it is only a small minority of those voters for whom Israel is a top priority:

Project founder and president Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi told a news conference in Jerusalem on Monday that even in the Jewish community, the majority of likely voters do not give priority to Israel.

"Three quarters of the American Jewish community say that there are other issues more important than Israel," she said, saying only 23 percent of the Jewish population listed Israel as a top issue. . .While 51% of the respondents acknowledged that the economy and jobs were their major concern, only 7% cited the Middle East conflict between Israel and the Palestinians and the threat of Iran.

Jewish voters are a crucial voting bloc in several vital states, including Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania. A critical part of the McCain campaign's strategy is to have surrogates like Joe Lieberman run around telling them that they should vote for McCain because he will better serve their devotion to Israel, while Obama is hostile to Israel and even to Jews themselves. It is a supremely ugly strategy, based on all sorts of myths and falsehoods. But most of all, the McCain Argument rests on exactly the premise that, when espoused by others, is forbidden: namely, that the political views of American Jews are determined by their dual loyalty, i.e., by their considerations of what is best for a country other than their own.

Glenn Greenwald

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