Marc Thiessen and the myth of the American Jewish voter

The zombie lie that Jews are abandoning Democrats over Israel finds new life in the Washington Post

Published July 13, 2010 11:14AM (EDT)

(updated below - Update II)

When The Washington Post hired torture advocate and low-level Bush propagandist Marc Thiessen as an Op-Ed columnist, it got exactly what it apparently wanted:  a regular dose of falsehood-filled neoconservative tripe.  But even by his own lowly standards, Thiessen outdoes himself today by hauling out one of the neocon Right's most disproven though still-favorite myths:  that Jewish American voters are about to abandon Democratic politicians en masse because of their supposed lack of devotion to Israel.  The Right spent all of 2008 spreading the myth that Obama had a "Jewish problem" because of his perceived unreliability on Israel, only for Obama to receive close to 8 out of 10 Jewish votes, even more than John Kerry received in 2004.  That's because the dirty little secret of neocons is that the vast majority of Jewish American voters reject their worldview.  Undeterred, Thiessen today goes back to that discredited well, blaming Obama's alleged hostility toward Israel and Netanyahu for this claimed development:

The drop in Hispanic support is dwarfed by the astounding 36-point drop in support for Obama from one of the most reliable Democratic constituencies: Jewish voters.

To call this assertion factually false is to put it politely.  Thiessen's link is to an April, 2010 memo from the obscure GOP polling firm McLaughlin & Associates that provides no support for his claim.  Thiessen is apparently referencing that poll's first question:  "Would you vote to re-elect Barack Obama as President or would you consider voting for someone else"?  In response, 42% of Jewish voters said they'd vote to re-elect him, while 46% said they'd consider voting for someone else.  Thus, "reasons" Thiessen, because 78% of Jews voted for Obama in 2008, and only 42% now definitively say they'd re-elect him (rather than "consider voting for someone else"), he's suffered a "36-point drop in support" among Jews. 

It's painfully obvious that these are completely separate questions.  That voters would "consider voting for someone else" in the abstract does not mean that they've changed their views about Obama since they voted for him in 2008; voters rarely think they're voting for the perfect candidate and would almost always "consider voting for someone else."  That provides no support for the claim that  Jewish voters -- if faced with the same choice they had in 2008 (or a similar one) -- would do anything different.  While the lowest levels of the right-wing blog sewers touted this poll the way Thiessen did -- that's about the level where his Post columns reside -- even minimally honest right-wing commentators acknowledge the obvious:  that Jewish support for Obama remains strong, and any declines are both proportionate to overall declines and due to discontent with his domestic not foreign policy.

At the same time this GOP poll was released, The American Jewish Committee released a much more comprehensive poll about the attitudes of Jewish voters.  That led to this headline from the right-wing site Hot Air:

Commentary's Jennifer Rubin -- one of the most Israel-devoted neocons in the country -- lamented that Jews "still are among the presidents' most loyal supporters" and complained:  "One is forced to conclude that this is a near Pavlovian response: 'Obama=approval'."  The Los Angeles Times detailed how complaints about Obama's Israel policy from so-called "pro-Israel" groups were finding little support among actual Jewish voters:

President Obama's altercations with the Israeli government have brought protests from U.S. groups that staunchly support Israel.

But the administration retains substantial overall support among American Jewish voters, and that appears to be giving him political running room to ply his approach to the issue.

The Jewish news service JTA explained that "[a] solid majority of American Jews support Barack Obama's . . .  handling of U.S.-Israeli relations."  And The Jewish Week's James Besser wrote:  "Jewish opinion remained pretty stable despite the headlines. Support for President Obama has dropped, but Jews still support him more than the general public. . . ."  As Besser noted, approval ratings for Obama have dropped generally, but "approval ratings" don't prove a drop in likely support at the polls because voters are required to choose between specific alternatives.  He quoted University of Florida political scientist Ken Wald, director of the school's Director of the Center for Jewish Studies, as follows: "given a choice between Obama and, say, Romney or Huckabee, I suspect you’d see the same voting support difference as in 2008."

That's all from right-wing commentators and Jewish organizations.  It's impossible to overstate how dishonest is Thiessen's announcement in the Post of an "astounding 36-point drop in support for Obama from . . . Jewish voters."  That simply does not exist, though Post readers, by design, would believe it does.

This matters so much because this has long been the central neoconservative tactic used to prevent any changes in American policy in the Middle East:  the myth that Jewish voters will abandon the Democratic Party if it asserts any independence at all from Israel.  This is false, because the vast majority of Jewish voters outside of neocon spheres -- as even former AIPAC official Steven Weisman acknowledged in that L.A. Times article -- "don't think that much about Israel, and are just involved in liberal causes."  Even those for whom Israel is a very important issue are not in lockstep with the neocon belief system.  That was why Peter Beinart's article in The New York Review of Books (and before that, the emergence of J Street) caused so much consternation:  because it revealed the large and growing disparity of thought between right-wing Jewish organizations demanding lockstep political devotion to Israel and the views of American Jewish voters generally.

The real reason there's so much uniformity in Congress over Israel -- and here's GOP House Minority Whip Eric Cantor on Saturday explaining that "U.S. Republicans and Democrats differ on nearly every issue in the U.S. Congress but are united in their support of Israel" -- is reflected in this Politico article from yesterday.  It describes the creation of a new group -- "The Emergency Committee for Israel" -- by the three prongs of the neoconservative movement:  Jewish right-wing Israel devotees such as Bill Kristol and Michael Goldfarb, Christian evangelicals (such as Gary Bauer) who believe Israel must be supported to bring about the Rapture, and generic War on Terror fanatics who crave endless war.  Eli Clifton was the first to report on this new group and how it has been created by GOP operatives, and they're now running this attack ad against Democratic Senate candidate Joe Sestak in Pennsylvania due to insufficient devotion to Israel:

That is why there is such lockstep uniformity on Israel.  Joe Sestak is a Vice Admiral who served in the U.S. Navy for 30 years.  Let's just say that Bill Kristol, Michael Goldfarb and Gary Bauer didn't.  Despite that, due to the slightest deviation from neocon demands on Israel by any politician -- a refusal to sign every pledge AIPAC sticks in front of them or a willingness to associate with mainstream Muslim groups such as CAIR -- there will be a very well-funded campaign basically accusing them of Loving the Terrorists.  They are a new group that is instantly well-funded (though they refuse to disclose the source of their funding).  And CNN's Campbell Brown -- wife of neocon Dan Senor -- bestows instant legitimacy on them by inviting its Executive Director, Noah Pollack of Commentary, to appear on her show before they even have a functioning website (it just became functional yesterday) to agitate for an attack on Iran and promote the Netanyahu line.  So overnight, there's a new, well-funded group, embraced by the media, devoted to punishing Democratic politicians who stray from full-fledged support for Israel.

This doesn't happen because they speak for a majority of Jewish voters:  despite the falsehoods of the kind that just appeared in Thiessen's column, they manifestly do not.  It's because, as is true for many single-issue obsessives, those who are fixated on Israel care first and foremost about that issue and thus politically organize around that issue, to punish those who deviate.  The incentives therefore all run in one direction.  As Joe Sestak is seeing, there is a political cost to pay for any deviation from their agenda (including even adopting the innocuous view held by most of the world that the Israeli attack on Gaza and the flotilla were wrong), while there is no political benefit from doing so. 

The objective, as always, is to minimize the room for debate and consideration over American policy toward Israel.  Barack Obama changes the tone (if not the policy) toward Israel and the meme must be disseminated that Jewish voters are abandoning him in droves.  Politicians like Joe Sestak show the slightest independence from AIPAC and they are swarmed with attack ads.  And it's no surprise that it was the hardest-core necons (Kristol, Senor, Liz Cheney) who were the first to call for Michael Steele's resignation over his Afghanistan comments.  The overarching goal is to snuff out any debate, in either party, over our policy in the Middle East generally and toward Israel specifically -- no matter how self-destructive and unsustainable it's become.  Like all citizens, they have the absolute right to politically organize in support of their agenda.  But propagandists like Thiessen do not have the right to depict them as anything other than a small minority even among those on whose behalf they claim to speak.


UPDATE:  To follow up on the question I asked last week in the wake of CNN's firing of Octavia Nasr -- whether journalists are ever fired for anti-Muslim comments rather than offending neoconservative dogma -- JTA's Ron Kampeas notes two cases where people have been fired for expressing such views:  Michael Graham, fired from a local radio station for arguing that Islam itself -- the whole religion -- is a "terrorist organization," and Ann Coulter, fired from National Review for advocating that Muslim countries be invaded, have their leaders killed, and be forcibly converted to Christianity.  So those are the extremes to which one has to go in order to get fired for such offenses (Islam is Terrorism and "invade their countries/kill their leaders"); contrast that with the far more numerous journalistic firings, for far milder causes, of those who ran afoul of the neoconservative agenda.

And just to underscore how mild and mainstream were Nasr's firing comments, consider this 2002 column from ultimate establishment centrist David Ignatius, expressing "sincere respect for Fadlallah's intellect and passion; he is one of the few Muslim clerics who recognize that there is an urgent need for Islam to find a better accommodation with the West"; this Economist editorial on Fadlallah's moderating and progressive influence in the Middle East; and even this lament from David Schenker, a senior fellow at the neoconservative Washington Institute for Near Policy, who praised Fadlallah as "the most credible moral, political, and theological alternative to Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite militia," arguing that the U.S. will regret his passing.  Even mainstream views that provoke neoconservative anger can end a 20-year career in journalism.


UPDATE II:  Guest-blogging for Andrew Sullivan, David Frum celebrates the launch of the "Emergency Committee for Israel" and the attack video on Sestak, and writes:

the real news is the group's director: Noah Pollak, a friend of mine, and a brilliant advocate for rethinking Israel's self-defense in a new media era. He was instrumental in persuading the Israeli Defense Forces to launch their own YouTube channel, which did enormous service rebutting falsehoods during the Gaza campaign.

It's long been a thesis of mine, to adapt Clausewitz, that modern warfare is PR by other means. Pollak understands this truth (wrote his Yale thesis on it) - and friends of Israel will be excited to watch his deployment of the truth in the critical days ahead.

So basically, it's a group of Americans devoted to disseminating P.R. and "warfare" for Israel -- inside the U.S.  The one positive development is that they're not hiding behind obfuscating titles such as Keep America Safe or Project for the New America Century.  This time, they're being uncharacteristically candid about exactly what they're up to -- it's a Committee "for Israel" -- or, as Taylor Marsh says:  "The name says it all: 'Emergency Committee for Israel,' implying that Israel is in dire danger from Democrats."  They at least deserve some credit for this newfound candor.

By Glenn Greenwald

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