Notebook — From the October 2008 issue

Obama’s Jews

Last May, as he claimed the Democratic nomination, Barack Obama was ahead among Jewish voters 2 to 1. Yet, according to cable-and-blog wisdom, that was a serious problem for him. Jews—you know, “the demographic”—had voted 3 or more to 1 for Clinton, Gore, and Kerry. Jews are only about 2 percent of the population, but they make up almost 4 percent of actual voters. There are, famously, almost half a million Jewish voters in southern Florida alone. If, say, 100,000 defected to McCain, Obama would likely lose the state, even if the chads don’t hang this time. Jews are also nearly 5 percent of the Pennsylvania electorate, which Kerry carried by only 2.5 percent.

After the 1968 election, when Jews voted almost 5 to 1 for Humphrey over Nixon, the late Milton Himmelfarb groused in Commentary that Jews earned like Episcopalians and voted like Puerto Ricans. Are Jews finally growing aloof from the Democratic nominee—come to think of it, like Puerto Ricans—because he is African American? Will his fate hinge, as CNN’s Jack Cafferty suggested, on “a few old Jews in Century Village”? As Obama himself joked at a February meeting with Jews in Cleveland (Ohio is another shaky “battleground”), doesn’t every Jewish family have an uncle skeptical of the schwartzer?

Not so funny, really, and not just residual tribalism. Early in the primaries, emails suspected of originating in ultra-rightist circles in Jerusalem spread virally among North American Jews (mine came via my sister in Toronto) alleging Obama’s two degrees of separation from Louis Farrakhan and attaching a picture of Obama schmoozing at a 1998 dinner with the late Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said. Were not these “associations,” as one email put it, “worrying”? And was not worry itself the important reality? If the “perception out there” is that Obama has failed to bring Jews and African Americans together—he promised, after all, to unite loyal Dem ocrats in a new and poignant way—is not his candidacy a false dawn?

What Obama had to do, so the argument went, was allay Jewish anxieties, as “electable” Democrats had done before him. William Kristol, Himmelfarb’s nephew, all but instructed Obama in the New York Times on how to prove himself as “Zionist” as McCain: emphasize not only “current assaults on Jews” but also “sacrifices for the sake of freedom, the triumph of good over evil.” And what was Obama’s speech at AIPAC, delivered the day after he won the nomination, if not his effort to better the instruction? He laughed off the emails. He spoke mistily of a Zionist camp counselor. In July, he traveled to Israel and pledged himself to a “special relationship.” Shouldn’t this be enough to satisfy Kristol and other skeptics?

Previous PageNext Page
1 of 4
’s most recent book is The Hebrew Republic (Harcourt). His last Notebook for Harper’s Magazine, “Driverless,” appeared in the April 2007 issue.

More from Bernard Avishai:

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

THE CURRENT ISSUE

September 2014

Israel and Palestine

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Washington Is Burning

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On Free Will

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

They Were Awake

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content