In the nearly 80 years since President Franklin Roosevelt launched the New Deal with a pledge to "help the forgotten man," relations between American Jews and the Democratic Party have been as close as lips and teeth. Even as Jews prospered and assimilated into the mainstream of American life, most of them remained loyal to F.D.R.'s liberal vision and refrained from following the pattern of other affluent groups by shifting to the Republican Party. Over the course of the past 20 elections, 75 percent of the Jewish vote has on average gone to the Democratic presidential candidate. As the old saying goes, "Jews earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans."
If further proof of this were needed, it was provided by the 2008 election of Barack Obama. On a key issue for many Jewish voterssupport for Israelthe hawkish John McCain had an advantage over Obama, whose past associations with the anti-Semitic Reverend Jeremiah Wright and the Israel-bashing Columbia University professor Rashid Khalidi raised troubling questions. Yet, when the vote was tallied, Obama trounced McCain among Jews by a staggering 57-point margin.
"After decades of involvement in the civil rights movement by American Jews, Obama stirred deep emotions in the Jewish community," Bret Stephens, a deputy editor of The Wall Street Journal's editorial page, told us. "The black-Jewish alliance was shattered in the late 1960s, and Jews have yearned ever since to restore it. Jews felt good about voting for Obama, for not only were they voting for a guy they agreed with and liked, but they were also voting for a kind of redemption."
All this should give comfort to President Obama as his party heads into the fall's hotly contested mid-term elections and struggles to hold on to its majorities in the House and Senate. Faced with public frustration over the flailing economy, high unemployment, massive federal deficits, and out-of-control illegal immigration, Democratic candidates need all the help they can get. And although Jews represent a mere 4 percent of the American electorate, their political activism and fund-raising prowess give them leverage in important battleground states.
There's only one hitch. Today, a sizable number of American Jews are having some serious misgivings regarding Obama. Recent polls of the Jewish community reflect a significant decline in support from 2008, when 78 percent of Jewish voters pulled the lever for him. According to a recent McLaughlin & Associates poll, nearly 40 percent of Jewish voters disapprove of the president's handling of relations with Israel, and a majority of them would now consider voting for someone else for president.
These poll numbers do not begin to measure the depth of displeasure felt by many Jews over President Obama's performance. Their bill of particulars covers a wide variety of complaints, including the president's frosty behavior toward businessmen in general and Wall Street in particular. But what really appears to irritate American Jews is the president's roughhouse treatment of Israel.
Obama has recently backed off from his previous harsh stance toward Israel and he even managed to convince the Israelis and the Palestinians to engage in direct peace talks, replacing the indirect "proximity" talks that had been going on for more than a year. But Obama is still not entirely out of the woods with large segments of the Jewish community. And his awkward comments about the proposed mosque at Ground Zerohe seemed to be in favor of the mosque before he was against it, or at least neutral about itdidn't help.
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Malcolm Hoenlein, executive chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the coordinating body for 52 Jewish groups, estimates that Obama may have lost the support of as much as one-third of Jewish voters. That may overstate the case, but, as we discovered during interviews with more than a dozen Jewish leaders, many Jews have become so annoyed with the Obama administration that they have closed their wallets and are seriously thinking of sitting out the 2010 election. According to an analysis of Federal Election Commission records by The Washington Post, contributions to Democratic candidates from the financial sector are down 65 percent from two years ago. While much of that is due to the Obama administration's widely perceived hostility to the business community, at least some of it is attributable to the White House's handling of Israel.
"I started breaking with Obama 12 months ago," says Martin Peretz, editor in chief of The New Republic. "And I know that a lot of West Coast Jews are also having buyer's remorse. The gut of it is Israel. Will Jews mobilize for Obama in the fall elections? They might be too embarrassed to come out directly against him. But I'll give you one sign of the times: Chuck Schumer [New York's senior senator] waited a year and a half before he stood up for Israel, and he's been having trouble raising money on Wall Street." (Schumer did not respond to repeated requests for comment.)
"The assumption on the part of the Obama administration is that, because Jews are liberals, they simply will not vote for Republicans," says the Hollywood billionaire Haim Saban, one of the Democratic Party's mega-donors. "Obama can invite the 10 most prolific Jewish campaign bundlers to the White House for a discussion, and give a wonderful speech, and he'll think that this may resolve all his problems with American Jews. And it may. Or it may not."
"The idea that we saw a black president in our lifetime is wonderful," says former New York City mayor Ed Koch. "It conveyed to us that this country has come such a long way. But I never fully accepted that Obama didn't hear his minister [Jeremiah Wright] make those awful anti-Semitic statements over 20 years. I wanted to believe him. I willed myself to believe him . What he has done is break that trust. Like Humpty Dumpty, once you break it, you can't put it together again."
The Jewish problem with Obama can be traced back to his first full day on the job. On January 21, 2009, he summoned his national-security team to the Oval Office and laid out a tough new policy toward Israel. According to a source who is in touch with the situation, Obama said that, in order to make good on his campaign promise to extricate American troops from the war in Iraq, the U.S. had to create a grand coalition of moderate Muslim states and Israel to isolate Iran, which has made no secret of its ambition to become the nuclear hegemon in the Middle East.
The only way to accomplish that goal, the president said, was to eliminate the poisonous effect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which provides Iran with an excuse to stir up trouble. Thus it was a vital national interest of the United States to stop Israel from building settlements in the occupied West Bank and housing in East Jerusalem, and to force the Jewish state to resolve the Palestinian problem.
Previous administrations had made similar noises about bringing peace to the Middle East, and at first Jewish leaders weren't alarmed by the leaks concerning a fundamental change in American policy. However, a clue to Obama's true intentions came in March 2009, when Abe Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, met with the president's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel.
"This is Israel's moment of truth," Emanuel said, according to Foxman. "This president is determined to make peace between Israel and the Arabs."
To many Jews, it seemed highly improbable that a brand-new president would choose to alienate Israel, America's oldest and most loyal ally in the Middle East. But then, in April 2009, when Obama made his first trip overseas, he visited Turkey, a Muslim country, and during a meeting in London he bowed to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Two months later, he returned to the area and made a landmark speech in Cairo, where he announced his intention to seek "a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world."
Understandably enough, American Jews were annoyed that the president had failed to include Israel in his trip to the Mideast. But what rankled them even more was that Obama seemed to adopt the Arab narrative to explain the existence of Israelnamely, that Israel deserved to exist because of past Jewish suffering in Europe, particularly during the Holocaust. Nowhere in his Cairo speech did Obama mention the fact that Jews had a 3,000-year history in the Promised Land.
There was no discernible improvement when the president called a meeting of Jewish leaders in July. Fourteen major Jewish organizations were represented, including J Street, the newly formed left-of-center Jewish lobby.
"I agree with your goal to bring peace to the Middle East," Abe Foxman told the president. "But the perception is that you're only pressuring Israel, and not the Arabs." Foxman said the president agreed.
Someone else at the meeting said, "If you want Israel to take risks for peace, the best way is to make Israel feel that its staunch friend America is behind it."
"You are absolutely wrong," the president reportedly replied. "For the past eight years [under the Bush administration], Israel had a friend in the United States and it didn't make peace."
"I came away from the meeting being convinced that the Obama administration has introduced a new strategy and that it's revealing itself in steps," Foxman told us. "Unlike other administrations, this one is applying linkage in the Middle East. It's saying that if you only resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict most of the problems in the Middle East can be ameliorated and the lions will lie down with the lambs.
Another source who attended the meeting also told us, "All the president's advisers on the Middle East, starting with George Mitchell, believe in linkage, and they're telling the president you have to prove to the Arab Muslim world that you are different from previous presidents and that you can separate yourself from Israel, distance yourself from the settlements issue. After all, settlements are something that American Jews don't like anyway, so it's a win-win proposition."
The Anti-Defamation League was the first mainstream Jewish organization to openly criticize the president on the issue of the Middle East. Soon other groups joined in. However, the great majority of Jews remained steadfast behind Obama's liberal agenda. They simply were not ready to criticize their country's first African-American president, in whom they had invested so many of their hopes and dreams.
That is where things stood until March 9 of this year, when a relatively low-level official in the Israeli Interior Ministry issued a permit for 1,600 new housing units for Israelis in the Ramat Shlomo section of East Jerusalem, a neighborhood that has been entirely Jewish for more than 100 years. The ill-timed announcement came the day after Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Israel to help kick-start a round of indirect peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately apologized to Biden, who accepted his expression of regret. But Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, called off the "proximity talks."
According to our sources, the next day at the regularly scheduled Thursday breakfast meeting between the president and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Obama made his feelings clear. He was livid. As he saw it, the Israelis had purposely humiliated the vice president and tried to sabotage the administration's peace plan. It was a personal affront. He instructed Clinton to call Netanyahu and read him the riot act.
The following day, during a 43-minute harangue, Clinton delivered a set of ultimatums to Netanyahu. Prefacing each remark with the phrase "I have been instructed to tell you," she demanded that Israel release a substantial number of Palestinian prisoners as a token of goodwill; lift its siege of Gaza; suspend all settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem; and agree to place the question of the status of Jerusalem up front at the peace-talks agenda.
"If you refuse these demands," Clinton told Netanyahu, according to informed sources, "the United States government will conclude that we no longer share the same interests."
Netanyahu bit his tongue and remained noncommittal about the American demands, though he did eventually agree to ease the blockade of Gaza.
That same Friday, Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to Washington, attended a meeting at the State Department and was given a severe dressing-down. Someone who saw Oren that night at a dinner described him as "shaken."
And things did not end there. Ten days later, Netanyahu was invited to the White House, where photographers were banned from the meeting, and the Israeli prime minister was treated less than elegantly.
The White House seemed strangely indifferent to the feelings of resentment that this treatment of Netanyahu aroused in the Jewish community. Furthermore, shortly after Netanyahu returned to Israel, the president risked provoking even greater Jewish outrage by insinuating that American troops were dying in Iraq and Afghanistan because Israelis and Palestinians could not agree to make peace. Conflicts such as the Israeli-Arab one are "costing us significantly in terms of both blood and treasure," the president said.
A perception began to spread throughout the Jewish community that the Obama administration was not only outwardly hostile to Israel but perhaps, without even knowing it, hostile to Jews as well. This thesis was forcefully argued by Jonathan Kellerman, the best-selling suspense novelist and a professor of clinical pediatrics and psychology at the University of Southern California's Keck School of Medicine.
"My personal opinion is that the bifurcation of Israel and Judaism is structurally fallacious," he wrote. "The Land of Israel is an essential ingredient of Judaism practiced fully. Thus, it is impossible to be anti-Israel and not be anti-Jewish. And in fact, the war being waged against Israel by the Muslim world is, at the core, a religious dispute. Radical Islamists no longer talk about Zionists; they come right out and broadcast their goal of eradicating worldwide Jewry."
The impression of an anti-Jewish bias at the highest echelons of the Obama administration, though unproved, was reinforced in April when James Jones, the retired Marine Corps general who then served as Obama's national-security adviser, began a speech at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy with a joke that was interpreted as flagrantly anti-Semitic.
"I'd just like to tell you a story that I think is true," Jones began. "It happened recently in southern Afghanistan. A member of the Taliban was separated from his fighting party and wandered around for a few days in the desert, lost, out of food, no water. And he looked on the horizon and he saw what looked like a little shack and he walked towards that shack. And as he got to it, it turned out that it was a little store owned by a Jewish merchant. And the Taliban warrior went up to him and said, 'I need water. Give me some water.' And the merchant said, 'I'm sorry, I don't have any water, but would you like to buy a tie? We have a nice sale of ties today.'
"Whereupon the Taliban erupted into a stream of language that I can't repeat, but about Israel, about Jewish people, about the man himself, about his family, and just said, 'I need water, you try to sell me ties. You people don't get it.'
"And impassively the merchant stood there until the Taliban was through with his diatribe and said, 'Well, I'm sorry that I don't have water for you and I forgive you for all of the insults that you've levied against me, my family, my country. But I will help you out. If you go over that hill and walk about two miles, there is a restaurant there and they have all the water you need.' And the Taliban, instead of saying thanks, still muttering under his breath, disappears over the hill, only to come back about an hour later. And walking up to the merchant, he says, 'Your brother tells me I need a tie to get into the restaurant.' "
Although Jones later apologized for his gaffe, many Jews began to wonder if there was something more behind the Obama administration's confrontational approach toward Israel than a simple difference of policy. As a result, they began to take a second look at Obama's past for clues to his current behavior. In particular, they were curious as to how Chicago's bare-knuckle politics had shaped Obama's outlook.
End of Part One
After serving an apprenticeship as a copy boy for the New York Daily News, he went on to earn a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, which awarded him a traveling fellowship to Japan. There, he learned to speak Japanese and traveled throughout Asia as a foreign correspondent for United Press International. Upon his return to New York, he joined Newsweek, where he became foreign editor and then assistant managing editor with jurisdiction over foreign and military affairs.
From Newsweek, he joined The New York Times. As editor in chief of The New York Times Magazine, he led this flagship publication of the Sunday Times to new heights of public interest and editorial excellence. During his editorship, The New York Times Magazine won the first Pulitzer Prize in its history.
Since leaving The Times, Edward Klein has written many articles for Vanity Fair and other national magazines. For Parade, he wrote "Walter Scott's Personality Parade," the most widely read column in the English language.
JWR contributor and veteran journalist RICHARD Z. CHESNOFF was Senior Correspondent at US News & World Report, and is now a columnist at the NY Daily News and the Huffington Post. A two-time winner of the Overseas Press Club Award and a recipient of the National Press Club Award, he was formerly executive editor of Newsweek International. The paperback edition of his critically acclaimed book, "Pack of Thieves: How Hitler & Europe Plundered the Jews & Committed the Greatest Theft in History" is now on sale.