By Nathan Guttman
1. A state of fear
This week, the American Jewish Committee released its annual survey which, this year, looks not only at the opinions of American Jews but also at those of Israeli and French Jews.
The results provide a fascinating snapshot of their views on politics, Israel and anti-Semitism. For American Jews, one response stands out: “Compared to a year ago, is the status of Jews in the United States more secure or less secure?” A majority, 65%, responded that Jews are less secure in America than they were a year ago. Only 15% thought that they are safer.
These results correspond with a Jewish Electoral Institute survey published a week earlier that asked a similar question, although it focused on the changing sense of security from the time Donald Trump took office. According to this survey, 73% of Jewish Americans feel Jews have become less secure in these past two years.
How much of this sense of insecurity has to do with politics and how much of it is a result of facts on the ground? Both factors come into play. The facts are indisputable. American Jews, after decades of relative safety, woke up the morning of October 27 to the news about the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, the worst attack ever on Jewish Americans, which left 11 worshipers dead. Exactly six months later, it was Poway, California, where an attack on a Chabad synagogue killed one member and wounded several others. Both were carried out by white nationalist extremists with a twisted anti-Semitic ideology. The Anti-Defamation League’s data confirms the fears of American Jews: These are record years in terms of violent attacks against Jews and of anti-Semitic vandalism.
So the sense of diminishing security Jewish Americans feel and express in these polls is well founded in facts. But does part of their response derive from their disagreement with America’s current leadership? The Jewish Electoral Institute survey provides some insight. When asked what needs to be done to improve the security of Jews in America, 43% said there was a need to help people “with the right values” get elected, and 39% responded by saying American Jews should “work to to get Donald Trump out” of office. On the other hand, 31% believe that the way to make America safe for Jews is to “press Democrats to condemn anti-Semitism.” (Respondents were allowed to choose up to two answers). In other words, just as anti-Semitism has become a political issue in America since the 2016 elections, so has the sense of safety American Jews feel. Adding to the indisputable factual claim that America has become a more dangerous place for Jews, there is also an added-on political tint. Democrats are likely to believe that the problem can be solved simply by removing Donald Trump. Republicans believe Americans will be safer when Democrats stand up to BDS and other forms of Israel-bashing. The truth, as always, is somewhere in between.
Most of the documented attacks on Jews and on Jewish property were carried out by white nationalists. Much of the sense of discomfort Jewish students feel on college campuses stems from the actions of anti-Israel activists. Trump could do a lot more to deal with the former instead of sending mixed signals. Democrats could take more action to respond to the latter. Restoring the sense of security to American Jewish life will require action on both fronts, but even more importantly, it will require the Jewish community to come to terms with the fact that old threats have come back to haunt the community and that safety and security of Jewish life in America are, once again, a paramount concern.
2. Is the political shift really happening?
Polls of Jewish Americans offer a wonderful opportunity to take the political pulse of the community. To be sure, the findings in terms of partisan shifts are largely meaningless, given the the relatively small sample group and the difficulty in reaching and defining Jewish voters.
But, since there’s nothing that moves the community more than predicting shifts in the elusive “Jewish vote,” here’s a quick take on where Jewish voters stand based on recent polls:
According to the AJC poll, 49% of Jewish Americans see themselves as Democrats, 18% Republican, 20% Independent and 12% described their party affiliation as “other.” This indicates a slight drop in Jewish support for the Democrats and an increase on the Republican side. The Jewish Electorate Institute’s survey confirms the small decline on the Democratic side but moves vote to independent, rather than Republican. Bottom line: There may be a Rashida Tlaib/Ilhan Omer effect among Jewish voters. Some on the margins may feel less at ease with their party. But this small shift, if any, will make little difference at the end of the day. Concerned Democrats aren’t becoming Trump supporters. In fact, the only constant and significant data point in all polls are the negative feelings Jewish Americans espouse toward Trump.
3. Shocker: Leaks plague meetings with Jewish leaders
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo sat down last week in New York with members of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish American Organizations. The meeting was a chance to brief the Jewish community, or at least leaders of most of its largest Jewish groups, about the Trump administration’s thoughts and plans regarding the Middle East. Then on Sunday, details of the closed-door meeting were revealed thanks to an extensive Washington Post article, based on a recording of Pompeo’s talk, apparently provided by one of the participants.
What made it interesting was Pompeo’s seemingly pessimistic, or realistic at best, view of the administration’s “deal of the century.” He is heard saying that the plan “may be rejected” and that some could argue the ideas included in it are “unexecutable.” There were those who expressed dismay not at the substance of Pompeo’s remarks but at the fact that content of a meeting between a senior administration official and Jewish leaders found its way to the press. “The fact that a guest at this meeting took an audio and provided it to the media is disgusting,” tweeted Ari Fleischer, a former Bush White House press secretary who is now an RJC board member. “The guests were fortunate to be invited to a meeting like this. To record it and release it is a betrayal of trust.”
But did Pompeo see it as a betrayal of trust? Probably not. Meetings in large forums are notoriously prone to leaks, and closed-door meetings with Jewish leaders are known to be anything but closed-doored. Pompeo, a veteran politician and former CIA director must have known that whatever he says would get leaked. The only surprise is that it took so long.
4. Owning and disowning the “deal of the century”
But back to the substance of Pompeo’s comments. He seemed to be dissing the peace plan, or at least expressing a fair amount of skepticism about it. This isn’t usually what senior officials do when discussing a plan about to be rolled out by an administration they are part of. But that’s exactly the point. Pompeo doesn’t necessarily feel part of the “deal of the century” and does not share the need to defend it. In fact, the State Department has been shut out of discussions about the peace plan, which was formulated by Jared Kushner, Jason Greenblatt and a small team at the White House. Another way of reading Pompeo’s comments: Hey, Jared came up with a plan. It might work, it might fail. Not my plan.
5. Trump’s lesson: Democracy (in Israel) can be messy
Israeli politics can be hard to follow, especially Netanyahu’s last-ditch maneuver last week in which he dissolved the Knesset after failing to form a new government. And one of those scratching their heads trying to figure out what’s going on in the “only democracy in the Middle East” is no other than President Trump. “Israel is all messed up with their election, I mean that came out of the blue three days ago. So that’s all messed up. They ought to get their act together,” Trump told reporters before taking off to the UK. “I mean, Bibi got elected, now all of a sudden they’re going to have to go through the process again until September. That’s ridiculous. So we’re not happy about that.” If only there was some kind of government agency or White House adviser who could help the president of the United States understand how Israel’s political system works.