Sarah Silverman and the Jewish vote

Sarah Silverman’s Great Schlep video has been making the rounds among my friends. It encourages young Jews to go visit old Jews in Florida to stop them from picking John McCain and Sarah Palin over Barack Obama and Joe Biden. The message, you see, is that the younger Jews “get it” and it’s old Jews who need to “get in line.” As a thirtysomething Jew in Florida who just traveled north for the High Holidays and worked to convince my relatives that their decision to vote for Obama was misguided, I find the Silverman video funny. Funny peculiar, not funny ha-ha.

A lot has been made of the Jewish vote this year, and sadly without much analysis. Can this tiny group of people -- 2% of the national population -- make much of a difference? Well, maybe, in a tight election. In Florida in 2000, just a few hundred people could have flipped the state and the election. In Ohio in 2004, about 60,000 voters (out of about 5.6 million) could have changed the outcome. But would that be your Bubbie? Does Zayde make a difference?

Because Jews tend to live in discrete locales and nearly all of them vote, the Jewish vote could be determinative in some places. There are not enough Jews or the vote is too lopsided in places such as Wyoming and California, but there are nine states where the size of the Jewish population was larger than the size of victory for either President Bush or Sen. John Kerry in 2004: Florida, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. All of these states except New York and New Jersey are so-called swing states in 2008.

But, of course, not all Jewish votes are movable. Since the time of Franklin Roosevelt, most Democratic presidential candidates have been able to count on about 75% of the Jewish vote, with some variation. Lyndon Johnson received as high as 90% of the Jewish vote in 1964, while Jimmy Carter received only 45% of the Jewish vote in 1980. Given these extremes, it seems that only about half of the Jewish population is actually in play.

And what are the issues that Jews vote on? As it turns out, what Jews care about are mostly the same things as the rest of the U.S. (Shock!) In a recent survey by the liberal J Street Group in Washington, the top three issues for American Jews are: the economy, the war in Iraq and healthcare. Just like for non-Jewish American voters, lunch-bucket issues rule the day and social issues -- separation of church and state, education and abortion -- are at the end of the list.

But there is one issue on which Jewish voters may be especially liable to swing: Israel. In the J Street survey, Israel falls in the middle of the list in terms of importance. And yet, in recent elections, when red flags are raised about political candidates on the issue of Israel, there can be large shifts among Jewish voters. Carter’s vote total plunged from 71% of the Jewish vote in 1976 to 45% in 1980, and President George H.W. Bush’s vote total dropped from 35% in 1988 to just 11% in 1992. Carter’s pro-Arabist approach to the Middle East and Bush’s withholding of a giant loan package to Israel in the face of massive Soviet immigration were the likely culprits -- positions that gave Jews that feeling in their kishkes that something was just not right.

The Great Schlep is meant to counteract the feeling that many Jews have right now that something is just not right about Obama.

Obama’s words strike a nice tone about Israel. In his speech before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, he proclaimed support for Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel. But the next day, the Obama campaign backtracked on that statement in a manner that numerous Jewish leaders described as troubling. In this election cycle he has claimed that he’s a strong supporter of Israel’s security, but he has previously said that “nobody is suffering more than the Palestinian people.” And he pointedly sidestepped a condemnation of Carter’s meeting with Hamas earlier this year.

It’s not just Obama’s words but his actions and associations that leave many Jews feeling uneasy. For some, it’s his association with the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., whose frightening anti-American, anti-Israel rants are matched only by the mind-boggling fact that Obama embraced him for 20 years and raised his daughters in Wright’s church. For others, it’s Obama’s relationships at one time or another during the campaign with folks such as Zbigniew Brzezinski, Samantha Power, retired Air Force Gen. Merrill “Tony” McPeak and Robert Malley that are a cause of great concern.

This crowd has left many Jews worried that Obama will, to put it charitably, not serve Israel well, either because these people instinctively blame Israel for the failure of Mideast peace initiatives, or justify the terrorist regimes that murder its citizens, or place terrorists and the dictatorships that enable them on the same moral plane as Israel.

A candidate’s stance on Israel represents for many Jews the way he views the world. Will he stand up for minority interests? Will he stand up for moral truths as opposed to moral relativism?

They want a president who recognizes that the rest of the world is not just like us and that, sometimes, the U.S. must lead the world, even if it makes us unpopular. They want a president who is able to call evil by its name and never forget that inhumanity is not only possible but omnipresent, to see unequal claims for what they are.

It’s Sarah Silverman who doesn’t “get it.” For me, going north and persuading my relatives to vote for McCain and Palin was no schlep at all. In fact, it was well worth the trip.

Anat Hakim is an attorney and writer who lives in Florida.