Sheldon Adelson’s Israel fixation doesn’t represent American Jews

Stephen Richer Law Student, University of Chicago
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It’s often said that a conversation between two Jews yields at least three opinions. But if you followed coverage of the Republican Jewish Coalition’s recent Las Vegas meeting, you might think that American Jews all agree on at least one thing: that the U.S.-Israel relationship is the most important electoral issue.

  • “All the prospective candidates who turned up in Vegas stressed their support for Israel in speeches and private meetings with Adelson.” — Politico.

  • “Several speakers on Saturday emphasized their deep concern for Israel’s security, an issue of paramount importance to Adelson.” — CBS News.

  • “At [the] RJC summit, presidential hopefuls focus on Israel.” — The Times of Israel.

  • “Christie, the New Jersey governor, gushed about his trip to Israel.” — The Washington Post.

This imputation — that American Jews are one issue voters — might describe a handful at the RJC event (enough for a minyan?), but it is a wildly inaccurate characterization of American Jews in total. Poll after poll shows that Israel does not drive the American Jewish vote. Instead, we Jews primarily care about oddities such as the economy. Here’s CNN on the Jewish vote:

For the vast majority of Jews, Israel ranks surprisingly low in their considerations as voters. Early in 2012, the Public Religion Research Institute found that among self-identified Jewish adults, 51 percent of those registered to vote cited the economy as the most important issue driving their voting decision. Fifteen percent cited the growing gap between the rich and the poor, while 10 percent cited health care and 7 percent the deficit. Only 4 percent cited Israel as the most important issue to their vote.

And here’s a study from the American Jewish Committee that puts the U.S.-Israel as the fifth most important issue for American Jews:

Most Important Issues in Deciding Presidential Vote

Most commentators agree that Israel only comes into play in presidential elections when one candidate is truly awful on the subject. Only Jimmy Carter has managed this feat: in 1976, 71 percent of Jews voted for Carter; that number dropped to 45 percent in 1980 (Carter still, however, won the Jewish vote). President Obama seemingly cleared the Israel bar (76 percent of American Jews in 2008, 69 percent in 2012), and that means the Israel bar must be pretty low.

Looking to 2016, there is no way Hillary Clinton fails the unwritten Israel test. The only candidate that might have difficulty is Rand Paul. Accordingly, any candidate looking to win the Jewish vote in 2016 can offer a quick nod to Israel, but he should focus on social liberalism and government spending — basically, he should be a Democrat.

Republicans probably aren’t too interested in the quixotic quest for the majority of the Jewish vote; they want to win one Jewish vote: that of Sheldon Adelson. Adelson spent $10 million on Newt Gingrich in the 2012 primary and $30 million on Romney’s general election. Considering both Gingrich and Romney spent $5 million on the entire state of South Carolina (an important state in the primary cycle), Adelson’s money makes a big impression.

Adelson clearly cares a lot about Israel, so Republican hopefuls did what made sense; they fixated on Israel. No blame there (except the over-the-top comments such as when Governor Walker offered the Hebrew translation of his son’s name). But I wish that journalists covering the subject would make some effort to distinguish Sheldon Adelson from the RJC from the average Jewish voter. The implied “must-talk-about-Israel-to-Jewish-voters” storyline is at best inaccurate, and at worst, it lends credence to the obnoxious dual loyalty canard.