Jewish Democrats say she’s the best thing that could happen to them in 2012, and Republicans say she’s almost beside the point as Jewish voters sour on President Barack Obama’s Israel policies, runaway budget deficits and a faltering domestic agenda.
Welcome to the first skirmishes of Campaign 2012 and the adventures of Sarah Palin, the former governor of Alaska, 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee and maybe the latest in a line of Evangelical Christians who think Bible prophecy is being fulfilled in today’s Middle East conflict.
Palin, touring to promote her new book “Going Rogue,” sparked reactions ranging from concern to bafflement when she criticized Obama administration pressure on Israel over Jewish settlements — and said settlement growth is needed for the many Jews who will be “flocking to Israel in the days and weeks and months ahead.”
Was she simply misinformed about recent immigration trends in Israel — or was she echoing popular millennial prophecies that predict a great ingathering of Jews in the last days before Israel is consumed in the terrible wars signaling the coming of the Christian Messiah?
A leading analyst of the religion-politics intersection said the latter is the only likely interpretation.
“This notion of Jews flocking to Israel in the days and weeks ahead can only come from a pre-millennialist perspective,” Mark Silk, a Trinity College professor and director of the school’s Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life, told The Jewish Week. “It seems to be her frame of reference when it comes to the Middle East.”
A prominent Jewish Republican, though, scoffed at that interpretation.
“This was just Sarah being Sarah,” said this political veteran, who asked not to be identified. “This is a sideshow; the real issue is President Obama’s failed domestic agenda and his even worse Middle East policies.”
But Jewish Democrats see in Palin an opportunity to hammer home the point they have been making for years — that the GOP is increasingly in the clutches of political and religious extremists, including those who want to love Israel to death for theological reasons.
Political scientists aren’t predicting sweeping changes on the Jewish voting landscape. But some agree that the new Democratic administration has displayed some surprising vulnerabilities that could affect the Jewish vote in next year’s congressional midterms, when the Democrats will likely face significant losses, and in the nascent 2012 races.
Kean University political scientist Gilbert Kahn said Jewish voters are heavily influenced by the perceived competence of presidential candidates, and that “President Obama is vulnerable because he’s not evidencing the ability to manage much of anything.”
But potential GOP gains could be offset if the party is seen as veering off in the direction of the Christian right, Kahn predicted.
“Espousing the political theology of John Hagee [a Texas mega church preacher and founder of Christians United for Israel] and guys like him would be a disaster for any party’s potential nominee,” Kahn said. “Most of the Jewish community will recognize that. That doesn’t mean Evangelical Christians haven’t developed good relations with many in the pro-Israel community. But Jewish voters will take that relationship only so far.”
In some ways, the early 2012 skirmishing is a case of deja vu all over again. Once again, the Republicans are predicting the mass disillusionment of Jewish voters with the Democrats — despite their withering loss with that segment in last election. Once again, Jewish Democrats are downplaying concerns in pro-Israel leadership circles about Obama’s Middle East policies.
Few dispute that Jewish voters are echoing the broader decline in President Obama’s approval ratings. The most recent survey data is an early October Gallup poll showing 64 percent of American Jews approving of Obama’s job performance, the second highest approval rating, behind those professing no religion, but an apparent plunge from last year’s numbers. Among Protestants, Obama’s approval rating was about 47 percent.
But the new Jewish numbers represent a big drop from the 78 percent of the Jewish vote Obama garnered last November.
“I don’t know that anybody is making political calculations based on 2010 or 2012,” said Matthew Brooks, the longtime director of the Republican Jewish Coalition. “What you do see is deep concern among Republicans, but also on a bipartisan basis, about the policies and positions of this administration.”
Concerns include what many see as an indecisive approach to Iran and mixed messages about the Middle East peace process, he said.
“Raising questions about Israel’s fundamental right to build in places like [the east Jerusalem neighborhood of] Gilo, and about the sovereignty of Jerusalem, represents a fundamental miscalculation, and plays into concerns many Jews have about his administration’s policies,” Brooks said. “Also, there is widespread concern about the sloppiness about the way this administration is conducting its foreign policy, including the Hillary Clinton visit, in which she said one thing at one stop, something completely different two hours later.”
That, he said, “sends a horrible message about this administration’s lack of focus and discipline.
Jewish voters, Brooks said, are increasingly upset about continuing unemployment and skyrocketing budget deficits — the reason 38 percent of Jewish voters voted for the Republican victor in the recent New Jersey governor’s contest, according to a RJC analysis.
In private, Jewish Democrats concede that Obama’s standing in the Jewish world has slipped, along with his overall rating in the polls. Much of that, they argue, is the inevitable decline that comes after the excitement and glitz of the campaign give way to the hard realities of governing.
Ira Forman, CEO of the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC), said the battle now underway for dominance within the GOP and this month’s Palin-mania point to factors that have kept Jews from crossing the partisan line in the past, despite the rising affluence of some and despite concerns about Democratic policies on Israel.
“It’s a cultural issue; there is a non-rational, anti-intellectual, white Evangelical base in the party that is antithetical to the culture of most American Jews,” Forman said.
And that base is best exemplified by Sarah Palin and the fervent supporters who have mobbed her at recent book signings, he said. Palin’s presence on last year’s GOP ticket was a major factor in Obama’s 78 percent victory among Jewish voters, he said.
“Jews tend to respond to candidates who know the issues, who give the impression of competence,” he said. “When we see a non-rational appeal like Palin’s, we tend to be very uncomfortable.”
Forman agreed that Palin and her supporters may be trying to unite two historic threads in recent GOP politics — angry economic populism and the “culture war” politics of the Christian right — and said that both are factors in keeping Jews wedded to the Democrats.
Forman argued that with Palin rising in the GOP standings and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee — a former Baptist preacher who is seen as going after both Christian right and conservative Jewish voters — at the head of the pack, the Republicans face an undiminished problem with mainstream Jewish voters.
And he says the growing unwillingness of GOP leaders to confront extremist elements that have come to dominate the “tea party” movement will add to their woes with all minority voters.
Forman seemed sure that Palin was referring to the Christian apocalypse in her comments about settlement growth. “I don’t want to prejudge it,” he said. “But I don’t see any other rational explanation.”
Jeffrey Goldberg, a blogger for The Atlantic, interviewed a prominent expert on millennial theology, Dr. Thomas Ice of the Pre-Trib Research Center at Liberty University, who agreed Palin’s statements reflected the prophetic view of a massive ingathering of Jews in Israel as a precondition of the Second Coming.
Silk, the Trinity College professor, told The Jewish Week, “I tend to resist the automatic response of the left that every expression of support for Israel from evangelicals is a reflection of the millennial point of view. But her trajectory is more theologically out there. This is one case where something she said may be giving us a peek behind the curtain.”
Some analysts say the Palin surge is just the latest media sensation, likely to quickly fade away. University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato said GOP leaders understand that a Palin candidacy would be suicidal for the party
“If Palin is the GOP nominee in 2012, Obama will win easily,” he said. “It is that simple. Obama’s margin will be so large that no group is going to matter very much. A Democratic leaning segment of voters might defect to a mainstream GOP nominee, but not Palin. It isn’t even a credible threat.”
Harder for the GOP to deal with will be the angry populism that has given birth to the tea party movement — and the Sarah Palin phenomenon.