The Magazine

Where the Jews Vote Republican

One thing Israelis and Palestinians can agree on is that Obama is bad news.

Oct 13, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 05 • By WILLY STERN
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Such positions didn't go down well with American Jewry, and Obama backed off them in his well-publicized AIPAC speech in early June. The late Milton Himmelfarb famously said that Jews "earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans." Democratic candidates typically pull at least 65 percent of the Jewish vote in any presidential race. Kennedy, Johnson, Humphrey, and Clinton broke the 80 percent barrier. Bush, the greatest friend Israel has ever had in the White House, grabbed a meager 19 percent (2000) and 24 percent (2004) of Jewish voters. The latest Gallup Poll gives Obama 66 percent of the Jewish vote: not great, but comparable to Mondale's and Dukakis's tallies.

In Israel, though, it's an entirely different matter. "Israel is the only place on the globe in which the public genuinely likes the Bush administration," notes Shlomo Brom, a retired Israeli brigadier general who studies national security issues at Tel Aviv University's Jaffe Center for Strategic Studies. "McCain is widely seen as an extension of Bush by the Israeli electorate." No one should be surprised that Obama trailed McCain 38 percent to 31 percent in a late July poll of Jewish Israelis. (In May, McCain was up 43 percent to 20 percent over Obama.)

"We respect war heroes in Israel, especially those like McCain who were POWs," notes Mitchell Barak, managing director of the Jerusalem-based Keevoon Research, Strategy & Communications. "We see Obama fantasizing about how he wants to sit down and talk to the terrorists, and he loses a lot of Israelis right there. He comes off as unrealistic and insensitive to the existential challenges facing the Jewish state, and as naïve."

Naïve, indeed. It's a theme that popped up frequently when I mentioned Obama's name. Obama lacks experience. Obama doesn't understand how to deal with terrorists in general, and radical Islamic terrorists in particular. Obama thinks a court of law is the right forum for dealing with terrorists. Obama thinks the U.N. is a dandy place to solve difficult problems. Obama would have happily lost the Iraq war. Obama would cede regional hegemony to the Iranians. And so on.

Most Israelis, who live daily with the threat of terrorism, simply don't trust Obama. Take the residents of Sderot, a smallish Israeli city perched half a mile from the Gaza Strip. Since 2001, 7,000-8,000 rockets have rained down on Sderot from Gaza. Fifteen Israelis have died in these attacks and more than 600 have been wounded. Mayoral aide Shalom Halevi points out that Hamas aims the rockets at Sderot's schools and shoots them over just before the school day with the intent of killing or terrorizing children walking to school.

Sofhi and Eli Cohen reside at the quiet end of a street named Derech HaAliyah on the northwest edge of Sderot. On the morning of May 10, a Qassam rocket sailed through their back wall, blowing up a good portion of their two-story house. As luck would have it, nobody was killed, though two of the Cohens' four children were injured.

"Everybody in Sderot prefers McCain to Obama," explains the soft-spoken Sofhi, as she bakes in her kitchen on a Friday afternoon. Despite the fact that her house has been blown to bits and her husband is outside working on the repairs, she has graciously invited me to join her family for the Sabbath meal. "McCain understands terrorists and how to deal with them," she says. She's "quite surprised" and "disappointed" to hear that American Jews prefer Obama. "Obama seems nice, but he's like a child."

And for those who live with terrorists just down the road, a child clearly won't do in the White House. "Obama is young, charismatic, and smart," says Eli Moyal, the straight-talking mayor of Sderot, who has met with both candidates. "But McCain's a more serious guy." The mayor's message to American Jews: If you care about Israel's security, vote for McCain.

Obama supporters turn up in Israel in all the usual places--the media, the universities, etc. Typical among Israeli leftists is the delightful Colette Avital, a Labor member of the Knesset who speaks seven languages, has a Harvard degree, and spends her days sincerely worried about feeding poor Israeli kids who may go to bed hungry. "Bush has screwed up the Middle East and has lost America what little clout it had in the Arab countries," she explains. "Maybe Obama would bring more imaginative thinking to the peace process, towards dealing with Iran and the other issues which matter to us."