Ofer Bavly

Presidential Support – a Rift Between US Jews and Israelis?

American Jews have traditionally supported Democratic presidential candidates by large margins. This has been the case in all 26 elections since 1916 with an average of over 70% of Jews voting for candidates from the Democratic Party. The single exception was the 1920 presidential race, when Republican Warren G. Harding won 43% of the Jewish vote to Democrat James Middleton Cox’s 19% of the Jewish vote. The highest percentage of Jews voting for a Democrat was 90% (in 1940 and 1944 for FDR and in 1964 for Johnson). The lowest Jewish support for a Democrat was 45% (1980, for Carter), still more than the number of Jews who voted on that year for GOP candidate Ronald Reagan.

While final numbers are still not available, it appears that the 2020 elections again brought a very high percentage of Jewish voters to prefer the Democratic candidate. According to an American Jewish Committee (AJC) poll conducted in September 2020, 75% of Jewish voters intended to vote for Joe Biden while only 22% intended to vote for President Trump. President Trump, his well-publicized family ties to the Jewish faith and his pro-Israel policies notwithstanding, did not manage to win over the Jewish community. There are many historical and other reasons for the massive turnout of American Jews in favor of Democratic candidates and the latest results seem to be in line with that historical trend.

Interestingly, the popularity of the two presidential contenders among Israeli citizens was almost an exact opposite image of their popularity among American Jews. According to a “Direct Pulse” poll conducted in Israel on October 12, 63.3% of Israelis showed support for President Trump while only 18.8% said they supported Joe Biden. The number of Trump supporters was even higher when discounting Arab citizens. The numbers, of course, have no effect on voting patterns in the US since Israelis do not cast their ballots in US elections. In fact, the number of eligible American voters residing in Israel is around 300,000, representing roughly half of one electoral vote (of the 270 necessary to elect a President).

But while Israelis do not determine the identity of the American President, Trump’s popularity among Israelis is important in its contrast to what our sisters and brothers in the US feel about him.

The essential discrepancy arises from the fundamental difference in the way American Jews and Israelis view any American presidency. For American Jews, the focus is naturally on domestic issues which have a more direct bearing on their lives. That is not to say that a President who clashes with Israel will not suffer in the polls, but by and large, American Jews vote as Americans first and as supporters of Israel second. The prevailing set of moral values and positions on social issues as well as historic allegiances determine a broader identification with the Democratic Party. When viewed through this lens, in addition to his own 40-year pro-Israel record, it is understandable why support for Joe Biden among American Jews is natural and hardly different from the previous hundred years. The trend in 2020 was further enhanced by concerns over growing polarization and radicalization in the US and its effect on American Jews as well as the commensurate rise in the incidence of Anti-Semitic attacks on Jews and on Jewish establishments, especially synagogues.

Israelis, on the other hand, tend to view any American Presidency through a very narrow prism of its foreign policy and more specifically – its policy on Israel and the Middle East (and in the past decade or so, chiefly on Iran). The essential question on the mind of Israelis is: is it good for us? When viewed through this particular lens, Israelis judged the Trump Presidency on the merits of its policies which are most relevant to us: moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem, recognizing Israeli claims on the Golan Heights, brokering the Abraham Accords and taking the US out of the widely unpopular Iran nuclear deal, have all made President Trump very popular among Israelis who generally care more (and are better informed) about these issues than about his domestic policies.

Another factor influencing Israeli views on American Presidents is the gradual shift in Israeli public opinion towards the right wing. The trend, which translates into a sustained support for Likud and other right-wing parties in Israel, has given the leadership in Israel to right-wing coalitions with few exceptions in almost every national election in the past forty years. The voter base that prefers right-wing parties in Israel generally tends to identify more closely with GOP candidates in the US.

There have been Israeli politicians – most famously Abba Eban and Shimon Peres – who proved more popular among American Jews than among Israeli voters. Obviously and appropriately, Israelis do not base their votes on how well their American cousins like a particular Israeli party or politician. Similarly, American Jews use their own calculus to inform their votes, and, as the 1980 low support for Jimmy Carter demonstrates, when a candidate’s positions on Israel vary significantly, they do consider that factor.

Does this mean that we are facing a huge divide between American Jews and Israeli Jews? Not necessarily, though some analysts claim it does. In fact, some are saying that the divide between us on President Trump is nothing short of a rift that sets our two communities on separate and ever-differing paths. That doomsday scenario may be exaggerated, given that the ties that bind us together, Israelis and American Jews, are simply too strong and too deep to be erased only because we differ on our view of the Trump presidency. To put things in a historical perspective, President Obama – who was famously at odds with Prime Minister Netanyahu – at one time received an approval rating among Israelis that was in the single digits. Sentiments about Israel among American Jews were likely influenced only to a minor degree by this fact.

At the most basic level, US Jews and Israelis share a history of kinship and brotherhood which goes back to before the establishment of the state. Our strong bond has withstood many ups and downs and while disagreement over President Trump represents a significant difference of option, it will likely not be enough to erase our common past. The fundamental support of American Jewry for the idea of Israel and the Zionist ideal has not diminished simply because Israelis supported President Trump during his presidential term. Similarly, Israelis will likely feel no diminished kinship with American Jewry simply because it voted overwhelmingly for Biden. Though some Israeli experts claim that the two communities are farther apart than ever before, that is likely a temporary gap rather than a permanent one.

In fact, it is likely that the Biden victory in the 2020 race might actually halt the gradual (or temporary) drifting apart of Israelis and American Jews. Israelis who will examine his Middle East policy and his attitude towards Israel as well as that of designated Vice President Harris will likely see an administration that will, like its predecessors, value our strategic alliance and reinforce it. Once the Israeli and Middle Eastern policy of the new administration is clearer, American Jews and Israelis will likely remember once again that the ties that bind us together are far stronger than the differences between us arising from our diverging perspectives on the US Presidency. Israelis will continue to respect the fact that American Jews vote on domestic issues and make their pro-Israel sentiments heard through their Congressional representatives, and American Jews will continue to recognize that Israelis view the US Presidency on the merits of its foreign rather than its domestic policy.

Most importantly, though more of Israeli and American life seems to be consumed with 24/7 politics, the ties between Israelis and American Jews transcend the political. Millions of us have family in the other country. Travel between us is frequent. Cultural, religious, athletic, academic, commercial, and civic exchanges are routine. We share a language, a heritage and a future that no political divide can ever break. At the end of the day, we are destined to be one family.

About the Author
Ofer Bavly was a diplomat with the Israeli Foreign Service from 1991 to 2014, serving in Israel's Embassies in Madrid and Rome. He was Policy Advisor to two Foreign Ministers and was Israel's Consul General to Florida and Puerto Rico. He currently heads the Israel office of the Jewish Federation of Chicago / Jewish United Fund
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