September 21st, 2011
08:02 AM ET
By Dan Gilgoff, CNN.com Religion Editor
(CNN) – These days, Republicans are hardly shy about coveting Jewish votes.
On Tuesday, Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry was in New York to blame President Barack Obama for this week's Palestinian push for statehood at the United Nations.
"We would not be here today at this very precipice of such a dangerous move if the Obama policy in the Middle East wasn't naive and arrogant, misguided and dangerous," Perry, the governor of Texas, said in a nationally televised speech during which he was surrounded by Jewish leaders.
Last week, many Republicans said their special election victory in a heavily Jewish New York congressional district that had been occupied by a Democrat for nearly 90 years was a sign of trouble between Obama and American Jews, among the most reliably Democratic voters in the nation.
"Jewish Americans were a strong part of the coalition that elected Barack Obama in 2008 only to feel like they were left at the altar after numerous broken promises from the president," Kirsten Kukowski, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, told CNN this week.
"The president's lack of leadership and failed policies have left the door open for the Republican Party."
But many American Jewish leaders - who know that observant Jews get married under a canopy called a chuppah, not at an altar - and experts on Jewish voting patterns are skeptical about the GOP Jewish offensive.
"Political observers and academics have been expecting a shift among Jewish voters for almost 40 years, since Jews tend to be high status, which is associated with voting Republican," said John Green, an expert on religion and politics at the University of Akron.
"But every time there looks like there's going to be a big shift in the Jewish vote," he said, "something happens to delay it."
For decades, Jews have voted for Democratic presidential candidates in lopsided proportions, with Obama taking 78% of the Jewish vote in 2008. That was roughly in line with Jewish support for previous Democratic presidential nominees, like John Kerry and Al Gore.
To be sure, there are signs of stress between Obama and the American Jewish community over Obama's stance toward Israel. Some American Jewish leaders have accused him of being too harsh on the Jewish state in its dealings with the Palestinians.
In March, Vice President Joe Biden, who was visiting Israel, denounced an Israeli plan to build apartments in a contested area of Jerusalem as "precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust we need right now."
And in May, many American Jewish leaders were angered over an Obama speech in which he suggested Israel return to pre-1967 borders, which excluded the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and other territory from neighboring countries.
"Is the president sometimes misguided in how honest he could be in discussing these matter with the American Jewish community?" says Jack Moline, a northern Virginia rabbi who is close to the Obama White House. "I'd say yes."
Obama's approval rating among Jews has declined over his first three years in office, as it has across demographic groups.
In September, 54% of Jewish Americans approved of Obama's performance as president, compared with 60% in June and 68% in May, according to Gallup polling.
But American Jewish leaders and experts say most Jews are loath to vote for a Republican presidential candidate, partly because most Jewish voters care about a lot more than Israel.
Though Orthodox Jews tend to be more socially conservative on issues like gay marriage, the overwhelming majority of American Jews belong to the Conservative or Reform movements, or are secular, and all those groups lean left.
Last week's special election in New York's 9th congressional district, which centers on Brooklyn and Queens, revolved largely around Obama's Israel policy. But the district's Jewish population, which is largely Orthodox, is not representative of the national Jewish community.
If the Republican Party were to get a substantial share of the Jewish vote, "it would be because of a confluence of attitudes, like concern about Israel, the economy, the low popularity of Obama and aggressive campaign among Republicans to court Jewish votes," says Green.
The Obama White House keeps in close contact with American Jewish leaders, trumpeting what it says is a close relationship with Israel around developments like this month's transport of the Israeli ambassador and staff out of Egypt after the Jewish state's embassy there was attacked, an operation in which the United States played a major role.
"The perceived distance between the president and some members of the Jewish community has been exploited by people who are interested in different outcomes in all sorts of arenas," said Moline, who is public policy director for the Rabbinical Assembly, the international association of Conservative rabbis.
"I don't want to say all of that is politics but there is some hyperbole."
Just this week, there was a conference call between Ira Forman, Jewish Outreach Director for the Obama campaign, and Jewish leaders, and a scheduled call with Obama and American rabbis for Thursday, according to Moline.
Some political observers say Republican overtures to Israel and to Jewish leaders are aimed more at American evangelical voters, a key part of the GOP base, than they are at Jews.
Support for Israel has become a key issue for American evangelicals, some of whom believe the country plays a key role in end times and others who believe there's a biblical mandate to honor the Jewish state.
"As a Christian I have a clear directive to support Israel," Perry said in remarks after his speech on Tuesday. "But that's easy for me. As an American and as a Christian I stand with Israel."
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.