Is the USA a Jewish country?

Jewish voters in the US: Israel policy does not play a major role

The sun is shining on the Sunday morning before Super Tuesday, but it's bitterly cold in Washington. Business is not really going well yet, people are walking past Marc Daniels with their hands in their coat pockets. The Jewish-American activist has something for almost everyone. Daniels sells kippas embroidered with the names of US presidential candidates, from Joe Biden to Donald Trump. This morning he set up outside a conference center in downtown Washington where AIPAC, the most powerful pro-Israel lobby group, holds its annual meeting.

"Yesterday the energy was different. At a Bernie Sanders election rally, I sold all of the Sanders kippas within 90 minutes," says Daniels. The fact that this variant of the Jewish headgear is now sold out is not a big problem on Sunday morning - the AIPAC is considered to be an extremely conservative organization and none of the customers who shop at Daniels on Sunday asks for a kippah with the name of the liberal candidate. On the contrary.

Eric, who describes himself as a "rather Orthodox Jew," buys a Trump and a Mike Bloomberg kippah. "I'm still undecided," he says. "Trump tweets too much, but he has good Israel politics. For the Democrats, I would only vote with Bloomberg, maybe Biden. But never Sanders!" On the plane from Chicago to Washington, a passenger told Daniels that he would only buy a Sanders kippah from him if he was allowed to burn it afterwards.

In return, Sanders, who is Jewish himself, has nothing to do with AIPAC. He announced in February that he would not be attending the conference because AIPAC "provides a stage for politicians who hold bigoted views and reject fundamental rights for the Palestinians." Anyone who offends a group of Jewish voters so shortly before Super Tuesday is taking a not inconsiderable risk.

Daniels wants to make the kippah socially acceptable: The motto of the author and hobby gardener is "Weed out hate", or "Tear out the roots of hatred".

Orthodox Jews are more likely to vote for Republicans

Although they make up only about 2 percent of the US population, people of Jewish faith are a hotly-favored group in the US election campaign. "Jewish voters are a very reliable group of voters," says Joshua Leifer, a journalist with the liberal Jewish magazine Jewish Currents. The voter turnout among American Jews is above average, and many are politically active. So good for those who can win them over early on.

The participants in the AIPAC conference form a small subgroup - they are more conservative than the majority of Jewish voters in the US. "Orthodox Jews are more likely to vote Republicans, but they only make up about 10 percent of the country's Jewish population," says Herbert Weisberg, professor emeritus of political science at Ohio State University and author of The Politics of American Jews. In fact, many of the AIPAC attendees are Trump supporters. With a total of 36 Trump kippas sold on Sunday and Monday, the Republican President was the absolute bestseller among Daniels' political headgear.

But one thing is also certain: every four years, the vast majority of Jewish voters vote for the democratic presidential candidate. Experts are not predicting otherwise for this year either - even though Trump recently presented a peace plan for Israel that in many respects favors the Jewish population of the state over the Palestinians. How does voting behavior come about?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was delighted with Trump's Middle East peace plan

Israel policy is not a decisive factor for the majority

The US "Israel policy is an important factor for Orthodox Jews and for Jews who have families in areas like the West Bank," says Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. But that does not apply to a majority of Jews in the USA. In a survey by the Jewish Electorate Institute from October 2018, Israel politics was the political issue that the participants attached the least importance to in their choice of election.

Weisberg also says that other factors, such as the growing number of anti-Semitic attacks, are more important to most Jewish voters. "Israel is an issue on paper for American Jews," said Weisberg. "But having police officers standing in front of their synagogue affects people directly. Many have been worried about being attacked because of their religion for the first time in their lives since Trump took office." According to Weisberg, these people would certainly not vote for Trump.

More anti-Semitism under a Jewish president?

The candidate currently leading the field against Trump is Bernie Sanders. Conservative Jews are more likely not to vote for him because of his pro-Palestinian views; nevertheless, he has a good chance of winning the nomination. He would then be up for election in November - and if he wins, he could become the first Jewish President of the United States.

"That would be a huge deal," says Ron Kampeas, Washington correspondent for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. "Some questions then arise: The president goes to church every Christmas and there is a lot of reports about it. How would a President Sanders deal with it?"

More importantly, what would a Jewish president mean to the people of his faith? "It would have inestimable importance for a people like ours, who throughout history have always had to fear our Christian neighbors, who could be our friends one day and our murderer the next," says the Jewish writer Talia Lavin. "The fact that one of us can win the highest office in the country through a democratic election would give us hope that we will belong here."

But there is also fear of a Jewish presidency. "There is concern among older Jewish voters that a Jewish president could lead to more anti-Semitic attacks," says Leifer of Jewish Currents magazine. In the past, a Jewish survival strategy was to attract as little attention as possible and not pay any attention to one's religion or outsider status, Lavin says. "With increased visibility, the risk of Jews drawing anger without their having done anything also increases." However, younger voters were less concerned about it.

Successful Bloomberg appearance

Sanders would be a possible Jewish president. It would not be an alternative for conservative AIPAC supporters, but it mobilizes many young voters, including Jewish ones. But New York's former mayor Michael Bloomberg is also of Jewish faith. The billionaire is highly controversial on the democratic basis, undecided voters from the middle of the political spectrum are more open to him.

The Trump and Bloomberg kippas were the best sellers among AIPAC attendees

Unlike Sanders, Bloomberg spoke at the AIPAC conference. He even appeared in person, while Biden just left a video message. "After Bloomberg spoke, people rushed out excitedly. I sold loads of Bloomberg kippas," says Daniels. "I think it was Biden's mistake not to come in person."

Whether Bloomberg can hold its own against Biden will be seen on Super Tuesday. Then Bloomberg is on the ballot paper for the first time.