Jews in the 2016 Election: How Will They Choose?


October 26, 2016 by Matt Ellison

On Thursday, October 20, 2016 the Center for Jewish Civilization hosted a symposium on the question of how the Jewish community will vote in the upcoming U.S. Presidential election.

The symposium featured a number of speakers, among them the Center’s director Dr. Jacques Berlinerblau, Georgetown’s Director of Jewish Life Rabbi Rachel Gartner who gave a perspective on criminal justice issues grounded in Jewish scripture and rabbinical tradition, Jennifer Rubin of the Washington Post, Dr. Michele Swers of Georgetown’s Department of Government, Aaron David Miller of the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, and Elliot Abrams of the Council on Foreign Relations. 

Importance of Analyzing Jewish Voting Trends

Jacques Berlinerblau, the Director of the Center for Jewish Civilization in the Walsh School of Foreign Service, welcomed guests and described some historical and contemporary voting trends of Jews in American elections. Berlinerblau noted that this is the third such election symposium, the first being in 2008 and the second in 2012.

cjc-election-event-jacques-berlinerblau“I want to start first by putting out there an oft-heard complaint about symposia such as this one,” Berlinerblau said. “Namely, that these types of inquiries are unnecessary because Jews are not really a relevant storyline on the national level. I disagree, naturally, though I think we need to situate ourselves to understand the critique.”

Berlinerblau explained that Jews comprise around 2% of the United States population. “The irony is where Jews are majorly concentrated, the Jews are solid blue—in states such as New York, California, New Jersey and Illinois,” Berlinerblau added.

“Why then are we gathered today to discuss Jewish voting patterns?” Berlinerblau asked. “We are Jews and we are interested in Jews. Jews, given their positions of prominence in cultural and political institutions, play an outsized role in determining national elections, Jewish philanthropy powers campaigns on the left and the right, watching anti-Semitism by looking at elections, we learn things about the way Jews are thought of nationally.”

Berlinerblau noted the anti-Semitic tone, which has emerged as part of the election rhetoric, showing a slide with a Tweet from Donald Trump depicting Hillary Clinton alongside piles of dollar bills and a six-pointed Star of David. “There have been intimations in this election that we have not seen for decades, namely that anti-Semitism is being used as a means of galvanizing the base of the Republican Presidential candidate,” Berlinerblau said. “Jews have a reflexive antipathy not for Republicans, but for certain types of Republicans. In 2008, I wrote many columns about Sarah Palin’s inability to draw in Jewish voters who might have been McCain-curious.”

Foreign Policy in the 2016 Election: Elliott Abrams

Two prominent voices on foreign policy, Aaron David Miller and Elliott Abrams shared their perspectives ahead of the election. Elliott Abrams, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, served as Deputy National Security Advisor in the George W. Bush administration and teaches U.S. foreign policy in the Walsh School of Foreign Service. Abrams spoke about the role of Israel in the 2016 presidential election and gave his take on trends shaping the way American Jews will vote.

“It’s striking. Israel has not been much of an election issue. It is rarely mentioned over the last couple of months,” Abrams said. “Israel is rarely mentioned in the debates, which is a bit surprising because it has been a big issue for American Jews over the last eight years of the Obama administration.”

“How are Jews going to vote in this election? Jews are going to vote the way Jews vote in every election,” Abrams said. “Jews are going to vote for the Democratic candidate in very heavy percentages—eighty percent, eighty-five percent—at least among the non-Orthodox.”

“The more interesting questions are what will U.S.-Israeli relations be like under a new administration? I assume, here, a Clinton administration. What will major issues be? What will the relationship between the American Jewish community and Israel be?”

cjc-election-event-elliott-abrahms“Relations between the—I’m assuming—the Clinton administration and the government of Israel are going to be better,” Abrams said. “They will be less tense than relations have been over the last eight years. Frankly, because President Obama and Susan Rice, his National Security Advisor, are going to leave their jobs. There has been a special problem here.”

Abrams pointed out that the main issues concerning the Obama administration with respect to the U.S.-Israeli relationship were Iran and the Israeli settlements in occupied territories. While the U.S. government’s concerns about Iran are the same concerns many of its allies share, Abrams described the importance of the settlements issue as more discretionary. “With the settlements issue, you can decide is a gigantic issue or you can decide is a less central issue,” Abrams said.

On how the American Jewish community will vote, and to what extent they support Israel, Abrams explained that he sees two issues that shape trends.

“Israel has a right-of-center government, while most American Jews are left-of-center,” Abrams said. “That problem isn’t going to go away. Most Israelis are simply more hawkish than most American Jews. That is, they live in a very hostile region, and they are just more oriented towards the use of force to defend themselves than most American Jews are.”

Citing Democratic campaign emails leaked on Wikileaks in which Clinton campaign staffers discussed how and when to mention Israel, Abrams criticized selective support that hinged on whether “donors” or “Democratic party activists” were in the audience. “Israel is to be mentioned with rich Jews to raise money, but not with Democratic party activists,” Abrams said. “Why not? They don’t like Israel. What we saw from the Sanders campaign is that there is a problem here. I would argue that this is not a new problem and it’s a global problem—the left in Europe, the left in Latin America is extremely critical of Israel. Why should it be so surprising that the American left is critical of Israel?”

Foreign Policy in the 2016 Election: Aaron David Miller

Dr. Aaron David Miller served in the U.S. State Department for twenty-five years and has advised both Republican and Democratic secretaries of state. He currently serves as Vice President for New Initiatives at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

cjc-election-event-aaron-david-miller“Since there are no comprehensive solutions to any of these [policy] issues, only outcomes, I’ve dedicated my life for the past thirteen years since leaving government to try to explain to people that in order to change the world, you have first to understand the way it is,” Miller said.

The notion that—with probably the exception of Israel—our values and interests are somehow aligned with our key allies [in the Middle East] is just not right,” Miller explained. “Yes, we share common values with the Israelis but we do not share coincidental interests with the Israelis across the board. With no other Arab state in this region do our values and interests even begin to align. We have to recognize the fact the we have to rely on imperfect partners.”

He went on to talk about the candidates’ approach to foreign policy, saying,  “There’s probably less difference between Mr. Trump and Mrs. Clinton, and more certainty and predictability [on foreign policy].”

“On Israel, with respect to the basic positions, I suspect Mr. Trump would be quite predictable, but many Israelis and other observers don’t see it that way. Many observers would argue that Mr. Trump’s unpredictability, his absence of experience, and his tendency to change position and vary his view are quite troubling and—in a Middle East marked by great uncertainty—what you need is a predictable and stable candidate who knows the terrain, who knows the real estate.”

“The one exception would be that Mr. Trump has been on record as wanting to renegotiate the Iran nuclear deal, if not disband it. Now whether more practical advisors would persuade Mr. Trump that he does not want to take on this issue unilaterally, cancel the accord, or take unilateral acts by the United States that would trigger its death spiral.”

“You could see a set of circumstances in which the Iran agreement would wither. And I think that is a profound difference between the two candidates.”

“With Mrs. Clinton, I think it’s quite clear that what you see is what you get. This may be [a change] election in many respects, but I would argue it will not be a change election on many of the core issues. On Iran, she may be tougher in terms of enforcement and more risk ready to confront Iranian behavior in the region but she initiated the secret channel that led to the agreement and ultimately will defend it. On the U.S.-Israel relationship, she is a proponent within certain limits, and on the pursuit of Israeli-Palestinian peace, without a sense of ownership on the part of the parties and without some opportunity that compels her to take risks, I suspect that this will not be a priority.”

The Case for Electing Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump

Advocates for the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates presented cases for voting for their respective nominees in November. Clarice Feldman, a retired Department of Justice attorney and contributing writer at the American Thinker, spoke on “Jews for Trump and the Radicalization of the Democratic Party” and Steve Rabinowitz, former Clinton White House aide and founder of Jewish-Americans Ready for Hillary, made the case for Jews to elect Hillary Clinton.

Feldman expressed in strong terms her support for Donald Trump, which consisted primarily of her opposition to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “The federal government’s broad expansion in recent decades has led to massive corruption. If you want to cut up corruption in government you have to reduce the size of government,” Feldman added.

Feldman spoke at length about issues relating to Clinton’s use of a private email server as Secretary of State. “There were really three scandals involved in the email scandal,” Feldman said. “Secrecy is the keystone of all tyranny.”

“There’s nothing in his record to show that [Trump is] racist. You’ve got to stop letting these emotional appeals shape your beliefs,” Feldman said.

cjc-election-event-steve-rabinowitzSteve Rabinowitz served in the Clinton White House and runs Bluelight Strategies, a Washington-based public relations firm. Rabinowitz has been a vocal supporter of Mrs. Clinton and in 2014 founded Jewish-Americans Ready for Hillary.

“The Jewish community is overwhelming with Hillary and for a million reasons from healthcare to women’s and LGBT issues,” Rabinowitz said. “She’s the most qualified candidate and she has a phenomenal record.”

On Trump, Rabinowitz said, “He appeals to racists and to the alt-right. He talks about ‘American First’ this isolationist, nativist line. He retweets anti-Semitic tweets. [Former Israeli Prime Minister] Shimon Peres said that Trump’s ‘America First’ was a great mistake.”

“He fundamentally misunderstands Russia and Syria, Korea and Japan, the nuclear triad, and Israel.” Rabinowitz said. “I think Hillary rocks. She’s not perfect; she’s flawed. We’re all flawed; we just get to see her in public everyday. Donald Trump is absolutely disqualified. You hear this a lot: this is a binary choice.”

“I thought I had seen it all in forty years in presidential electoral politics,” Rabinowitz said. “But no, [Trump’s rise] was phenomenally impressive and no one saw it coming.”

“It’s so terrible that there will be twenty percent of the country that believes she ascended the presidency somehow illegally, illegitimately, or criminally. It’s awful and I don’t know how we’re going to get past it. I think there’s a role for faith leaders,” Rabinowitz said.

With the election quickly approaching, the Center for Jewish Civilization’s day-long conference illustrated many of the issues which are important to American Jews in making their voting decision.