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Analysis: Does Biden have a Jewish voter problem?

Some prominent Democrats are worried that President Biden’s increasingly harsh rhetoric over Israel’s military campaign in Gaza is going to repel Jewish voters, a small but key constituency in a tight presidential race. 

After his stalwart support for Israel after Oct. 7, Biden in recent weeks has more explicitly and strongly criticized the war and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. And last week the U.S. abstained over a U.N. Security Council ceasefire vote instead of vetoing it. 

The change in tone follows a series of successful campaigns to encourage Democratic primary voters frustrated with Biden’s failure to pressure Israel for a ceasefire to cast “uncommitted” or blank ballots. The president’s mounting criticism of Israel may shore up his support among Arab and Muslim voters. But could it cut into his support among Jews?

“I believe that this administration, because of its political season, is taking American Jews for granted or has written us off,” said Abe Foxman, the former head of the Anti-Defamation League who in 2020 broke his tradition of not endorsing political candidates to back Biden. ”If they’re worried that the Arabs in Michigan will vote with their feet, they need to worry that Jews can also vote with their feet.”

And former Sen. Joe Lieberman, in a statement published after his death last week and co-authored by Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, warned that “pro-Israel voters have alternatives to simply staying home.” Dershowitz shared the statement — a response to the Security Council abstention — in The Wall Street Journal on Thursday and wrote that Lieberman approved its wording.

President Joe Biden hosts a Hanukkah reception in the East Room of the White House on Dec. 11 in Washington, D.C. Photo by Andrew Caballero-Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images

If history is a guide, however, Jews will flock to Biden in November. They have long favored Democrats, and voted for Biden over former President Trump by a 3-to-1 margin in 2020.

Halie Soifer, chief executive of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, said Jewish voters don’t view Israel as a higher priority than abortion rights and the fight to preserve American democracy, which many believe that Trump — the presumed GOP presidential nominee — threatens.

“This is not a typical election between two equal candidates,” she said. “I think that Jewish voters will rally behind Biden in the same or even greater numbers than they have in the past.” 

Still, many Jewish Americans are watching Biden closely over his dealings with Israel, which is defiant in the face of global condemnation over the war in Gaza. 

A recent survey commissioned for the Democratic Majority for Israel indicated that 44% of American Jews were more likely to vote for Biden because of his staunch public support of the Jewish state.

And a recent online survey of 800 American Jews conducted by the Jewish People Policy Institute showed that 69% of those intending to vote for Biden think Israel should enter Rafah to eliminate Hamas, despite Biden’s warning against it. 

Biden bends on Gaza

After Oct. 7, when Hamas attacked Southern Israel and killed 1,200 people and took 240 hostages, supporters of Israel praised Biden’s outrage on Israel’s behalf, and his promise to stand behind the Jewish state. 

But the war’s quickly mounting casualties outraged Muslim and Arab voters and many progressive Democrats who diminished Biden’s wins in recent Democratic presidential primaries. 

The  “Listen to Michigan” campaign garnered more than 300,000 voters in key swing states, including Michigan, Minnesota and Georgia. 

Biden has felt the pressure.

He acknowledged the protest vote in a recent interview with MSNBC. His campaign has reached out to critics of Israel’s response to Oct. 7. And last week the U.S. abstention allowed the Security Council’s first ceasefire resolution on the Gaza war to pass.

It was followed by the president’s endorsement of Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s speech calling for new Israeli elections, which drew strong condemnation from Israel’s advocates and prominent Jewish organizations. Then, on Tuesday, Biden stepped up his critique of Israel, expressing indignation over the deaths of seven humanitarian workers from World Central Kitchen caused by an Israeli airstrike.

“This conflict has been one of the worst in recent memory in terms of how many aid workers have been killed,” Biden said. 

The president’s growing public anger at Israel “strengthens our enemies because they see our most important ally distancing themselves every single day,” Foxman said. “If you start worrying about the Arab community not voting in Michigan,” Foxman said, “you should start worrying about Jews not voting in several states, which could make a difference.” 

Jewish voters are estimated between 1% to 3% of the electorate in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and Wisconsin — states that Biden won in 2020 by less than 3%.

A federal official with strong ties to the White House, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the president’s strategy, rejected the notion that Biden crafts his Gaza policy to please either Jews or Muslims.

The issue resonates with a broader range of voters, including evangelicals, he said. “There isn’t a clear path to what the best politics are.”

Trump eyes Michigan 

While Biden may struggle to please both stalwart supporters of Israel and stalwart opponents of the war, his Republican opponent seems to have avoided the problem. 

Though Trump lost the Jewish vote in 2020, Jews who traditionally vote Republican and have supported him in the past see him as an unwavering friend of Israel. 

That gives Trump an opportunity to capitalize on Biden’s vulnerabilities in Michigan. “You win Michigan, you win the election,” Trump said during a campaign stop in Grand Rapids on Tuesday. 

Since Oct. 7, Trump has said little on the war in Gaza, raising speculation that he is trying to outflank Biden from the left to win over Arab and Muslim voters in Michigan. In a recent interview with the Israel Hayom newspaper, Trump said Israel should “finish the job” in Gaza quickly for the sake of peace. And he criticized the war’s handling as a public relations disaster, without addressing the issue of hostages.

An October survey of 500 Arab American voters showed that while support for Trump has increased by 5% since the 2020 presidential election, support for Biden has plummeted from 59% in 2020 to 17%.

John Zogby, who conducted the poll for the Arab American Institute, said Trump’s practical approach to Gaza could attract some Arab voters. But more importantly, he added, the number of Arab voters Biden has already lost is “enough to do damage” to his prospects. 

Fred Zeidman, a Houston-based Republican donor who advised former GOP presidential candidate Nikki Haley on Israel, said Republican Jews ought to be “more vocal” in their support of Trump to dissuade him from catering to the critics of Israel.

“We’ve got to jack it up a little bit,” Zeidman said. “I think if he’s seeing no support from the Jewish community, it is not giving him near to a reason that he’s got to support Israel.” 

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