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Risky Invocations?

Any hoped-for “Jewish–evangelical alliance” in the 2012 election proved elusive.

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

By Mark I. Pinsky

In the 1868 presidential election, the estimated 75,000 Jewish voters in the United States were divided over whether to support the Republican nominee, Ulysses S. Grant. The popular Civil War general was thought to be an anti-Semite because of an order he issued during that conflict expelling Jews “as a class” from the areas he controlled in Tennessee, based on allegations that they were smugglers and trading with Confederates. When he heard of the edict, President Lincoln withdrew it, but among Jews the taint on Grant lingered. The alternative for those trying to decide who to support in the 1868 election was a Democratic Party associated with pro-slavery, antiblack sentiments abhorrent to most Jews, at least in the North.

“For the first time in American history,” wrote Brandeis University historian Jonathan D. Sarna in the spring 2012 issue of Reform Judaism, “a Jewish issue was playing a prominent role in a presidential campaign—the issue of multiple loyalties. The election prefigured a central conundrum of Jewish politics that remains relevant today: In selecting a presidential candidate, were Jews to cast aside all special interests and consider only the national interest?”

In 2012, the Jewish vote was again thought to be in play in the presidential election—especially in crucial swing states like Florida, where Jews are 3.4 percent of registered voters but make up 8 percent of the turnout, according to the University of Miami. Jewish voters were also considered important in Ohio, another battleground state, in the Cleveland and Cincinnati suburbs. A study released February 2, 2012, by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found an initial, dramatic shift among Jews to the Republican Party from 2008 to 2011, from 20 percent to 29 percent. A subsequent poll, conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute and released April 3, 2012, confirmed a margin of 30 percent Jewish support for the GOP. But a September 2012 daily tracking poll by Gallup put the Obama-Romney margin at 70–25—still a drop of four percentage points from Obama’s 2008 margin over John McCain.1

Perhaps more important was financial support to Republicans from prominent billionaires like Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, a major philanthropist to Jewish causes, who gave Newt Gingrich $20 million during the primary—and pledged $100 million more to back Mitt Romney. According to The New York Times, Adelson showed up, uninvited, at the office of former New York City mayor Ed Koch and said, “People have told me you’re the only person in the world that can elect Romney in Florida.” Koch, an Obama supporter, declined to help. Irving Moskowitz, a supporter of the pro-settlement movement in Israel, donated $1 million to American Crossroads, Karl Rove’s powerful conservative super PAC. Pro-Israel political action groups have contributed an estimated $47 million to federal candidates since 2000. Feebly outmatched, the Obama campaign mobilized a Tampa rabbi in the closing days of the campaign for robocalls to Florida Jewish voters.

For Republicans, a key issue was whether enough co-religionists unhappy with President Obama’s Middle East policy would join with Christian evangelicals in support of Romney. As the 2012 campaign heated up, an interfaith group called the Emergency Committee for Israel, led by evangelical Christian activist Gary Bauer and conservative editor William Kristol, who is Jewish, produced a thirty-minute video attacking what they claimed was President Obama’s lack of support for Israel.

Respective support for Israel and that government’s bellicose statements about Iran’s nuclear policy came up several times in the presidential debates. Apart from policy disputes, Romney alluded to Obama’s strained relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and chided the president for skipping Israel in his first foreign trip to the Middle East. Obama shot back that when he traveled to the Jewish state as a candidate in 2008, he visited the Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem and, unlike Romney’s campaign visit, he did not travel with a planeload of political donors.

Any hoped-for Jewish–evangelical alliance in 2012 was to some degree complicated by Romney’s Mormon faith; arguably, the former Massachusetts governor was the evangelicals’ fourth choice to be the GOP nominee.2 Once Romney’s nomination was secured, his campaign relied on former Christian Coalition wunderkind Ralph Reed to rally dubious evangelicals. Reed, who was tarnished in the lobbying scandal that centered around Jack Abramoff (whose hallmark was his Orthodox Jewish piety and philanthropy), returned to the field with a new organization, the Faith and Freedom Coalition, a $10- to $12-million war chest, and a highly sophisticated approach. He pledged to rally evangelical Protestants (and Mass-going Catholics) to the GOP nominee, utilizing a 17-million-name database, and 5,000 volunteers in 117,000 churches. Among the issues highlighted, a Reed aide told The New York Times, was “Obama’s testy relations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, an important issue for many evangelicals.”

As the campaign drew to a close in late October, and Romney appeared to falter in Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia, print and broadcast ads featuring Southern Baptist pastors Billy Graham and Mike Huckabee offered Romney endorsements based on abortion and gay marriage, but making no mention of Israel. Days before the election, Reed arranged a conference call to tens of thousands of his Faith and Freedom Coalition, in which Paul Ryan, the vice-presidential nominee, told evangelicals that Obama’s plans threaten “Judeo-Christian values.”

On Election Day, Jews supported Obama by a 69–30 margin nationally, a drop of nine points from 2008, according to the Pew Center. In Florida, where the GOP effort was most intense, the margin was 66–34. However, in the end, Jewish votes in Florida and Ohio proved unnecessary to President Obama’s victory.3 White evangelicals apparently overcame any unease with Romney’s Mormonism and gave him 78 percent support nationally—equal to their backing of George W. Bush in 2004—but in Ohio, where it counted most, only 70 percent of white evangelicals supported Romney.

While interfaith amity is a laudable goal (Jewish voters told pollsters they had no problems with a Mormon candidate), those with long memories have found the modern evangelical embrace of American Jews and Israel suffused with irony, since many Christians now claiming to be political allies have historic roots in virulent anti-Semitism.

Anti-Semitism like that embodied in Grant’s infamous General Orders No. 11 is deeply ingrained in this nation’s fundamentalist Protestant tradition, particularly in the South and the Midwest, where there is a history of hostility and disdain for Jews. In the early twentieth century, Jewish saloon keepers in the urban South, often Eastern European immigrants, were the targets of Christian temperance advocates during the drive to Prohibition. It is altogether likely that the antecedents of some of today’s fervid evangelical supporters of the Jewish state were in the mob of “good Christians” that lynched the prominent Atlanta Jewish community member Leo Frank in Marietta, Georgia, in 1915.4

Within Southern fundamentalism there “lurked a foreboding distrust of the foreigner, anyone who was not a Southerner and not Christian and therefore alien to the sameness all around,” wrote Eli N. Evans in his classic memoir, The Provincials: A Personal History of Jews in the South. Southern Jews like Evans were special targets of evangelism. Well into the twentieth century, in rural areas and small towns, Jews were thought to have horns, as veterans of World War II stationed at bases around the country recalled to their children and grandchildren.

Today’s evangelicals have largely rejected, and even reversed, their anti-Semitic past, so much so that in the presidential campaign of 1976, prominent Southern Jews like Morris Abram were at the forefront of efforts to convince their northern co-religionists that they had nothing to fear from that year’s evangelical Democratic nominee, Jimmy Carter. By the 1980s, growing numbers of self-described “Christian Zionists” were honoring their theological debt to biblical Judaism and had become staunch supporters of the State of Israel, many allying themselves with right-wing Israelis and American Zionists.

In the 2012 presidential campaign, many evangelicals did join right-wing, single-issue American Jews in citing the increasingly public friction between Netanyahu and Obama over Iran’s nuclear policy for their support of Romney. In late September, another group, called Secure America Now, began running ads in heavily Jewish areas of Florida that, without explicitly endorsing Romney, made this point with visuals of Netanyahu issuing warnings about Iran, and ending with a voice-over making an obvious reference to the GOP nominee’s rap on Obama: “The world needs American strength, not apologies.”

Cementing his support among both evangelicals and conservative Jewish voters, Romney made disparaging remarks about the Palestinians while on his visit to Israel. Later, he rejected the likelihood of a two-state solution—the official position of both the Bush and the Obama administrations—at a Boca Raton fundraising event that was secretly taped and then leaked by Mother Jones magazine.

However, this issue of U.S.-Israeli relations predates and extends beyond the most recent presidential campaign. Evangelicals form one of the largest contingents of tourists visiting Israel—faithful and fearless, regardless of the political or security atmosphere. At times, leaders like John Hagee seem far to Netanyahu’s right in their implacable opposition to a two-state solution—more Catholic than the pope, some might say—declaring “not one square inch” of territory should be given up to the Palestinians in a peace settlement.5

There are other evangelicals at the theological extremes who will frankly admit that their support of Israel is based on their belief that the “ingathering of Jews” in their biblical home is a prerequisite for the Rapture, the second coming of Jesus and the time when Jews will have the choice of accepting Christ or being thrown into the postmillennial fiery lake.

Even more problematic for Jewish congregational leaders are the steadfast ties between evangelical supporters of Israel and so-called Messianic Jews, converts to Christianity, considered annoying apostates—if not worse—by all branches of American Judaism. Evangelicals still see their Jewish friends and allies as legitimate targets for proselytizing, here and in Israel—and see no contradiction in that goal. Usually, single-issue Jewish supporters of Israel ignore both the conversion issue and the extremist theology, but for other American Jewish leaders, particularly rabbis, these are problematic issues.

The same April 3, 2012, Public Religion Research Institute poll found that, despite vociferous support for Israel, only 20.9 percent of American Jews had a favorable view of the Christian right, compared to favorability ratings of 47 percent toward Mormons and 41.4 percent toward Muslims.

For Jewish voters in 2012, the larger question remained whether the strategic support of U.S. evangelicals for the more extreme politics of Israel’s governing Likud coalition—like unlimited settlement construction on the West Bank and East Jerusalem, or bombing Iranian nuclear facilities—was worth the cost of joining their domestic opposition to Obama. In one poll, only 7 percent of Jewish voters said Israel is their top priority, according to the Pew Center. Last summer, the left-wing Jewish lobbying group J Street released a statement opposing “an unholy alliance between right-wing Christian Zionist Evangelicals and pro-Israel organizations.”

“The Christian right has a clear agenda for America that it is trying to advance in all levels of American politics, and this has to do with fundamental questions of our existence, such as church and state separation,” Rabbi David Saperstein, of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, told the Jewish Daily Forward. The Christian right’s agenda, he said, “makes it very difficult to change the filters through which the Jewish community looks at them.”

The Democratic pollster Jim Gerstein, who conducted a Jewish vote survey for J Street on Election Day, told the Forward that 53 percent of Jewish voters in November said they were primarily concerned with the economy, and only 10 percent said that Israel was a determining issue, despite the Jewish GOP campaign. Gerstein said that “all this money spent trying to move the Jewish vote on Israel didn’t matter.”

Progressive Jews may still join forces with evangelicals in general support for Israel and can continue to make common cause with like-minded Christians on policy issues regarding genocide, human trafficking, religious persecution, immigration reform, hunger, and global climate change. But Judaism’s prophetic tradition demands that it is the overarching cause of justice—economic and social justice, including reproductive and gay rights and health care reform—that most of us believe must be pursued and defended. To Israel’s governing Likud regime, these concerns are secondary; they don’t live in America. This means that American Jews don’t have to pressure the Obama administration only in the service of narrow tribal interests.

This, too, has historical precedent. In 1868, according to Sarna, a prominent Chicago rabbi named Liebman Adler wrote that, despite his pride in being a Jew, “It is different when I take a ballot in order to exercise my rights as a citizen. Then I am not a Jew, but I feel and act as citizen of the republic.” A strong supporter of racial equality, Adler said, “On Election Day, I do not ask what pleases the Israelites. I consult the welfare of the country.”


  1. This would not approach the split in the 1980 presidential election, when incumbent Jimmy Carter, an evangelical perceived to be weak on Israel, received only 45 percent of the Jewish vote—a modern low point for a Democrat.
  2. Evangelicals initially backed representative from Minnesota Michelle Bachman, governor of Texas Rick Perry (an evangelical Protestant), and then supported former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum (a Roman Catholic).
  3. This decrease in support among Jews was offset by an increase in Democratic support among Latinos. In Ohio, 82 percent of Latino voters backed Obama. And Obama pulled 60 percent of Florida’s Latino vote, up from the 57 percent he won in 2008, which included a thirteen-point gain among Cuban Americans.
  4. The urban North has its own history of anti-Semitism, voiced most infamously in the 1930s in Father Coughlin’s venomous radio broadcasts from the Shrine of the Little Flower outside Detroit.
  5. Some more moderate evangelicals and mainline Protestants demur, including a new group of Arab, European, and American Christians in Israel called “Christ at the Checkpoint.” The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has also come under withering attacks for its advocacy of an economic boycott of Israel.

Mark I. Pinsky is author of A Jew among the Evangelicals: A Guide for the Perplexed.

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