Americans who care deeply about Israel will be faced with a big decision when they go to the polls on Nov. 6.
They'll need to ask themselves first whether or not a candidate's stance on Israel should sway their vote in any way. They'll also need to determine if there is a significant difference between the two candidates on Israel.
Earlier this month, Israeli author and journalist Yossi Klein Halevi had it out with Dr. Yehuda Kurtzer, president of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, in a video debate produced by the Hartman Institute. The debaters were asked whether or not they think Israel will play a significant role in Jewish American voting.
"It continues to be the case," said Kurzter, "that American Jews don't vote primarily … on the basis of Israel. This is not the dividing issue."
Kurzter explained that American Jews are primarily Americans, which means they primarily vote based on their pocketbooks and an overall network of values that align them with one party or another.
"For me, it's the social issues — the freedom to choose whether you have a child or not, who you want to marry or not marry, the freedom to serve in the armed services regardless of your sexual orientation … I am a social worker, and these are the things I am interested in," said Sally A. Neustadt of Baltimore City.
"Israel is important to the Jewish community," said Sen. Ben Cardin. "But the Jewish community is concerned about multiple issues. They are concerned about social issues, the economy, civil liberties. … The situation in the Middle East raises concern about security there … but it is not necessarily the sole focus of Jewish voters today."
But maybe it should be, wrote Dennis Prager in a column that appeared in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal. Prager said the attitude of a party or candidate toward Israel tells you more than perhaps any other issue about the candidate or party.
"Treatment of and attitudes toward the Jews and Israel is an almost perfect indicator of a party's, a country's or a candidate's values. … I cannot come up with an example of a great, moral leader anywhere who was weak on Israel," he wrote.
"A strong Israel is good for America," said Ada Grodinsky, a resident of Pikesville. "America and Israel are connected for the good of the world."
While Grodinsky did not want the name of her presidential choice published, she said she is going to the ballot box to vote "for the candidate that has Israel's back."
Mort Mower echoed Grodinsky's sentiments. He said that tax policy and other domestic issues are important to him but that he has seen the current administration throw its allies under the bus. He said he worries that Israel is next in line and "that would be a tragedy."
"I think the Jews have only one choice … if people vote for what is best for them, for the Jews, then that is to support Israel and go with whoever gives you the most support," Mower said.
Halevi noted that one cannot expect the American Jews to challenge their own government on behalf of Israel, but that there should be a more active conversation on the issues and a stronger look at whose policies will be best for or potentially undermine the Jewish state.
"Is Obama a friend of Israel? Leave it," said Halevi. "But if you look at the concept of policies, and not those directly related to Israel but related to the region, I think there is a very profound debate to be had, and American Jewry is not having it."
"Way too much is based on what goes on in Obama's heart versus what his actual positions have been on Israel," said Kurzter.
Kurtzer noted that even those passionate about Israel will not necessarily look at the Jewish state as a factor in their voting: "On a substantive level, there is very little difference between mainstream Republican and Democratic parties or candidates when it comes to Israel."
Really, said Jack Kinstlinger of Pikeville. Kinstlinger, who will be voting for Obama on Nov. 6, said he considers himself a "passionate Zionist."
"I don't see any difference between the two candidates when it comes to Israel. They are both supportive and have identical policies," he said.
Except on Iran
But national thought leaders do not agree that Gov. Mitt Romney and Obama have the same policies toward Israel — especially when it comes to Iran.
Matthew RJ Brodsky of the Jewish Policy Center said he thinks the governor and Obama have a different understanding of the U.S. role in international affairs, and that dictates their policies on Iran.
Romney said he will prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capability. Obama stated he would not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapons.
"The key word is capability. … The difference is significant because Obama's policy would presumably allow Iran to enrich and stockpile weapons-grade uranium — WGU."
Brodsky explained that if Iran ended up with WGU, then it would have a weapon in less than a year. He noted that Obama and his administration have been unable to set strong red lines for Iran and enforce them; a 0 percent enrichment was made a 3 to 5 percent enrichment, and lately, a 20 percent enrichment has seemed palatable to the White House. Brodsky said this makes the U.S. look weak among friends and foe.
During the candidates' third and final debate in Boca Raton, Fla. — which centered on foreign policy — Romney challenged the effectiveness of Obama's Iran policy, saying his perceived weakness has strengthened the ayatollahs' resolve.
"They have looked at this administration and felt that the administration was not as strong as it needed to be," he said. "I think they saw weakness where they had expected to find American strength."
Brodsky quoted Romney as saying that he "wants to reaffirm our historic ties with Israel and our abiding commitment to its security — the world must never see daylight between our nations." During the debate, Romney said, ""If Israel is attacked, we have their back, not just diplomatically, not just culturally, but militarily."
"Putting Iran on notice while standing with Israel marks a difference in public messaging over the current administration," said Brodsky. "The bulk of U.S. messaging is devoted to preventing Israel from attacking Iran's nuclear facilities, rather than preventing Iran from gaining a nuclear weapons capability."
Brodsky and Prager, in his op-ed, noted the cold relationship between Obama and Netanyahu and the message that this sends the American people.
"Virtually every observer of contemporary international relations believes that President Obama dislikes the Israeli prime minister," wrote Prager. "Supporters of the president contend that this is Netanyahu's fault. But fault-finding here is irrelevant. Whatever the cause, this hostility remains a fact. And that is bad for Israel."
Romney has attacked Obama on this front. He said during the debate that the president did not act to shore up relations with Israel even after 38 members of Congress sent him a letter urging him to do so.
Local voters, however, are still unsure. Neustadt, for example, admitted that Romney comes across as more passionate about Israel, but she cautions voters that when it comes to Israel, "Romney has not done anything — he could not have done anything.
As president, Obama has done everything he can do. … I trust that Obama is pro-Israel."
Kurtzer noted that even if the Israeli government is vocally frustrated by the pace and strength of Obama's policy toward Iran, there is a place to assume that Obama's strategy is the better one.
"Of the small percentage [of American Jews] that does take Israel into the ballot box, there are some that will ultimately still vote for Obama because they think the Democratic policies and Obama are better for Israel. They voted for a Democratic president [in 2008], and they will do so again — because they believe it is best," he said.
Support for Israel comes sixth, seventh and eighth on Jewish voters' priority lists, according to David Harris, president and CEO of the National Jewish Democratic Council.
Maayan Jaffe is JT managing editor — firstname.lastname@example.org