David Ainsman really began to get worried about President Barack Obama’s standing with his fellow Jewish Democrats when a recent dinner with his wife and two other couples — all Obama voters in 2008 — nearly turned into a screaming match.
Ainsman, a prominent Democratic lawyer and Pittsburgh Jewish community leader, was trying to explain that Obama had just been offering Israel a bit of “tough love” in his May 19 speech on the Arab Spring. His friends disagreed — to say the least.
One said he had the sense that Obama “took the opportunity to throw Israel under the bus.” Another, who swore he wasn’t getting his information from the mutually despised Fox News, admitted he’d lost faith in the president.
If several dozen interviews with POLITICO are any indication, a similar conversation is taking place in Jewish communities across the country. Obama’s speech last month seems to have crystallized the doubts many pro-Israel Democrats had about Obama in 2008 in a way that could, on the margins, cost the president votes and money in 2012 and will not be easy to repair. (See also: President Obama's Middle East speech: Details complicate 'simple' message)
“It’s less something specific than that these incidents keep on coming,” said Ainsman.
The immediate controversy sparked by the speech was Obama’s statement that Israel should embrace the country’s 1967 borders, with “land swaps,” as a basis for peace talks. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seized on the first half of that phrase and the threat of a return to what Israelis sometimes refer to as “Auschwitz borders.” (Related: Obama defends border policy)
Obama’s Jewish allies stressed the second half: that land swaps would — as American negotiators have long contemplated — give Israel security in its narrow middle, and the deal would give the country international legitimacy and normalcy.
But the noisy fray after the speech mirrored any number of smaller controversies. Politically hawkish Jews and groups such as the Republican Jewish Coalition and the Emergency Committee for Israel pounded Obama in news releases. White House surrogates and staffers defended him, as did the plentiful American Jews who have long wanted the White House to lean harder on Israel’s conservative government.
Based on the conversations with POLITICO, it’s hard to resist the conclusion that some kind of tipping point has been reached.
Most of those interviewed were center-left American Jews and Obama supporters — and many of them Democratic donors. On some core issues involving Israel, they’re well to the left of Netanyahu and many Americans: They refer to the “West Bank,” not to “Judea and Samaria,” fervently supported the Oslo peace process and Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and believe in the urgency of creating a Palestinian state. (Arena: Are Jewish voters still pro-Obama?)
But they are also fearful for Israel at a moment of turmoil in a hostile region when the moderate Palestinian Authority is joining forces with the militantly anti-Israel Hamas.
“It’s a hot time, because Israel is isolated in the world and, in particular, with the Obama administration putting pressure on Israel,” said Rabbi Neil Cooper, leader of Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Philadelphia’s Main Line suburbs, who recently lectured his large, politically connected congregation on avoiding turning Israel into a partisan issue.
Some of these traditional Democrats now say, to their own astonishment, that they’ll consider voting for a Republican in 2012. And many of those who continue to support Obama said they find themselves constantly on the defensive in conversations with friends.
“I’m hearing a tremendous amount of skittishness from pro-Israel voters who voted for Obama and now are questioning whether they did the right thing or not,” said Betsy Sheerr, the former head of an abortion-rights-supporting, pro-Israel PAC in Philadelphia, who said she continues to support Obama, with only mild reservations. “I’m hearing a lot of ‘Oh, if we’d only elected Hillary instead.’”
Even Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who spoke to POLITICO to combat the story line of Jewish defections, said she’d detected a level of anxiety in a recent visit to a senior center in her South Florida district.
“They wanted some clarity on the president’s view,” she said. “I answered their questions and restored some confidence that maybe was a little shaky, [rebutted] misinformation and the inaccurate reporting about what was said.”