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Political Post Mortem, Part I

Where we’re glad we no longer have to pretend having a 10:30 deadline.

Where to start? The polls? The impact on the Middle East? The zombie wars? By this, I mean the arguments over who loves Israel better, after the issue is beyond dead and is self-cannibalizing and involves the removal of one’s brains.

And which kind of reminds me of the one of the greatest all-time Jewish joke punchlines: "Oedipus, Shmedipus, as long as he loves his mother."

Let’s make it easy and uncontentious and start with — who is a Jew!

Who is a Jew?

I’ve been getting questions about how we compiled our list, and why do we include Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and why did we include and then uninclude Nan Hayworth, newly elected Republican congresswoman from New York, having ousted John Hall, who posed naked on an album cover — 

Whoops. Getting ahead of myself.

The answer is — there is no clear answer.

It’s a judgment call. Do we apply Halacha? (Bennet’s in.) The Brother Daniel ruling? (Bennet may be out, but we’re not sure — but maybe we are, and he’s in, I’ll explain in a minute.) Israel’s law of return? (Whoa. Lots of folks are in) Israel’s requirements for citizenship? (Even bigger whoa.)

Okay: First, regarding Hayworth. I had it on good authority that she described herself as "Jewish by choice." I put her on the list, wanting to find out more. It was after midnight. Come a more reasonable hour on Wednesday, I called her campaign. I found out she was married to a Jew, raised her children Jewish, belongs to a shul — but never converted, and describes herself as "raised Lutheran."

She was off the list. This call was easy — because I had made it already, in 2006, with Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), who is married to a Jew, raises his kids Jewish, belongs to a shul — and remains Greek Orthodox.

Why did I make this call? There’s a slippery slope. If I include Sarbanes and Hayworth, do I include Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.), who was born Jewish, has a sister who has lived in Israel — and who has converted? What about Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), whose mother converted to Roman Catholicism? They’re out, based on the Brother Daniel ruling by Israel’s high court — if you convert out, you opt out, whatever halachah says. It’s a secular definition of Judaism, but one that is clearcut and works.

The proof for my gut feeling was in the pudding. There’s no official Jewish caucus on the Hill (an anomaly, because there seems to be every other kind of official caucus, but that’s another lesson in identity politics.) But there are a lot of unofficial Jewish caucus events — Chanukah parties, Jewish heritage month celebrations, Gary Ackerman‘s deli fund-raiser, AIPAC "mishpokhe" gatherings, JFNA parties, etc. etc. And I’ve never seen Sarbanes or Perlmutter at any of these (although Ros-Lehtinen is a surefire show at the Ackerman deli, but that has more to do with being from Miami, I think.)

More saliently, if I need to ask someone about an issue that goes to the gut of what it means to be a Jew making a decision that affects Jews, and I called Sarbanes or Ros-Lehtinen, they would be baffled, and probably too politic to tell me what they were thinking — I’m a fool.

In 2007, when I covered the  House Foreign Affairs committee’s wrenching vote about whether to recognize the Armenian genocide as such, I saw eight Jews struggle with notions of what was good for America — the interests of maintaining a critical alliance with Turkey against the interests of never denying genocide. Seven Jews, with heavy hearts, and each citing their Jewish sensibilities, voted to recognize the genocide. Robert Wexler voted against, but noted his own struggle. Ros-Lehtinen voted against, and cast her vote purely in terms of pragmatic considerations of the alliance. If a Jewish thought went through her head as she did so, she didn’t say so, and believe me, Congress is a House where people Say So, and again and again and again.

So, on to Bennet. He famously notes that he has a Jewish mother, a Christian father, and that he believes in God. So we include him, with a footnote.

Except, it’s since been made clear to me that he was brought up, not just by a Holocaust survivor, but to understand what it means to have a mother who is a Holocaust survivor — and to know that halachically, he is Jewish. He has named one child after his grandmother, and another after a relative he never knew, who died in the Holocaust. And JJ Goldberg now reports that Bennet has begun to refer to himself as Jewish.

So, I’m inclined to start equivocating a little less, and include Bennet without footnotes. Pending my running into him at the next Jewish heritage bash thrown by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.)

Now, some wits in the Twitterverse have wondered whether, by this definition, we should call President Barack Obama a Muslim. Obama had (limited) exposition to Islam. His Muslim father was secular, and almost entirely absent. His Muslim step-father was a presence only for a few years.

More importantly, no one ever raised him to understand why it was important that he know that one of his parents was a Muslim, why the consequences of the accident of birth would influence the course of his life, whatever decisions he made — decisions, for instance, like naming a child after a relative that died in a genocide.

And even more important is a decision Obama did make — to be a fulltime, practicing Christian. In other words, if the Muslims had a Brother Daniel rule — Obama would definitely be out.

Who is a Zombie?

I’m one guy in DC. There’s a lot to cover in DC. Diplomacy, politics, the courts, the White House, Congress, and the DC offices of the Jewish groups. And other stuff.

So I set priorities, consulting with my bosses. None has ever been easier then in late August when Israel and the Palestinian Authority were about to resume direct talks — here, in DC — and J Street and the Emergency Committee for Israel launched a spitting match over who loves Israel better.

Our overall decision was right: The peace talks made the cut. Process was more important than commentary.

Of course, in some ways, what J Street’s Amy Spitalnick and ECI’s Michael Goldfarb say and do matters, and merits coverage.  More substantively, each provides a forum for influence for Americans invested in the process. Each brokers access for true believers on either side to lawmakers, who indeed Make Decisions That Matter, and each is part of a community that shapes the views those lawmakers embrace.

So commentary matters — but so does its quality. And in the wake of the election, quality has been somewhat lacking in the back and forth between Amy and, this time, Josh Block, the former AIPAC spokesman.

I don’t even want to describe this match. Adam Kredo at the Washington Jewish Week puts it all together here and here. Each side is unrecognizable in the other’s description.

Naturally, each side in this mudbath has its partisans.

Guys, get over it. Meet for coffee. You have more in common than you realize. And I could do without the rubbernecking.

(I edited this section after reconsidering it: I may have gone overboard in expressing my frustration with the mudslinging.)

Jim Besser, at the New York Jewish Week, does a great job here running down the catch-phrases ("Fascists! Fellow-travelers!") that magically move my mouse up to that little X in the corner.

Who matters?

What triggered the Block-Spitalnick smackdown was whether J Street helped or harmed candidates. I covered this before the election, and before the exit polls were in — and the exits haven’t changed my mind: The RJC campaign did not make inroads with Jewish voters. Which does not mean the RJC campaign was not a success.

I noted earlier that much was being made of the differences between J Street and Republican Jewish Coalition exits — In Pennsylvania, for instance J Street shows a 76-19 breakout in favor of Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.) in his run for the open U.S. Senate seat, while RJC’s polling shows it at 62-30. (Sestak’s opponent, former congressman Pat Toomey, eked out a victory.) 

Matt Brooks, the RJC director said those results — and similar takes in Illinois and in selected districts in New York, Nevada and Connecticut — justify RJC expenditures he listed at over $7 million. The drop across the board showed Jews were abandoning Democrats since the 78 percent Obama scored in 2008. "It continues to reinforce what we’ve been saying along, that the GOP is making and continues to make inroads among Jewish voters," he said.

I’ll split a decision here: The expenses may well have been justified. But not because they show a drop in Jewish support for Democrats. Because they don’t.

There’s a simple reason for this, and for why J Street and RJC polls differ: RJC’s pollster, Arthur Finkelstein, seems to have polled only the affiliated. His respondents divided up only as Orthodox, Reform and Conservative. J Street’s Jim Gerstein included Reconstructionist Jews and the unaffiliated in his poll.

Moreover, J Street’s breakdown matches within the margin of error the 2009 North American Jewish Data Bank breakdown of affiliation in its Jewish Population Study of Philadelphia area Jews. RJC’s poll is heavily weighted to Conservative Jews, by comparison:

  JDF Philadelphia 2009 survey) Gerstein  Finkelstein
    (J Street) (RJC)
Reform 41 37 43
Conservative 30 31 54
Orthodox 6 6 4
Reconstructionist 3 4 -
Unaffiliated/"Just Jewish"/Other 18 21 -

As you can see, "Just Jewish" scores high enough that removing it from a poll will inevitably skew results. This March 2010 poll by the American Jewish Committee casts it much higher — at 37 percent.

I asked Finkelstein about this in a conference call. He suggested at first that the RJC poll respondents were asked to self-identify according to the three categories, and so those that those who might have answered "Just Jewish" in another poll, instead were forced into choosing a category. That would suggest — at least according to the Pennsylvania results — that the unaffiliated chose overwhelmingly to identify as Conservative. 

Then he said that he didn’t think adding the "Just Jewish" designation would have changed much, because, he speculated, the assimilated were even likelier to vote Republican. (How that works, I’m not sure, and in any case it contradicts his other argument.) Finally, he noted that the internals showed a drop in Jewish support for Democrats — i.e., the same respondents were asked if they voted for Obama in 2008, and some who did voted GOP this year. That’s true, but it doesn’t suggest substantive Jewish movement toward the GOP, nor does it suggest the RJC campaign was effective.

The drops —  in the Pennsylvania sample its from 68-27 for Obama in 2009 to 62-31 for Sestak in 2010; In Illinois, its 76-19 for Obama in 2008 and 59-32 for Alex Giannoulias in his (unsuccessful) run this year for the U.S. Senate — are commensurate with national surveys showing drops in Jewish support for Obama and Democrats, before the RJC launched its campaign. In fact, in Pennsylvania, the drop is relatively modest, considering that’s where the RJC and the Emergency Committee for Israel focused their blitzes. The late September-October AJC poll had Jews breaking 57-33 for Democrats in the congressional elections — yet, despite the RJC blitz, Sestak fared slightly better than the national average among area Jews.

Finally, in all of the RJC polls, 100 percent of respondents self-identified as Jewish in the initiial screening. That in itself does not make it less representative than the J Street poll: In its national poll, J Street selected respondents from a consumer panel in which Jews had already self-identified. In its Pennsylvania poll, J Street randomly called voters with Jewish names until they reached 600 self-identified Jewish respondents. The latter method is more expensive and more reliable, but more and more firms are using the consumer panel method.

The problem is, Finkelstein did not know what method was used, and could not adequately explain why all respondents self-identified as Jewish. He referred me to his staff, and they have yet to return my call. There’s a reason I need to ask: Four years ago, in the 2006 midterms, the RJC conducted a similar poll in the Philadelphia area — and drew respondents’ names from organizational lists. My former colleague, Eric Fingerhut — working for the Washington Jewish Week at the time — had to pull that admission from Brooks like it was a wisdom tooth.

That 2006 poll, and the fact that all respondents identified as affiliated, makes me suspect that may be the case here. It explains the difference between the J Street and RJC polls — and proves there has been no real Jewish movement to the GOP.

Now, there is nothing wrong or unethical with polling affiliated Jews. And I would argue that the news is good for the RJC — it shows that the more involved a Jew is, the more likely she is to be a Republican.

Which gets me to the reason why the expense may have been worthwhile. In a backhanded way, Ira Forman, the former director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, makes the case here:

The closer we got to Election Day this year, the “wackier” the behavior of some partisans became. Nowhere was this more true than in the hysterical-conservative segment of the Jewish community. For example, the Emergency Committee for Israel (ECI), along with the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC), ran millions of dollars worth of TV ads attacking Representative Joe Sestak (D-PA) as being anti-Israel and pro-terrorist. I recently pointed out in a Washington Jewish Week article that the organizations running these ads are either very naive or very cynical about this ad campaign. If they are not naïve—and I doubt that they are—they were raising these dollars not to defeat Sestak but to enhance their organization’s visibility and relationships with big GOP donors.

I would add — and I have said previously, analyzing why the RJC and ECI targeted J Street — not just RJC donors. The point is not to make these candidates attractive to all Jewish voters, but to the small coterie of Jewish voters who donate big time based on pro-Israel considerations. The point is to make Democrats — and J Street Democrats, especially — less desirable.

Democrats — at least, so the myth goes — have three pillars among donors: Trial lawyers, unions and Jews. The Republican strategy, outlined years ago by Tom DeLay — at least, so the myth goes — is to impoverish the trial lawyers, neuter the unions and co-opt the Jews.

So why pretend there are inroads into the ranks of Jewish voters? I don’t think it’s a deliberate pretense, first of all — I think it’s self serving to a degree: If you’re a Republican operative, you go to shul, you hang out at the JCC, you take federation trips to Israel — and you want to believe that one day you won’t be in the minority.

The same goes for the Jewish donors that the RJC and other conservatives are targeting: They want the candidate who is "best for Israel" by their lights, but they also want to believe that they have a Jewish constituency. 

So the real test of whether this campaign works is whether Jewish donations to the Democrats drop — and, more specifically, whether J Street continues to attract mainstream Jewish support and is not marginalized. And we may see results as soon as late February, when J Street has its next conference. Who will attend? Which politicians will join the hosting committee?

And hey, it falls on Sadie Hawkins Day!

Amy? Feb. 29 is just the day to call Josh. For that coffee.