Behind The Curve


“Moneyball” has entered the political scene, big time, and old-school Jewish leaders here and in Israel better take note.

President Barack Obama’s re-election ushered in a new era of successful, highly sophisticated campaigning that is certain to be duplicated in the future, replacing punditry and prognostication with the kind of mathematics-based analytics that the Oakland A’s front office used a decade ago to make the team competitive in the American League West despite low salaries for the players.

That story, told by Michael Lewis in his best-seller, “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game” (W.W. Norton), and made into a successful movie last year, described how the nature of major league baseball has been transformed. Where once the instincts of veteran scouts and baseball executives were key in deciding which players would perform best on the field, now it’s also about number-crunching to determine on-base percentages, defensive runs saved and other on-the-field evaluations.

What does this have to do with politics?

A great deal, according to several experts in the field, who note that Obama ran an innovative campaign based on the dramatic changes in U.S. demographics. But too many of our veteran Jewish leaders, relying on anecdotes and instincts, didn’t get the message.

Only in the wake of Obama’s victory have news reports focused more closely on the fact that the president benefited mightily from strong support from emerging segments of the population like Hispanics, African Americans, young people and women, while the Republicans relied on white and older voters, including Evangelical Christians, whose numbers are declining.

And for all the talk in our community about “the Jewish vote” and its percentages, the facts suggest that we’ve lost our clout at the polls.

“Jews no longer count in defining election outcomes,” observed Steven Windmueller, a political science professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. Now representing 2 percent of the electorate, down from 4 percent several decades ago, “the Jewish community’s numbers are simply too small and getting smaller.”

What the Obama campaign did best was identify people sympathetic to its message and most likely to vote, and then assign staff to help make sure those people voted.

Consider: support for Israel in the U.S. is weakest among the emerging majority of the country — the very groups Obama did best with last Tuesday.

Is our Jewish leadership, which is dedicated to ensuring that support for Israel remains strong, targeting these groups sufficiently, and finding the right message that will resonate with them?

When Americans are asked whom they support in the Israel-Palestinian conflict, Israel continues to hold steady. But when they are asked simply if they support Israel, affirmative responses are declining.

Some of this can be attributed to Israeli policies and some to our difficulty in making Israel’s case.

The fact that our leaders seem behind the curve in recognizing this new multi-ethnic American majority, and what it means politically, is taking its toll in Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may have been getting some bad advice about who was going to win the presidential race.

“My fear,” said Zev Furst, who heads an international political consulting firm with close ties to the Jewish community here and in Israel, “is that Israeli and American Jewish leadership do not begin to understand what is going on here in the U.S.” in terms of the new demographics. “And the attempt to turn U.S. support of Israel into a partisan issue in this campaign was very dangerous.”

He was deeply upset that Israel had become a wedge issue in the campaign, and criticized the leadership in Israel and elements of the American Jewish community for allowing that to happen, emphasizing the critical importance of maintaining bipartisan support for Israel in the U.S.

Clearly aware that he had bet on the wrong candidate in the U.S. election, Netanyahu sought to improve his position in recent days by calling attention to his congratulatory message to Obama and holding a public meeting with Dan Shapiro, the American ambassador to Israel.

But Netanyahu’s statement just prior to the election, telling an Israeli television interviewer that he would be willing to go it alone in taking military action against Iran, stunned and upset some of Obama’s top aides, according to insiders.

Netanyahu said that if an Israeli prime minister “is totally dependent on receiving approval from others” in matters of vital security, “then he is not worthy of leading.

“I can make these decisions,” he said.

The tone and timing of the statement shocked many, not just critics who believe Netanyahu had signaled his preference for Romney during the course of the campaign, considered crossing a red line (to use one of the prime minister’s memorable phrases) in Israeli politics. And surely the Israeli leader knows well that U.S. support — either tacit or in partnership with the Israeli Defense Forces — is critical to a successful effort to attack Iran’s nuclear sites.

“When the prime minister is perceived to interfere in U.S. elections,” noted Alon Pinkas, a former consul general of Israel in the U.S., “he is risking not only Israel’s credibility and his future relations with the president he had presumably hoped would be defeated, but also risking alienation” from the new, diverse, multi-ethnic American majority.

One can only surmise that the prime minister and his advisers were heeding the political predictions of some American Jewish leaders with whom they are close who believed Romney would win the White House.

One hopes Jerusalem does not pay the price for the kind of demonization of Obama that was heard so loudly among those supporters of Romney here who insisted that the president is anti-Israel, and worse.

Will their shrill warnings continue, or will they come to the realization that they are harming the very cause they hold so dear?

was editor and publisher of The Jewish Week from 1993 to 2019. Follow him at