Jim Gerstein is a founding partner of GBA Strategies based in D.C., which provides strategic planning and communications services. He acts as pollster for J Street and was executive director of the Democracy Corps. Gerstein was also a key consultant for Ehud Barak's prime ministerial campaign in 1999.
I'm so glad to have this opportunity to calmly discuss American Jewish opinion. I'm sure it will be much easier and more honest today than it would have been a couple of weeks ago, when emotions still ran high and partisanship was evident in almost every corner. So let me start with a post that I wrote not long ago, on the "low threshold" of Jewish voter support for Israel. Here's what I wrote – about you:
How should one comprehend the seemingly contradictory information concerning the importance of the Israel component in the minds of American Jewish voters? An answer can begin with an interesting observation made by J Street pollster Jim Gerstein, as he analyses his survey. First he says (and I agree), that Israel is a “threshold voting issue”. Namely, that Jewish voters need to be convinced that the candidate is not anti-Israel before they “move on to consider other issues”.
But then Gerstein adds this: “the ‘Israel threshold’ is an easy threshold to pass”. I think that if Gerstein is right, maybe that’s the gist of the problem: American Jews no longer have a threshold on Israel that has any meaning. By saying this, Gerstein – unintentionally I’m sure – is giving ammunition to those who argue that Obama can be considered pro-Israel only because the threshold on being pro-Israel has been placed so low.
1. Do you agree that a low threshold is a problem?
2. Are you in fact giving ammunition to "those who argue…"?
3. Should anyone – Israel, Jewish leaders – strive to make the Israel threshold higher? And higher how?
Not easy questions, I know, but this can be a beginning of an interesting discussion.
Thanks for the invitation to discuss these issues and the stimulating questions.
When considering your first question, I think it is important to understand why it is easy for a candidate to pass a Jewish voter's threshold on whether the candidate supports Israel. First, I think it reflects the strength of support that Israel has in America, and that there have not been many candidates or elected officials in recent memory who oppose a Jewish State. This is a good thing, and generally leads voters to accept candidates at their word when they voice support for a strong relationship between the U.S. and Israel. Also, Jews are a very progressive constituency, and they do not hold the hawkish views that are usually embedded in the criticism of candidates who are accused of not supporting Israel.
While I do not think it is a problem that the "Israel threshold" is easy to pass, I do recognize and share a concern which I think underlies your question. That is, I believe it is very important for there to be a close connection between Israel and American Jews, but I think there is a weakening in this connection. This weakening is not the cause for the easy "Israel threshold", and I think those of us who care deeply about Israel should focus on improving the connection between Israel and American Jews instead of making it harder to pass a threshold on supporting Israel.
Regarding your second question about giving ammunition to those who say Obama doesn't support Israel, I think their argument against the President primarily revolves around Obama and not what it means to support Israel. This was very apparent when the "Obama is bad for Israel" claims continued even after the Israeli President and Defense Minister came out during the campaign to push back on this argument. Moreover, I don't think Obama's critics are going to fundamentally change their line of argument and say, "Obama is only winning among American Jews because Jews have wrongly set too easy a bar to pass when it comes to Israel."
I alluded to your last question when answering your first question, but I will elaborate a little. It strikes me that many organizations and individuals are already trying to make it harder for elected officials and candidates to pass the threshold on supporting Israel. These efforts contradict the positions of most American Jews and are not working with Jewish voters. I also think that these efforts are harmful because it can exacerbate the weakening connection between Israel and American Jews that I mentioned earlier. Campaigns that say "candidate x must do more to show support for Israel" or make claims about the lack of support for Israel by a President who is supported by the vast majority of Jews are more likely to discourage than encourage Jews from increasing their interest and connection with Israel.