When the newly elected Congress turns its focus foreign policy, the conversation will surely center around the Middle East. President Obama's team is working hard to broker a nuclear deal with Iran, continuing its campaign to destroy ISIS, and trying to manage the Israel-Palestine conflict. These are all issues on which the new Congress and the American public have strong views. Which is why a new poll of American Jews who voted in the midterms is so interesting — and revealing.
American Jews (full disclosure: I'm one) are highly interested and involved in America's Middle East policy, so their opinions matter despite being about 2.2 percent of the US population. And the polling data suggests they're likely to back President Obama's approach — because they're mostly Democrats.
First, though, a word about the poll itself. It was commissioned by the left-wing Jewish lobby J-Street, which focuses on a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. J-Street hired a polling firm to call 800 Jews who voted in the midterms after the polls closed, and asked them 60 questions about the election and American Middle East policy.
The questions about policy itself aren't necessarily the most important part of the poll: it's easy to shift responses to complex policy questions depending on how you word the prompt. Rather, the key points of the poll are the straightforward questions about American Jews' views of Obama and the election. It turns out the most salient point of the American Jewish approach to politics isn't pro-Israel sentiment or greater concerns about terrorism. It's that they're highly partisan Democrats.
In the poll, American Jews approved of Obama's job performance by a 57-43 margin. Nationally, Obama's numbers are basically the reverse: Americans as a whole disapprove by about 42-53. Moreover, Jews have deeply negative views of the Republican Party, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Speaker of the House John Boehner. Asked to rate their feelings on a scale of zero (very unfavorable) to 100 (very favorable), the respective means for each of those three are 28, 24, and 25.
Moreover, Jews are Democrats for the same reasons other groups of Americans are: domestic policy. While Jews might care more about foreign policy more than your average American, the top three issues for American Jews in the election were the economy, health care, and Social Security/Medicare. Israel barely cracks the top ten.
These numbers are especially surprising because US-Israel relations are in the toilet. One Obama official, fed up with sniping from Benjamin Netanyahu's government, called the Israeli Prime Minister a "chickenshit" on the record. National Security Adviser Susan Rice and the Israeli Ambassador are openly feuding. Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz just ran an article with the headline "Netanyahu rooting for Republicans in the US midterms." Despite all of this public tension, American Jews are still loyal Democratic partisans.
American Jews clearly believe their basic pro-Israel commitments are consistent with being Democrats and Obama supporters — or they care way less about Israel than the level of Jewish activism on the issue would suggest. Either way, the midterms show that fears of a Jewish backlash against Democrats are way overblown.
This gives the Obama administration a freer political hand on issues like the Iranian nuclear program. Given American Jews' strong Democratic identity, the Obama administration and Congressional Democrats don't need to be afraid of alienating a core constituency by pursuing a policy the Israeli government opposes. In fact, zero percent of American Jews in the poll said Iran was a priority in their midterm voting.
Bottom line: American Jews are Democrats, and they support Democrats for public office. Unless the party radically changes its approach to the Middle East, that won't change — and even then, it might not.