Charles Blow’s Jewish Numbers Problem

Isaac Luria
on August 30, 2010

This is cross-posted on The Huffington Post.

Do American Jews support President Obama? Does that support remain strong even as the President presses both Israel and the Palestinians to make the necessary moves and compromises for peace?

These two questions are rife with political meaning — and thankfully for the cause of peace and Israel’s security as a Jewish, democratic home, the answer to both questions is yes.

Yet as the back and forth between New York Times’ Visual Editor Charles Blow and the Daily Beast’s Eric Alterman over American Jews opinions of President Obama on Israel this past week confirms, a few pervasive myths about American Jews remain strong even among those who are supposed to look at numbers first and draw conclusions later.

Blow originally argued in a New York Times op-ed that American Jews who voted for President Obama are abandoning him over his stances on Israel. Suffice it to say that Blow’s argument is a big stretch — for two reasons.

1) It is true that American Jewish approval of the President has waned, but not any more than Americans more generally. At the beginning of President Obama’s term, Gallup put American Jewish support at 77% and all Americans at 63% (a 14% gap). Gallup just released new numbers last Friday that puts the President’s approval at 61% and all Americans at 48% (a 13% gap that is nearly identical to the gap at the outset of the term).

Here’s Eric Alterman:

Barack Obama, like pretty much every Democrat before him, remains more popular with Jews than with just about any other ethnic group in America, save blacks. His approval rating among Jews, steady in the low 60s, is about 15 percent higher than it is with the goyim. Neoconservatives have been predicting a Jewish turn toward the Republicans since George McGovern only got about two-thirds of the Jewish vote–that’s right, only two-thirds–and yet it never happens.

2) American Jews are more than just single issue Israel voters. The numbers back it up. When we asked American Jews to tell us what two issues they are most concerned about in March 2009, only 8% put Israel as one of two top issues. American Jews, just like many other Americans, ranked the economy as their top concern. (As an aside, I have to say this simplistic reduction of our community’s entire political identity to our views on Israel makes me a bit uncomfortable.).

Read Alterman’s whole response at the Daily Beast, neatly dissecting and refuting Blow’s hollow arguments.

Piqued, Blow doubled down, inventing a new way to make his bunk argument with “percentage changes.” This is one of the sorts of mistakes that any Statistics 101 instructor would mark as wrong and an odd one to grace the pages of a New York Times blog entitled “By The Numbers.” Alterman calls Blow on this and other mistakes in a second response. I really recommend reading the exchange.

So where do we head from here?

Well, for one, we’re going to have to make the facts clear – and call those out who get it wrong.

And two, we have to recognize that a highly organized, political motivated, hard right minority of the American Jewish community and elsewhere in American politics peddle these myths for political gain. They are opposed to the President pressing hard for peace — and hope to undermine that effort by playing with the numbers.

They are not only wrong on the politics (American Jews will continue to support the President as he presses, even presses vigorously, both sides to make peace), but wrong on the substance.

There is no other way for Israel and its citizens to live in real peace and security than for there to be a two-state solution with the Palestinians. And this well-funded minority’s efforts, however well-meaning, to raise the political costs of bold action to achieve a just and lasting peace is bad for Israel’s long-term future.