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When ethnicity is an issue


Barack Obama had some nasty comments about Netanyahu’s election day call that Arabs were going to the polls “in droves,” which the President saw as Bibi’s eroding the meaning of democracy.

In a post-election meeting with Arabs, Netanyahu said “I know that the things I said a few days ago hurt some citizens in Israel, the Arab Israeli citizens. This was not my intention and I am sorry,”

What Netanyahu actually said on election day, and what Likud sent to Israelis in text messages, were comments about Arabs going to the polls in great numbers, brought by buses paid for by American organizations, encouraged by Abu Mazan and Hamas. In the same messages, Bibi urged Likud supporters to vote in order to assure a nationalist government and preserve the State of Israel.

Fair politics, or a violation of democratic norms?

The reality is that the union of several Arab parties increased Arab turnout to 63.5 percent, up from 56 percent in the election of 2013. Block voting was widespread, ranging between 83 and 96 percent for the United List in Arab localities of the Negev, Galilee, and outskirts of Jerusalem. 

There is no doubt that overseas money came to Israel for the purpose of defeating Netanyahu. Some of it may have come from the American national government, funneled through one or more NGOs saying they were promoting democracy or good government. It’s likely that some of that money was spent in Arab communities, either for buses, posters, or activists working to bring people to the polls.

What Netanyahu did was to urge his people to vote, in order to advance the causes promoted by his political party.

Was it illegitimate to add the notion of an Arab threat to his message?

Given the posture of the party leaders who represent Israeli Arabs, his call appears legitimate.

Strident opposition to Israeli governments, ritualistic assertions about occupation, and a failure to trade political support for constituent benefits summarizes the actions of Arab parties in the Knesset. Research has found a prominence of voters following the leadership of family elders, with the elders enticed by party activists who promote group solidarity and provide jobs to the faithful. 

We can view Netanyahu’s post-election apology as a politician’s effort to smooth things over, both with Israeli Arabs as well as overseas critics.

Ethnic voting is not an exclusively Israeli phenomenon. U.S. Jews who vote more Democratic than the population as a whole, occasionally casting 80-90 percent of their votes for the Democratic candidate has been a phenomenon of American politics in every presidential election but one since 1916. The exception was 1920, when the Socialist Eugene Debs got double the Jewish vote of the Democrat James Cox.

Barack Obama may owe his office to black voters. Among them he outvoted Mitt Romney 93 to 6 percent in 2012, and John McCain 95 to 4 percent in 2008. In both elections, Obama also polled over 60 percent of Hispanic and Asian voters. John McCain outpolled Obama 55 to 43 percent among white voters, and Mitt Romney did even better among whites, 59 to 39 percent.

Prominent among the mysteries of political science is the strong Democratic vote among American Jews, despite economic traits that should have them voting Republican. 

There are numerous explanations for the factors operating among some 6 million American Jews. A common explanation looks to Jewish social values, but that suffers from Jews voting centrist or right of center in a number of other countries, including Israel. Family attachments created early on may explain some of the party loyalty. Woodrow Wilson and later Franklin Roosevelt gained Jewish support for appointing Jews to high position. Roosevelt helped large numbers of Jews who were poor at the time via the New Deal. Undoubtedly, some Jews feel themselves voting for the party that does most for the unfortunate. Also, it has been Republicans who have been most likely to speak about the U.S. as a “Christian nation.”

Israel has played an important role in the politics of American Jews. Majorities still worry about their government providing support, although a sizable number now criticize the policies of Israel, and prefer greater benefits for Palestine. For some, this may be a reason to express support for Barack Obama.

Yet another puzzle is Israel’s maintenance of democracy from 1948 onward, despite almost all Israeli Jews having come from non-democratic countries, and Israel suffering from wars, a period of extreme poverty, and mass immigration--again from non-democratic countries--which usually serve as explanations of why countries depart from democracy.

The most convincing explanations of Israeli democracy look to Judaic culture, showing a tolerance for introspection and dispute going back to the biblical period, and apparent on virtually every page of the Talmud that has served as the basis of rabbinic Judaism. A people who could produce and revere the Book of Ecclesiastes for 2,000 years—with its doubts about simple and fixed views—is a people who could become democratic when allowed to rule themselves in modern times, despite few of them having experience in democratic regimes.

Ethnic voting is neither uniform nor fixed, either among Jews or Israeli Arabs. 

American Jews voted 90 percent Democratic for Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, but only 45 percent for Jimmy Carter in the 1980 presidential election, when 14-20 percent voted for Independent candidate John Anderson. Barack Obama’s percentage of the Jewish vote dropped from 78 percent in 2008 to 69 percent in 2012.

Polls show that Israeli Arabs are more inclined than their party leaders to co-existence with Jews, and more willing to support Israel’s governments for the sake of program benefits. Research has also found changes within a prevailing tendency to group voting by extended families. In a number of locales family elders have given way to competition from a younger generation, whose leading figures are sometimes more inclined and sometimes less inclined to cooperate with Jews as opposed to promoting a nationalist agenda.

The prominence of ethnic voting and its complexities leads us to question Barack Obama’s challenge of Benyamin Netanyahu for undermining democratic values.

Netanyahu’s call on his voters was a far cry from the pattern not so long ago in the U.S. to prevent blacks from voting in the South, and to gerrymander districts in the North to lessen their weight in congressional, state legislative, and municipal elections. 

Netanyahu’s Likud—along with all the other largely Jewish political parties—polled a smaller percentage of the total vote in the most recent election than Obama polled of the African-American vote in both his presidential elections. 

If all is fair in democratic politics—short of preventing citizens to vote or skewing the counting of their ballots—then Bibi was kosher, and Barack seems to have been playing the race card against a candidate who was embarrassing him on other matters. 

Read that to be Bibi’s opposition to Barack’s questionable push for a nuclear deal with Iran, and an equally questionable push for a Palestinian State whose leaders have been incapable of recognizing Israel’s legitimacy.

Ira Sharkansky is a professor (Emeritus) of the Department of Political Science, Hebrew University of Jerusalem.


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