(AFP) – Nov 12, 2008
WASHINGTON (AFP) — Barack Obama attracted great support from Jewish voters in his run for the US presidency despite the controversy surrounding the Democrat's alleged links with Islam, according to political analysts.
Exit polls from the November 4 election indicate that 78 percent of Jewish voters chose Obama over his Republican rival John McCain.
The overwhelming support for Obama, if confirmed by further data, is an increase over Jewish support for Democrat John Kerry in 2004 (74 percent), and almost equal to Jewish support for Democrats Al Gore in 2000 and Bill Clinton in 1992 and 1996 (79 percent).
"It is a surprising result," said Jacques Berlinerblau, an associate professor of Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University in Washington.
"Jewish voters have appeared to vote more Republican in recent years, but Obama has reversed the trend," he said.
The result is even more pronounced when examined alongside the pre-election polling -- in early July Jewish voters opted for Obama by only 60 percent.
During the Democratic primary season in early 2008, Obama's challenger Hillary Clinton attracted far more votes from the demographic.
Since July Obama succeeded in making in-roads with Jewish voters, making a much publicized trip to Israel and promising "unwavering" support for the Jewish state.
Yet it was the steep economic downturn solidified his support among Jews.
In contrast, McCain's late August choice of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, a Christian conservative, to be his running mate did nothing to help him gain support in the Jewish community.
For Berlinerblau, the core Republicans McCain appealed to in his choice of Palin was linked to an "anti-Semitic tradition."
Ira Sheskin, director of the Jewish Demography Project at the University of Miami, agreed that Palin's pick had a negative impact with Jewish voters.
"Her views on social issues in particular turn off large segments of the Jewish community," he said.
Obama's running mate, Senator Joe Biden, was reassuring to Jewish voters because he "has always been a very strong supporter of Israel," said Sheskin.
The US Jewish community is the second largest in the world outside Israel, amounting to 5.3 million people, or 1.7 percent of the population.
Because this electorate is politically active and is heavily represented in the key swing state of Florida, the major party presidential candidates pay close attention to them.
Both McCain and Obama proclaimed their undying support for Israel in early June before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the lobbying group that advocates pro-Israel policies in Congress and the White House.
But throughout the presidential campaign Obama, whose middle is Hussein, was plagued by the false rumors he was a Muslim, despite the candidate's repeated stance of being Christian.
Demographer Sheskin however believes that Obama's middle name did not play "any role ... with the way the Jews voted" in the general election.
"There were significant segments of the Jewish community who were concerned about Obama and how strong Obama would be in terms of our policy toward Israel and in terms of our policy toward Iran," he said.
But "the magic of this man" turned around these worries, said Sheskin, citing Obama's political skill and stance on the issues important to Jewish voters.
Enthusiasm for Obama's candidacy could also be explained in terms of the historic ties between Jews and African-Americans dating at least to the Civil Rights era.
"Jews have been over the years the biggest supporters of blacks. When you go back to the beginning of the civil right movement the group most likely be helping blacks ... were the Jews," said Sheskin.
This link has been lost over the years, distorted in part by anti-Semetic statements from black community leaders such as Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.
Obama became "a bridge that has restored links between the two communities," said Berlinerblau.
The president-elect's choice of White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, who holds dual US and Israeli citizenship, was well-received by the Jewish community.
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