Florida Jews who backed President Barack Obama in 2008 are thinking twice, and the “Jewish vote,” including Florida Jews living in Israel, could be the factor that determines who will be the next president.
Selma and Kenneth Furst were among the hundreds of thousands of Florida's Jewish voters who helped put Obama in the White House. They still support him, but they admit they aren't so sure about some of their Jewish neighbors and friends.
"It's a hard decision, for people to make up their minds," said Selma Furst, 91, who lives in a condo community near Fort Lauderdale, with her husband, Kenneth, 94.
Florida is one of the “swing states” that is not solidly in the Romney or Obama camp and where polls are being followed most. Given the high percentage of Floridian Jews living in Israel, where their votes will be counted as part of the state’s ballot, the Israeli factor also could be critical. The trend of voting preference among American Jews in Israel has become more pronounced in favor of Republicans in recent elections.
Jews make up only about 3.4 percent of the population in Florida, but they have historically turned out in disproportionately high numbers, and polls have shown a serious lost nationally in Obama’s Jewish support, although a majority of Jews still say they will vote for him.
"No one expects Romney to win the Jewish vote,” according to Alberto Martinez, an adviser to the campaign of presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. “But any level of attrition for the president is going to endanger his reelection in a state like Florida," he added.
George W. Bush won the state by only 537 votes in 2000.
Andre Fladell, a longtime Democratic activist from Delray Beach, said that the key to how many Jewish votes Obama can keep will be voting trends among the almost 500,000 Jewish voters in the Democratic stronghold of South Florida. Debate there over Obama administration policies on everything from healthcare and jobs to Israel and the Middle East has crept into neighborhood events, synagogue meetings and other social functions in the Jewish retirement communities.
The administration's policies on Israel are only one reason some Jewish voters may be reconsidering their support for Obama, said Martinez, particularly in the face of a perceived nuclear threat from Iran.
"I voted for Obama in 2008, but I don't anticipate voting for him in the upcoming election," said William Levine, a Boca Raton, Fla., resident. He said Obama's position on Israel and Mideast affairs was "a significant factor," but he also cited domestic issues, including the president's handling of the economy.
Ira Sheskin, a University of Miami professor who runs the Jewish Demography Project of the Sue and Leonard Miller Center for Contemporary Judaic Studies, told Reuters that Jews are “voting on the economy and social issues, and Jews are overwhelmingly pro-choice, in favor of same-sex marriage, the Affordable Healthcare Act ... and are much closer to Democrats than Republicans."
Last May tempers flared during an event at Congregation L'Dor VaDor in Lake Worth that brought together local Republican and Democratic leaders for a debate provocatively titled, "Obama and Israel: Friend or Foe?" Speakers in support of Obama were interrupted with frequent insults, and moderator Rabbi Barry Silver had to step in to maintain order, according to reports in the Florida Jewish Journal.
Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the first Jewish woman from Florida elected to the House of Representatives, cites polls that show Obama is regaining some lost Jewish support, while the Romney campaign has increased efforts to make inroads with Jewish voters in recent months.
Romney will win headlines in the Jewish world next week when he visits Israeli leaders next week, and he will undoubtedly highlight Obama’s apparent decision to forego a campaign visit. His officials said Monday he will visit Israel if he is re-elected.
An Obama campaign stop in Israel could be a disaster for the president, given his previous statements rejecting any Israeli sovereignty over the Old City in Jerusalem, where the Jewish world’s most holy site is located. In 2008, he visited the Western Wall, the remaining exterior wall of the compound around the Holy Temples.
If he were to appear at the Western Wall again, the Arab world would be up in arms at what they see as an implied recognition of Israeli sovereignty. Avoiding the site would show him as being indecisive and would engulf him in a storm of criticism by Israel and Jews in the Diaspora.
The president apparently is playing it safe by not visiting Israel, leaving Romney to win the attention that might help him replace Obama in the White House.