Monday, October 16, 2006

Is It Good For The Jews?

I'm a guest lecturer this week in an ASU online class, American Jews in US Politics, POL/REL 394, and only had time to prepare one set of original thoughts, so my column is also my opening online "lecture" for the course. The newspaper version of the column is available, for two weeks, here.

I ran out of room for the column, but my fear is that leadership of Jewish communal organizations will fall into the Cuban-American community's model, where there's a definite hierarchy to the organizations, where rhetoric matters much more than results, and where the "right" position is the one which is most right-wing and conservative -- and where debate on the merits and practicality is seen as disloyalty to the cause. The Cuban-Americans certainly have a wonderful record of results; they've done so much for actually bringing freedom and democracy to Cuba over the past 40 years, we really should adopt that model for what American Jews want to do for Israel. At least I'll find out if there really is an AIPAC list of "Jews We Abuse."

As part of my preparation for the ASU class, I've learned since filing the column that the correct quote is "Jews earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans" and it's from Milton Himmelfarb, who edited the first major exit-poll-based survey of Jewish voting attitudes in the 1960's. My father-in-law and I had a bet on who first said it and we both lost.

I debated whether the editor would let me keep the George Allen (R-Macaca) reference, but he did. Must have been sufficiently obscure so it could survive.

East Valley Tribune, Oct. 15, 2006

In 1994, I probably got 75 percent of the Jewish vote. Unfortunately, of the 25 percent voting for the other guy, it felt like I knew each one personally.

Not much has changed since; Jews are still overwhelmingly liberal and Democratic, still living like Episcopalians and voting like Puerto Ricans. There are 26 Jewish members of the U.S. House, and (including Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.) all but one are Democrats; in the Senate, it’s 11 total and 9 Democrats, unless you include Sen. George Allen (R-Macaca), which changes those numbers -- and his, too.

But the leadership of Jewish organizations -- particularly the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) -- has become steadily more conservative and Republican, and there’s a rising internal debate over which party better “deserves” Jewish support. Republicans like David Gelernter of The Weekly Standard argue that Jews owe President Bush because of his unwavering support for Israel, even if disagreeing with him on every other issue -- and even if Democrats also support Israel, because if Democrats win, jobs and influence may go to their insufficiently pro-Israel supporters. As Jonathan Chait put it, Jews must “keep anti-Zionists from securing a foothold within the Fish and Wildlife Service.”

Rabbi Marc Gellman couldn’t understand why Jewish voters who strongly disagreed with Sen. Joe Lieberman on Bush and Iraq didn’t vote for him anyway, because he’s “one of us.” But should an outsider imply that Jewish voters have divided loyalties, or make support of Israel or religion the sole basis of their vote, that’s anti-Semitism.

There are two arguments for Jews to vote Republican: First, some non-office-holding Democrats don’t support current American or Israeli policy. Second, the GOP notes that depending on the poll, rank-and-file Democrats question U.S. policy toward Israel more than Republicans, while Bush’s support for Israel has been strong and uncomplicated. The Middle East may be incredibly complex, but U.S. policy should be really, really simple.

There are two problems with these arguments. First, it’s easy to “nutpick” and find Democrats saying outlandish things. The difference is that our nuts are writing letters to the editor or posting comments on weblogs; Republican nuts are in Congress or chair the state House Appropriations Committee.

The other problem is that Republican support has been all words, no results. They’ve banished all nuance and qualification from their rhetoric, but neither the U.S. nor Israel is better off. Bush has been so wrong about so much that if he says the sun rises in the east, astronomers get very nervous. As Daniel Davies wrote, try to name one example of a Bush administration policy significant enough that you’ve heard of it whose execution wasn’t bollixed big time. Republicans’ feelings are fine; it’s the “Bush-league execution” that’s problematic.

The GOP argument basically boils down to “Jimmy Carter bad, George Bush good.” Carter is loathed in “pro-Israel” circles despite his work on the Camp David Accords, which even the most virulent Republicans don’t wish to abandon, as Matthew Yglesias notes: “Bush has been much more ‘supportive’ of Israel, but what’s actually been accomplished?”

Moreover, Judaism has never been about feelings, but rather actions. Jews don’t much value “feeling Jewish” or “looking into somebody’s heart.” As Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal of San Diego wrote, in Judaism feelings without actions contribute neither towards the future nor to tikun olam, the obligation to help “repair the world.”

Rosenthal told the story of the Rabbi of Leesa, who visited a wealthy, but miserly, congregant to ask for a major gift. The man welcomed the Rabbi with a lavish dinner, but the Rabbi touched nothing and asked immediately for the contribution. The man quoted the sages about the importance of polite conversation, but the Rabbi noted that polite words are worthy of blessing only when accompanied by concrete help: “Kind words without kind deeds are meaningless.”

So welcome the new AIPAC alternative which George Soros, Edgar and Charles Bronfman, and Mel Levine plan to launch later this month. For both political and religious reasons, to all Americans, not just Jews, results should matter.

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