Essay: Polarized Jews in a depressing election

By GIL TROY , THE JERUSALEM POST, Oct. 23, 2008

Political campaigns are like social stress tests, regularly scheduled exercises that add enough extra pressure on the system to expose weaknesses – and strengths. The long 2008 election has uncovered certain American fault lines. Within the Jewish community, the results of the 2008 electoral stress test have been equally sobering. Partisans from both sides have behaved abominably, demonstrating a growing hysteria and close-mindedness.

Perhaps the most infamous Jewish contribution to this campaign is unproven. Many reporters have claimed the various e-mails accusing Barack Obama of being a Muslim targeted Jews or originated with Jews. There is no solid proof of this. Internet hoaxes, like most urban legends, are hard to track. But anytime I have written anything remotely positive about Obama in the Jewish media, many bloggers have charged that “Barack HUSSEIN Obama” is secretly a Muslim and I am helping this Manchurian candidate deceive America.

The prevalence of this belief in a community supposedly known for its intelligence is dismaying. That neither Obama nor his supporters have eloquently repudiated the use of the accusation of being a Muslim as a slur is depressing. And the charge itself is distracting. More worrying than Obama’s fictional status as a Muslim are his actual actions as a Christian – staying so loyal to the demagogic, unpatriotic, anti-Zionist Reverend Jeremiah Wright for so long. John McCain has refused to mention Obama’s wrongheaded Wright connection, fearing accusations of racism. But Obama’s deep ties to a pastor who trashed America regularly, including in his first sermon after 9/11, remain unexplained and unacceptable.

BEYOND CHOOSING to libel the Democratic nominee for ties he lacks that should not be so damning anyway, many pro-McCain activists have helped perpetuate the stereotype of pro-Israeli Jews as superficial, narrow-minded, right-leaning Johnny One-Notes swooning for any conservative pol who genuflects toward Israel. McCain is a thoughtful friend of Israel who understands the Islamicist and Iranian threats. People who care about Israel – and America – have many legitimate reasons for supporting him.

But the fact that so many fell in line with his vice presidential choice, despite Sarah Palin’s stunning lack of foreign policy experience, is disconcerting. Even if she does display an Israeli flag in her office, trusting such an amateur during these treacherous times was irresponsible. Being an effective pro-Israel politician requires more than waving the blue-and-white flag. It requires a subtle, sophisticated approach to international politics that by serving America’s best interests will also protect the Jewish state. Choosing Palin cleverly energized the conservative base, but it undermined McCain’s argument that experience counts, especially in foreign policy.

Unfortunately, many Obama supporters have behaved equally poorly. Many Jews have mimicked Obama’s undemocratic tendency to treat any criticisms of him as smears. The attempts of the new J-Street lobby to ban anti-Obama advertisements in Jewish papers are just the latest illustrations of the left’s disturbingly illiberal tendency to squelch debate. It is one thing to condemn the false reports about Obama’s religion. But Republicans have the right to raise questions about issues, including the many emissaries from the Democratic Party’s loony anti-Zionist left who have advised Obama, especially on foreign policy and were jettisoned one by one as controversy arose.

MOREOVER, THOSE Jewish Democrats who discouraged Senator Hillary Clinton from attending the anti-Iran rally in September, then helped get Sarah Palin disinvited, did a disservice to America and Israel. The absurd claim that Palin’s presence would have made the rally “political” revealed a childish understanding of American politics. Had Clinton and Palin stood together as two of America’s most prominent women politicians temporarily suspending their jousting to unite against a nuclear Iran, the rally could have been far more effective. The behavior of Clinton – and of too many Jewish Democrats – suggested they hated Palin and the Republicans more than they hated Ahmadinejad and his genocidal threats against Israel and America.

A more consistently disturbing distortion once again emerged in this campaign. Although, as with so many trends, this position is difficult to quantify, many pro-Obama Jews indicated that they support abortion much more intensely than they support Israel. Many statements from prominent Jews justifying their support for Obama first mentioned choice – despite the slim chances of overturning the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion. Liberalism has long been the reigning American Jewish theology. But this campaign confirmed the centrality of the pro-abortion stance within that liberalism.

FINALLY, THE “Great Schlep” showdown between the comedians Sarah Silverman and Jackie Mason added another level of absurdity to the Jewish role in 2008. The ethnic stereotyping underlying this debate – while funny – was more suited to our grandparents’ Jewish community in the 1950s. Silverman’s assumption that young, right-thinking (meaning left-leaning) Jews had to “schlep” their “bubbies and zaides” in Florida to vote Democratic, reflected a misreading of most Florida Jews’ pro-Obama tendencies. Jackie Mason’s response was equally simplistic and maddening. In America’s celebrity-besotted culture, both videos were taken far too seriously, generating numerous YouTube viewings and media reports.

On one level, it is unrealistic during the campaign to expect Republicans to criticize McCain’s vice presidential choice or mainstream Democrats to confront their party’s Jimmy Carter wing. But the campaign uncovered an underlying intolerance laced with nastiness rooted in a growing polarization dividing American Jews.

Increasingly, the divisions are multiple and reinforcing. A vocal minority of Jews are more religious, more pro-Israel and more Republican. These “red” Jews are as different and as distant from the “blue Jews” as “red state” Americans are from “blue staters.”

Just as America will need to heal after the election, the Jewish community must heal too. We need to learn how to disagree without being disagreeable – and how to recognize common interests even within a big, broad, diverse and disputatious community.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University and a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, DC. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today. His Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents was just published by Basic Books.

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