Jewish Journal


December 18, 2003

A Look at Dean’s Jewish Problem


Question: What's behind Howard Dean's ongoing problems in the Jewish community?

Answer: No-holds-barred partisanship, especially among the anonymous attackers who are clogging the e-mail inboxes of Jewish leaders around the country, warning -- without much evidence -- that Dean would somehow be bad for Israel.

But the bitter attacks are having an impact; a frequently heard comment, at least in Jewish activist circles, is that many Jews who have voted Democratic all their lives will vote for Bush if Dean wins his party's nomination.

And Dean himself may be contributing to his Jewish problem by publicly modeling himself after a former president once widely applauded by the Jewish community, but who now is seen by many as a living symbol of their disillusionment with a failed peace process.

But the fact that this is first and foremost an ideology-driven, heavily partisan campaign is evident in the glaring double standard: Dean is trashed for a handful of ill-chosen words, while President Bush's dramatic changes in Mideast policy -- which have caused anxiety and anger in official circles in Israel -- have been mostly ignored.

Almost all of the anti-Dean campaign stems from his off-the-cuff remark at a New Mexico barbecue that the United States shouldn't "take sides" in the Arab-Israeli dispute.

Dean was rightly skewered for that comment, and not just by the far right. The alliance with Israel is a cornerstone of U.S. policy in the region and a vital element in Israel's security.

But the candidate quickly retreated. He pledged fealty to that special relationship, and explained that his comments were the result of an insufficient understanding of some of the code words attached to the Middle East controversy.

In communities across the country, his "take no sides" remark continues to generate anger, despite his persistent clarifications, but there is resounding silence about his rivals. More revealing is the silence about Bush, who in 2002 became the first president to openly advocate creation of a Palestinian state.

Bush demanded quick action on the international "road map" to Palestinian statehood, against the wishes of the Sharon government; he has applied strong pressure on Israel because of its security fence, and his administration punished Israel by cutting desperately needed loan guarantees. Just this week, his State Department angrily criticized Israel for not doing enough to resume negotiations.

This week, Dean was being criticized for embracing the unofficial Geneva accord. Somehow lost was the fact that the Bush administration has shown a strong interest in the plan, even meeting with its authors, despite angry protests by the Sharon government.

Still, there is an emerging conventional wisdom in Jewish leadership circles that Bush is somehow good for Israel, Dean is bad.

That glaring double standard is no accident. The attacks on Dean -- mostly anonymous -- come from ideologues who wouldn't vote for any Democratic candidate, no matter how pro-Israel.

These Jewish conservatives will forgive any sin by the Republican president, even something that violates their creed like the demand for quick action on Palestinian statehood -- but the slightest rhetorical slip by a Democrat will be taken as irrefutable proof of unfitness for leadership in this volatile area.

But the anti-Dean mud seems to be sticking, worrying Dean strategists. One reason is simply that for many Jewish voters, their first exposure to the former Vermont governor was his September blunder, when he spoke of more balance in U.S. Mideast policy.

In politics, first impressions are vital; Dean came across as Jimmy Carter-ish, and that won't be easily overcome.

The Dean reaction is also related to the angry disillusionment many in Israel -- and many pro-Israel activists here -- feel with the Oslo peace process.

Three years ago, former President Bill Clinton was widely described as the most pro-Israel president ever, despite the bitter criticisms of extreme anti-Oslo activists.

But with the breakdown of that peace process and relentless violence, more mainstream Jews are willing to accept the view that Clinton was too willing to negotiate away Israel's security to win an agreement.

Dean has deliberately patterned himself after Clinton on Mideast matters -- something that might have helped four years ago, but which could be hurting with Jewish leaders and activists in the harsher, post-Oslo environment of 2004.  

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