November 13, 2008
Attention, politicians: Pandering won’t fly
Over the last few weeks of the presidential campaign, the media reported on embarrassing attempts at pandering directed to the Jewish community. While these kinds of efforts are nothing new, and many of the panderers will renege on their pledges once in office -- politicians have been promising to move the American Embassy to Jerusalem for a generation -- they tell us something important about ourselves.
Why do politicians think that these predictable panders will win our votes? Have they been given bad political advice, or have we, unwittingly, sent the wrong message?
This election cycle the panders were especially blatant, if only because they were so heavy-handed. Usually, there is some restraint in the effort to woo Jewish voters; certain things are just not done, even though they might strike a resonant chord with some Jewish constituencies.
This year, however, many politicians -- especially in the Republican camp -- threw caution to the wind and said whatever they thought would be effective to garner Jewish voters in the swing states. Notably, the false suggestions that Barack Obama is a Muslim, pals around with terrorists, is hostile to Israel and even that his election might lead to a second Holocaust.
Throughout the campaign a coarse effort was made to push Jews' nervous buttons on Israel, anti-Semitism, terror and the Holocaust in shameful attempts to exploit fear and, too often, ignorance.
What these efforts should provoke is serious introspection by us. We should ask ourselves why we come to be perceived as susceptible to such inaccurate, superficial and incendiary blandishments by those who run for office. Why is it assumed that the Jewish community will find such wild, unsubstantiated allegations to be worthy of consideration and further dissemination? What have we done to allow the purveyors of the falsehoods and mischaracterizations to think they will find a sympathetic audience?
I have been involved in the organized Jewish community for more than 30 years, both as a professional with the Anti-Defamation League and as a lay leader with several diverse Jewish organizations.
I have hosted and witnessed a boatload of politicians and community leaders who have sought to connect with their Jewish audiences by touching upon issues they thought would resonate. Invariably, the topics of choice were Israel, anti-Semitism and, to a lesser degree, hate crimes and terrorism.
Almost always, the presentations adhered to a predictable arc: accolades for the person who reaffirmed the views that were overwhelmingly held by the audience. Rarely were the elected called upon to propose more than applause-earning platitudes. We settled for facile analyses and the painless intoning of set pieces about a predictable list of priorities, which was all we seemed to demand.
This ritual dance has sent politicians the wrong message. We are widely perceived as virtually single-issue in outlook, lacking nuance on complex matters and easily pleased. "Throw them a few bones, and they'll be happy," seems to be the operative assessment among the politicians who do the Jewish circuit.
Exacerbating the problem is the effort -- most pronounced in recent years -- to enforce a conservative orthodoxy when it comes to the Middle East. The most rigid elements of the Jewish community now tend to define the parameters of legitimate debate. To argue against their positions is to risk being termed naïve, ignorant or even disloyal. For most elected officials, taking the status quo line is much easier than arguing for risk-taking and innovation, even though those same positions may be considered tame in the Israeli Knesset.
Incidentally, having an agenda set by the most fearful in a minority community is strikingly similar to what prevails among other ethnic/racial groups. The most fearful often set the terms of debate in the African American and Latino communities, too. To buck the conventional wisdom is itself an act of courage.
The risk in what we have wrought -- settling for pabulum and superficiality instead of honest and serious analysis, while also avoiding spirited internal discussion of those issues -- is that the community is perceived as easy and vulnerable to thoughtless appeals to our basest fears.
We must demand more of others and of ourselves.
We shouldn't settle for platitudinous sermons when we invite political leaders to speak -- it does neither them nor us any good. We should tolerate, indeed encourage, vigorous and spirited discussions of tough issues relating to our community here and in Israel; it will do us and our children good.
The results of the 2008 presidential election indicate that the base appeals to our "tribal" instincts didn't work very well. We can take some comfort in that. But we must, by our actions, demonstrate that intelligent, substantive discussions of issues of concern will be welcome in the future. It's time to tell the politicians: superficial appeals to simplistic and false notions of our priorities just won't fly. The world is too complex for that, and we know it.
David A. Lehrer is president of Community Advocates Inc., a Los Angeles-based human relations organization headed by former Los Angeles Mayor Richard J. Riordan.