November 2, 2000
Jewish voters are asking too little from politicians - and getting it.
Nov. 7 is still a few days away, but Jewish leaders are already patting themselves on the back for a job well done.
Jewish clout is alive and well, they're telling each other; more than ever, candidates in both major parties are saying the things Jewish audiences want to hear.
Well, yes. Pro-Israel political power is real, and candidates have become adept at wooing Jewish voters and, even more importantly, getting them to open their wallets. But that courtship may be a lot shallower than the self-congratulatory machers believe.
One reason: the Jewish community demands too little from candidates. More and more, community leaders seek only simple slogans, not serious answers about positions and policies.
The broad range of Jewish public policy concerns are distilled to a few litmus-test questions, almost all on the Middle East; candidates are encouraged to spit back slogans, not detailed explanations of what they really think or what they would really do once in office.
Indeed, serious answers are a liability for candidates who understand that anything more than automatic sound bites on the Middle East will get them in trouble with one faction or another of a divided Jewish community.
Consider this year's two highest profile races: the presidential contest between Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush, and the fierce struggle for an open Senate seat in New York pitting First Lady Hillary Clinton against Rep. Rick Lazio.
Both contests have galvanized Jewish political activists; in both, and especially in New York, the candidates are being forced to jump through multiple Jewish hoops.
But the questions the candidates are asked produce little that will help Jews make informed choices. And they may also give the candidates a distorted view about the community's priorities.
New York is a hothouse for this brand of Jewish single-issue politics.
Every time Clinton speaks before a Jewish group, she gets asked the same questions: What does she think about her husband's refusal to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem? Why did she once support creation of a Palestinian state and embrace Yasser Arafat's wife? How about those White House invitations to Muslim groups and the campaign contributions from Arab Americans?
Lazio is treated more gently, since he hasn't been involved in Mideast policy long enough to anger any Jewish faction.
Still, his questions run along the same simplistic lines. Does he object to the administration's "pressure" on Israel? What about Israel's qualitative military edge, the all-time favorite catch phrase among politicians seeking Jewish support?
These questions are designed to elicit packaged replies, not real information. Or they're asked in order to generate fodder for barbed press releases attacking the candidate for the answers everybody knew he or she would give.
The result: Jewish voters in New York have almost no idea how either Senate candidate would approach Mideast policy if elected. And it's hard to blame Lazio and Clinton; both are simply responding to a community that asks for pandering and pabulum.
One thing we can say with certainty: the winner, educated in the harsh classroom of New York ethnic politics, will do everything possible to avoid political conflict over Mideast policy while in the Senate. Each candidate has become a much more accomplished panderer; as a result, neither is likely to play a constructive policy role.
That's not a major sin, given the fact that Congress has generally avoided substantive involvement in Mideast policy. But it's not an option for presidential candidates.
At every Jewish gathering, Gore and Bush, responding to the ritual questions, repeat the same formulaic positions on supporting Israel, opposing pressure on its government and ensuring its security.Gore, at least, has a Mideast record to run on, but you'd never know it, listening to his vague but supportive pronouncements. He sounds like he really cares about Israel, but he eschews any hint of what his Mideast policy might look like, and Jewish audiences seem content to let it go at that.
Bush has promised to move the embassy tomorrow, but Jewish activists have heard that from too many others to believe it. Still, the question keeps getting asked, the answers discussed as if they were something more than artful evasions.
Neither candidate is pushed on what creative new solutions he would bring to a failing peace process or how he would bolster Israel's security in an age of fast and frightening change. Neither has revealed how his policy would differ from that of the Clinton administration.
Jews aren't alone in demanding too little from their political representatives. Campaigns are getting more superficial every year, voters more inclined to buy into the sound-bite mentality of the political consultants and ad writers.
But with Israel in crisis, it's more important than ever for her supporters here not to delude themselves: real support for Israel requires active, involved, knowledgeable public officials in Washington, not just politicians who have learned to say "the right thing" to a community that doesn't demand more.