December 11, 2003
Republican Redux: Jews Going Right?
In a town famous for hot air, the Washington Post made a major contribution over the weekend with an oft-repeated tale of how Jewish voters, concerned about terrorism and Israel, are about to migrate to the greener pastures of the GOP.
Jewish Democrats reacted angrily, saying it was just the usual pre-election GOP spin; Republicans insisted that this time they really do see signs of a dramatic Jewish shift.
Both sides score some points, but their arguments smack more of hope than fact.
In reality, nobody really knows where the big, amorphous center of the Jewish electorate is these days. It seems to be in flux, and there may be tremendous opportunities for the Republicans, but there are also things keeping Jews away from the GOP -- particularly the conservative domestic policies of the Republican White House and Congress.
Message for Republicans: Don't count your kosher chickens before they hatch. If you do, you risk another embarrassment when Jewish voters fail to support your wildly optimistic projections.
Message for Democrats: don't assume you have the Jewish vote locked up. You don't; the forces that have caused journalists to rhapsodize about a Jewish political revolution may be exaggerated, but they aren't just hallucinations.
The problem with predictions about Jewish political behavior is that there is no single Jewish political community. Different factions are moving in different ways -- but some factions are more visible than others.
There's little question Jewish leaders, especially those whose primary focus is Israel, have been turning steadily toward the Republicans for years, and that trend seems to be accelerating.
One reason is that they and their organizations are defending a right-of-center Israeli government and reacting to an administration and Congress, along with their religious right backers, that have been unusually receptive to its policies.
Part of the perceived shift, too, has to do with an increasingly concentrated top Jewish leadership strata -- the big-money types who keep Jewish organizations afloat in these perilous times.
That stratum, predisposed to the GOP, is highly visible; they are the talking heads reporters turn to, the organizational voices. But their views may not reflect a broader Jewish community that is much more varied.
The vast majority of American Jews care about Israel, but may not be involved in pro-Israel activism, or belong to Jewish political organizations. For many, Israel is one of many important issues, but domestic issues still take precedence.
The Bush administration's Israel policy may be pulling top Jewish leaders and single-issue pro-Israel voters into the GOP ranks, but it's not at all clear the same thing is happening to rank-and-file Jews. In fact, some may be hardening in their liberalism -- part of the broader liberal fury ignited by the aggressively conservative domestic policies of this administration and Congress, as well as the Iraq War.
For many, the president's coziness with Pat Robertson is more significant a factor than his coziness with Ariel Sharon.
That gap between the leaders and the Jewish mainstream is a major reason why the biennial predictions of a sea change in Jewish partisan preferences have just led to disappointment for the Republicans. Commentators are misled because the public voices of the community are more Republican, more conservative; so are most of the pro-Israel activists interviewed by the Washington Post and others.
It's also misleading because there already was something of a Jewish-GOP revolution during Ronald Reagan's presidency -- but the Republicans blew it with his successor, President George Herbert Walker Bush, and have been struggling to recover ever since.
All of that is good news for the Democrats, but it would be a big mistake to celebrate.
The surging anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism of the political left is barely reflected in the Democratic Party today, but it could be in the future, something that would drive out the Jews in droves. As the debate over the Iraq War grows more bitter, the risks of that happening grow.
It's not exactly a secret that when Louis Farrakhan comes to town, he's hosted by a Democratic congressman; increasingly, the Capitol Hill voices most critical of Israel are on the Democratic side of the aisle, although they are a tiny minority.
The Democrats are increasingly interested in winning over the fast-growing Arab-American and Muslim communities, groups ripe for the plucking, thanks to widespread hostility to the Bush administration's harsh anti-terrorism policies.
And while Jews have been partially immune from the natural shift of white ethnic groups to the right as they gain affluence, that factor is still at work in the community, especially among younger Jews.
Many Jews in the middle are torn between their historic commitment to liberalism and the forces that have pulled so many white, middle-class voters into the Republican camp in recent decades. One result: They're much more willing to vote for individual Republican candidates, the first stage in shifting party loyalties.
Overall, the picture is of a community in flux, with the potential for a dramatic political shift favoring the Republicans.
But there are also forces pushing in the opposite direction. The 2004 election could be a watershed -- or it could be just another occasion for spin, counterspin and dashed hopes when it comes to Jewish voters.