America's Jews face a difficult choice in this year's election. For many, the Bush administration symbolizes the kind of yahoo Republicanism -- shaped by evangelical Christianity and the South -- that grates on the sensibilities of a highly urbanized and socially liberal community.
Yet on the other side, we have a Democratic candidate, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, whose foreign and defense policy record is, at best, questionable. Although he has been pro-Israel throughout his career, his wobbliness on the larger and related issue of the war on terror is cause for concern.
Kerry's foreign policy proclivities, from what can now be gleaned, are largely those of the liberal Northeastern establishment, anchored in the media and academic elite. It is a policy shaped, more than anything else, by the 1960s experience with the Vietnam War, a general abhorrence of unilateral action and a deep unwillingness to confront adversaries.
The experience of Vietnam, particularly for a discontented veteran like Kerry, has created a mentality that is fundamentally hostile to U.S. assertiveness. This can be seen in his mid-1990s move to cut into CIA funding and his decision this year to withhold funds for the reconstruction of Iraq. And finally, it is manifest in his desire to fit U.S. policy in the terror war to fit the proclivities of our erstwhile European "allies" such as France and the new Spanish government.
When American foreign policy was focused primarily on the Cold War, Jews within the Democratic Party divided along ideological lines. A large proportion saw the struggle against communism as inherently flawed, while a significant portion favored the more hard-line approach pioneered by Harry Truman, followed by John Kennedy and most recently by Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman.
The hard-line Democrats reflected notions of an expanding, fundamentally optimistic nation that seemed capable of accomplishing what others -- whether the British Empire, Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union -- could not achieve. Although Democrats became more oriented to government action in the 20th century, the traditional core of the party, including organized labor, never lost sight of American exceptionalism and the nation's destiny.
Compare this now with the Democratic Party today. With the only Democrats of the old school -- Lieberman and Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt -- out of the race, we now confront a Democratic Party that tends to favor a less aggressive, more accommodating view of the terror war. In these attitudes lie many grave dangers for the terrorists' prime targets: the Jews and Israel.
Rather than identify with American greatness, Democrats like Kerry have become the party of American unexceptionalism -- more likely to blame the United States for the world's problem than even our worst enemies. Kerry's wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, in particular, has supported such groups as the Tides Foundation, which has lent backing to groups such as Council for American Islamic Relations and the National Lawyers Guild, both of which have backed jihadists opposed to both America and Israel.
To be sure, it seems likely that a wealthy heiress like Heinz Kerry is simply too busy to know where her money goes. We also can not be sure that the couple shares all their same ideas; that would certainly not be a news flash. But her support for such groups does suggest, at the very least, a broader shift in Democratic attitudes toward the war on terror.
More troubling, however, oft-stated proclivity of Kerry and his backers to seek a closer accord with the European Union and the United Nations. Both have proven themselves to be strongly pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel. Kowtowing toward Paris and Brussels -- growing centers of Europe's leftist and pan-Arabist anti-Semitism -- will shift our policy focus in ways not friendly to either Jewish or Israeli interests.
This matters directly to Jews in a way far more profound than the arguments over Cold War policy. Although that conflict also impacted Jews, we are in the ultimate crosshairs of the terror war.
The conflict over terror centers in large part about the right to exist for Jews -- or Christians or even dissident Muslims -- in the Middle East and elsewhere. The terrorists who attack Israel also want to kill Jews everywhere. One does not have to favor the often-destructive policies of Ariel Sharon to know this is a basic truth.
Given these forces, the foreign equation should lead most Jews to support President Bush. But here the other side of our identity comes in: We are also Americans who would like to see a more unified country, with greater concern for the poor, the middle class and for outsiders in general.
In all these areas, Bush has been a horrific failure, particularly given his earlier self-identification as a "compassionate conservative." No president since Richard Nixon has done more to exacerbate divisions within the country.
Bush has failed on some of the basic elements of domestic leadership. He has made little effort to reach out to those who doubt his policies and done little to rally anyone but his own conservative base. Even worse, he has taken to pandering to that base, most notably with his endorsement of a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
Whole parts of the country -- particularly many among gay people, working women, residents of the great cities -- feel totally abandoned and alienated. Such divisions are always bad for the Jews; the last time the threat of anti-Semitism was greater was back in the divisive period around the Great Depression.
This domestic policy approach is likely to backfire on the Republicans, at least among Jews. We may have become notably more conservative on fiscal issues and foreign policy, but Jews have a peculiar stake in the idea of tolerance.
One does not have to agree with the extralegal marriages in San Francisco to see that the issue of gay marriage should be worked out at the state, or even community level. A proposed constitutional amendment seems totally uncalled for and unnecessarily divisive.
Similarly, many Jews are likely to remain concerned about other Bush administration foibles, such as the depriving of constitutional rights to U.S. citizens under Attorney General John Ashcroft or the gross abuses by Texas oil firms in the Iraqi reconstruction. The wisdom of tax cuts and changes in environmental laws may also bother some.
As a result, what could have been a major realignment election for Jews to move toward the GOP now seems unlikely. Although Bush will win some Jewish votes, Kerry seems certain to capture the vast majority, something that could help him in several critical states.
Yet this is not a result that should get anyone dancing the hora. The movement of Kerry-style Democrats into the White House might be good for our social values but could prove bad news for the kind of foreign policy that gives Israel a chance to exist and Jews around the world a greater sense of security.