Pollster Frank Luntz had arranged the session as part of his research to gauge American attitudes toward Israel. Luntz is the Republican opinion maven who helped fashion Newt Gingrich's Contract With America. His work for Israel is nonpartisan, he said, inspired by his devotion to a state whose leaders' posture has long been that actions speak louder than words. Luntz has been trying to get Israelis to understand that, in the information age, what you do often matters less than what they say about what you do.
The details of what transpired at Luntz's "Instant Response" session were off-the-record, but I can say that the overall results were as shocking as they were commonplace: the opinion of Israel among the Democrats was consistently 10 to 20 points lower than that of the Republicans.
For the study, respondents watched various Israeli representatives on a television prompter while holding dial devices in their hands. They turned the dial left or right, depending on whether they felt warmer or cooler to the speaker's words, and the aggregate levels registered as two graph lines across the screen, red for Republicans, green for Democrats.
This research aims to reveal which words and phrases resonate with voters. A speaker who forcefully explained how Israel risks its own soldiers' lives to present civilian casualties in Lebanon sent both graphs higher than one who simply said the deaths were regrettable.
I kept waiting for the green line -- so to speak -- to run alongside the red, for the Democrats to feel as cozy to Israel as the Republicans. They never did. The danger signs of such results stretch far beyond a research session. A Los Angeles Times / Bloomberg Poll in late July found, "a growing partisan divide over Israel and its relationship with the United States."
While 50 percent of that survey's respondents said the United States should continue to stand by Israel, Democrats supported neutrality over alignment, 54 percent to 39 percent, while Republicans supported alignment with the Jewish state 64 percent to 29 percent.
"Republicans generally expressed stronger support for Israel," wrote the Times, "while Democrats tended to believe the United States should play a more neutral role in the region."
Two rallies last week drove the point home. On Sunday, the extreme left-wing A.N.S.W.E.R. (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) turned out between 1,000 and 5,000 protestors on the streets of downtown Los Angeles, carrying signs accusing Israel of genocide and blaming "the occupation" for the death of innocent Lebanese. (The occupation of what, Kiryat Shemona?)
Two days before, about 100 protesters blocked the entrance to the Israeli Consulate on Wilshire Boulevard calling for an end to the war.
Sure, these protesters -- who, I'm going to assume, tend to vote Democratic -- are not in the party's mainstream. The mainstream still belongs solidly to people like Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who told a group of Arab representatives last week in clear terms that he would never apologize for his support for Israel. And the House of Representatives' July 21 vote supporting Israel in its war with Hezbollah passed on a 410 to 8 vote.
That's the way it should be. For most of Israel's history, America's support for Israel was the result of a strong bipartisan consensus. It was a Democratic President, Harry Truman, whose recognition helped birth the Jewish state, and politicians from both parties -- from John Kennedy to Richard Nixon to Bill Clinton -- have played key roles in strengthening it. Most historians agree that Israel's chilliest reception at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. came when a Republican, George H.W. Bush, was president.
Yet the change in attitudes among some Democratic voters has sparked gleeful Republican e-mails and blog entries across the Internet, and provided talking points for any number of GOP hacks. They want to use Israel as a wedge issue to beckon Jewish longtime Democratic voters away from the fold.
But Luntz and others who care about Israel understand this fissure is no cause for celebration, that treating the State of Israel as the equivalent of flag-burning or the morning after pill is dangerous and foolish.
Eventually, inevitably, the pendulum swings. Voters will kick the ruling party to the curb, and Congress, and perhaps even the White House, will go to the Dems. People who truly care about Israel and not about scoring points on Crossfire need to figure out ways to close the gap, to make support for Israel neither Democrat nor Republican, but American.
The challenge is especially great here in Los Angeles, where liberal Jews make up substantially more than a minyan in the entertainment industry. People took Hollywood's Marranos to task for remaining largely mute when actor Mel Gibson went on his anti-Semitic bender. But Hollywood's silence has been positively deafening during the war Israel just fought.
A terrorist group invaded Israeli territory, lobbed in thousands of rockets, killed dozens of Israeli citizens and soldiers and emptied the country's north. And Hollywood Jewry spoke out in a collective voice about as loud as a Prius in neutral.
These Democrats, who have the power to influence public and political opinion, are being carried along in a wave of liberal antipathy toward Israel. Steven Spielberg, who went public with a $1 million donation to support Israeli hospitals and social services affected by the war, is the notable, high-profile exception.
So what's the solution? Step one is to stop politicizing Israel. Israel and, by extension, world Jewry, faces an enemy in Islamic fascism that hardly differentiates between Jew and non-Jew, much less Republican and Democrat.
Step two is to uncouple support of Israel from support of Bush, or of the Iraq War. As much as the president understands the danger of "Islamo-fascism," he has greatly fouled our ability to fight that threat by launching and mishandling the war in Iraq and over-politicizing homeland security. But don't punish Israel for Bush's sins.
Step three is for Jews of all political stripes to find ways to come together in support of Israel. I suggest a red-and-blue coalition of American Jews lobby hard to eliminate America's dependency on foreign oil.
"A stable, peaceful and open world order are being compromised and complicated by high oil prices," wrote Fareed Zakharia in Newsweek. "And while America spends enormous time, money and effort dealing with the symptoms of this problem, we are actively fueling the cause."
The technology exists to resolve our oil dependency and deprive the worst anti-Israel regimes of their billions in surplus (see "Winning the Oil Endgame" by energy expert Amory Lovins at oilendgame.com), and Jews can come together to spur politicians and corporations to implement it. It's not red or blue. It's pro-Israel, and it's time.