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Jewish Journal

Opinion: Poor sports

by Rob Eshman

November 9, 2011 | 5:18 pm

Rob Eshman, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief

Rob Eshman, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief

Eventually, there is one thing every aspiring American political writer must do: write a long feature story about how Jews are turning Republican.

Scroll back a decade or two through various election cycles, and there it always is, the portrait of a Jewish Republican moment, repackaged as original insight.

“As Jewish voters begin to realize that their continuing support of a Democratic party [is] increasingly dependent on interests hostile to them,” reads a Washington Times piece from November 1994, “yet another traditional Democratic group of voters could fall away ...”

“Pundits believe that the Jewish vote is up for grabs,” a 2004 Boston Globe column states. “As the American Jewish community grows wealthier, more suburban, more deeply rooted in America, and more estranged from liberal critics of Israeli policy, Jewish voters — so the argument goes — are growing restless.”

The “Are Jews Turning Republican?” headline — it’s as traditional as Thanksgiving. And this year, the cornucopia came early. In the wake of former Rep. Anthony Weiner’s (D-N.Y.) oh-so-tasteful text messages, a usually Democratic Congressional seat was in play last September. The Democratic candidate lost to the Republican, and out popped a slew of exposés on how the Jewish American dissatisfaction with President Barack Obama’s policies vis-à-vis Israel has finally forced Jews to turn away from the party of Roosevelt and into the GOP.

New York Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, National Public Radio and The New York Times all weighed in. Jews make up 2 percent of the population, but apparently 80 percent of the news. 

“Republicans see a chance in 2012, with President Obama locked in a tense relationship with Israel’s leaders and criticized by many American Jews as being too tough on a close and favored ally,” the New York Times’ reporter wrote. “Tuesday’s Republican upset in New York’s Congressional election, they say, is a sign of bad things to come for Mr. Obama.”

Or, if every election since 1916 is any indication, maybe not. That’s the last time a Republican managed to get almost half the Jewish vote. 

The problem with the vast majority of these stories is the reporters speak largely to Jews who have — to paraphrase Mel Gibson — a dog in this fight. So the Republican operatives say, “Yes, it’s true,” and the Democrat flacks say, “No, it’s not.” And the headline writers go right for the dramatic question mark. “Are Jews in Play?” was my favorite from this year’s crop — it made us sound like such fun.

But for those predicting a sudden Jewish swing right, the fun ends on Election Day.

This is neither spin nor wishful thinking nor sour grapes; this is a combination of historical record and current fact. Every poll shows that Israel is not the No. 1 issue for most Jews. It’s behind concerns like the economy, health care, entitlements, the environment. 

Maybe imminent conflict or some clear evidence that a president or candidate represents a clear and present danger to Israel would goose that percentage. But even more likely is that, despite the efforts to turn Israel into a partisan issue, Jews understand that both parties have a longstanding record of commitment to Israel’s wellbeing. The U.S. government generally does fine by Israel, no matter which party is in power. If only we could say the same for the economy, health care, entitlements and the environment.

Unfortunately, none of this stops hacks from trying to use Israel as a political wedge, a way to turn Jewish voters away from one candidate and toward their guy. In our pernicious political culture, it’s only getting worse.

This week, at the General Assembly of Jewish Federations in Denver, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schulz urged the thousands of delegates not to fall for it.

“Many of you received e-mails distorting the president’s record on Israel,” she said. “Israel should not be used as a political football.” Watch the YouTube footage — the audience response was just a bit better than a shrug.

Given the creeping rancor among pro-Israel groups, it’s almost quaint that, a few weeks ago, two major nonpartisan Jewish organizations — the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and the Anti-Defamation League —tried to get Jewish groups to promise not to use Israel as a partisan issue in the 2012 presidential election.

Very quickly, the Republican Jewish Committee and the Emergency Committee for Israel rejected the plea for civility, while the left-leaning JStreet remains “undecided.”

No administration’s record is perfect. George W. Bush had a close relationship with then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. But it was the Bush administration that produced the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, which concluded that Teheran had ceased its nuclear weapons activities. We’ve seen this week what a foul-up that was.

Meanwhile, Israelis who give the Obama administration high marks for confronting Iran say it proved clay-footed at Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Like Israel, nobody’s perfect.

But, as the AJC’s David Harris wrote this week, “One thing is a safe bet: Vital, even existential, issues affecting the Middle East are likely to arise in every presidential term. When both major parties see support for Israel as central to their world outlook, then everyone is better off.”

I don’t expect partisan groups to sign unity pledges or back off. What I hope is that intelligent Jewish voters see through their politicking.

I am not going to say whether Jews should vote Democrat or Republican. Make up your own minds. But I will say this: When you suspect either party is using Israel as a political football, just do Israel a favor, and cry foul.

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