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Jewish Journal

Correcting the tilt in Jewish politics—it’s not just Israel, stupid

by James D. Besser

May 17, 2007 | 8:00 pm

What will it take to convince politicians that Jewish voters care about a wide range of issues, not just Israel?

The creative folks at the Jewish Funds for Justice (JFSJ) think they have an answer.

This week the group is conducting an online survey of domestic priorities, with the goal of pressing the 2008 presidential contenders to engage in a genuine dialogue with Jewish voters over the results.

But the problem isn't just that some candidates don't know that Jews care about heath care, economic inequality, church-state separation, government ethics -- the list is endless. Money distorts the political dialogue, and Jewish campaign contributions are concentrated and focused on the single issue of Israel.

Jewish organizations contribute to the problem as they shift the communal focus to Israel, both out of a sense of growing urgency over its fate and because Israel is what brings in members and dollars.

The idea that politicians can deal with Jewish voters with a few pro-Israel talking points and ignore domestic affairs is not new, but the tactic seems to be hardening into political dogma.

Jewish Republicans have good reasons to pursue an all-Israel-all-the-time strategy; the domestic issues advocated by their party, including banning abortion, giving money to religious schools and opposing gay rights, are non-starters with a Jewish electorate that remains stubbornly liberal despite an increasingly outspoken conservative minority.

That strategy appears to be a boost to GOP fundraising but a bust at the polls; last year's congressional contests saw an overwhelming Jewish tilt to the Democrats despite aggressive attack ads by the Republican Jewish Coalition.

The Democrats have less of an excuse, but they increasingly play the same game.

At their recent candidates forum, leaders of the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) encouraged the presidential candidates to address a wide range of issues, but most of them began with and emphasized support for Israel, even though it was a friendly audience that didn't doubt their pro-Israel credentials.

It was revealing that the Democratic contenders got their biggest ovations for statements on non-Israel issues such as health care reform, economic justice and the genocide in Darfur, not their formulaic comments on Israel.

That relentless Israel focus represents a kind of disenfranchisement for the Jewish majority whose political interests do not begin and end with Israel.

But changing things won't be easy. Candidates play the Israel card because that's what they've been taught by mainstream Jewish leaders -- and because that's what produces the big bucks in their campaign coffers.

Jewish multi-issue groups continue be active in the domestic realm, but there's little question that organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and the American Jewish Congress spend much more time and energy on the Israel issue than they used to.

One reason is the perceived threat to the Jewish state in an era when international support is waning and new threats like a nuclear Iran loom.

But part of it is also a cold calculation that Israel activism is what attracts big donors to Jewish groups and provides a cohesion and sense of urgency that is often lacking in domestic matters.

Jews remain deeply committed to a wide range of domestic concerns, but beneath that reality are wide differences in positions and priorities. But talk about Israel facing a new Holocaust, and Jews line up to get involved -- and to give money.

When Jewish leaders come to Washington or visit with political candidates around the country, they raise other issues, but Israel is almost always at the top of the list, so it's hardly surprising that candidates have come to believe Israel is the ticket to Jewish political support.

That message is reinforced by networks of pro-Israel campaign funders around the country. Candidates in both parties are heavily dependent on Jewish money, and much of it comes through the pro-Israel network, with the obvious implication that this is what Jewish voters care about the most.

Jews who are motivated mostly by domestic affairs give heavily, too, but their contributions are much less focused, scattered across dozens of issues from energy independence to abortion rights. And more often than not, those contributions are not seen as Jewish contributions, in the same way pro-Israel giving is.

With campaign spending soaring -- the 2008 presidential contest will set new records -- the pressure to treat affluent constituencies as little more than cash-generating engines will accelerate. In Jewish politics that means candidates will continue to emphasize Israel and give short shrift to the domestic concerns dear to the hearts of most Jewish voters.

The Jewish Funds for Justice domestic policy campaign raises important questions, but the skewed nature of Jewish politics won't change until groups with a more domestic focus begin to organize contributors, focus their campaign giving and coordinate and concentrate their message.

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