Jewish Journal

The Jews’ Best Friends

by James D. Besser

Posted on Aug. 22, 2002 at 8:00 pm

Who are the Jewish community's best friends in Washington -- members of the Congressional Black Caucus or Republican conservatives?

That question has taken on a sharp new edge as Israel battles suicide bombings and international condemnation, and this country mobilizes for its own fight against terrorist violence. But the answers are anything but clear, garbled by prejudice, preconceptions and partisanship.

Questions about black support for Israel are nothing new, but several high-profile House races involving members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) have spotlighted the uncomfortable issue. At a time when support for Israel has become almost universal in Congress, the most vocal exceptions now come from the Black Caucus. When Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan finished a recent Mideast "peace" mission, it was Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich), a founder of the CBC, who hosted him for a Capitol Hill briefing.

This week, Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.), known for her harsh criticisms of Israel and her controversial charge that President George W. Bush knew in advance about the September 11 terror attacks, was soundly defeated by Denise Majette, a former state judge.

It is the second time this year that pro-Israel politics has played a role in the defeat of a veteran member of the U.S. House and Congressional Black Caucus. (The loss came only two months after Rep. Earl Hilliard (D-Ala.), another black incumbent who had been critical of Israel, was defeated in a primary runoff. Hilliard's defeat at the hands of an African American challenger fueled black-Jewish strains on Capitol Hill as Black Caucus leaders questioned the role of pro-Israel money in the incumbent's defeat.)

But many CBC members are strong friends of Israel. Others are largely indifferent to the issue -- as are a majority of white colleagues. The picture is very different on the domestic scene, where Jews -- despite almost annual predictions of a big shift to the right -- remain conspicuously liberal. Reproductive choice, church-state separation and civil liberties remain top domestic concerns of the Jewish community; the CBC is still a vital ally to Jewish groups involved in these issues. Jews and blacks remain the single most important coalition standing in opposition to the Christian right's domestic agenda in Congress, despite pockets of support for school vouchers in both communities.

On the other side of the line are the Christian conservatives, who have become Israel's newest best friends. They are motivated by a variety of factors, including the simple scriptural commandment to love Israel, an urgent feeling that the Judeo-Christian West is under assault by Islamic extremism, and biblical prophecies demanding a fiery end to the Jewish state.

But on the domestic battlefield, the Evangelicals are strongly anti-abortion and pro-school prayer. Some leaders continue to push official statements declaring this to be a "Christian nation."

Many Jews see the religious conservatives as hostile to civil rights: often their religious tolerance seems dangerously thin. Some of the same Christian leaders who speak eloquently of their love for Israel actively support the conversion of Jews here and in Israel.

Thus the dilemma for the organized Jewish community: increasingly, on Israel, the CBC is out of step with Jewish groups, although a key ally domestically, and the religious right is a powerful friend on Israel but an implacable adversary on many close-to-home issues.

The conflict is exacerbated by politicos seeking to manipulate it for partisan gain. Jewish Republicans worked overtime to tar the entire Black Caucus with the Cynthia McKinney brush; Jewish Democrats have heaped scorn on the religious right forces seeking to help Israel, and at least some of that is pure diversion, as they try to minimize the impact of their CBC problem.

Short-term, the support of the Evangelicals clearly is important, but it is naïve to think that the longing by many for a Mideast apocalypse does not matter. And as long as Jews remain progressive on domestic issues, the alliance will be a very narrow one. Jews and the Black Caucus have a lot in common domestically, but that doesn't mean Jewish leaders should hold their fire when CBC members join forces with the enemies of Israel.

Today's dire Mideast emergency has skewed the coalition calculus. It's becoming harder for pro-Israel Jews to overlook or forgive the lack of support from some black lawmakers who are allies on other issues, and the support of the politically influential Christian Zionists has come at a time when it is vitally needed -- making it easier to overlook their domestic positions. But it is likely to swing back when the crisis abates, and Jews pay more attention to the home front.

The trick for Jewish leaders is to find ways to juggle these important but sometimes conflicting relationships. Their job will be to build coalitions wherever possible, but to also maintain a realistic balance between the community's vital domestic and foreign policy concerns. Coalition building shouldn't be a zero-sum game, but there will continue to be strong partisan forces seeking to make it so.

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