Thursday, January 5, 2012

On Presidents, Palestinians, and the Jewish Vote

This is an election year, so it should come as no surprise that presidential aspirants are busy pandering to every strategic voting bloc, including the large populations of Jewish voters in New York, New Jersey, California, Pennsylvania, and Florida. Appealing to Jewish voters on the subject of Israel is nothing new – shtetl politicians have campaigned on this salient issue as long as there has been a Zionist movement. However, what is new in this election cycle is the unprecedented degree of gutter politics and general nastiness that the discourse on Israel has acquired.

At the Republican Jewish Coalition forum, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann thundered that Israel should cede “not one acre, not one square foot, not one inch” to the Palestinians in order to make peace.

Governor Rick Perry declared that the Israeli settlements in the West Bank are actually legal, “and I support them.”

Newt Gingrich claimed that the Palestinians are an “invented people” – with the implication that if the Palestinians are not a true nation then they cannot have a nation-state.

Rick Santorum went even further, claiming, “All the people that live in the West Bank are Israelis. They are not Palestinians. There is no Palestinian. This is Israeli land.”

Putting these statements together, one sees a Republican foreign policy platform which does more than simply repudiate the “Land for Peace” premise of U.S.-led peace negotiations between Israel and her Arab neighbors – it repudiates the very notion of a peace process altogether. The GOP presidential aspirants wish to reverse the longstanding U.S. policy of opposition to the illegal Israeli settlements in West Bank territory and now actively endorse continued colonial expansion. The foreign policy which these candidates espouse is a radical abandonment of U.S. policy for the past 45 years – including the foreign policies of the Nixon, Reagan, and both Bush administrations – and a substitution of the religiously and racially exclusivist ideologies of Revisionist Zionism in its place.

Why would candidates for leader of the free world stoop to such lows? Karl Rove and the greater Republican National Committee believe that by making Israel into a wedge issue, GOP candidates can peel off some of the 78% of Jewish voters who voted for Barack Obama in 2008. GOP strategists believe that they might have found a winning strategy in pandering to the basest fears of the collective Jewish psyche: our instinctive paranoia of Arabs, Muslims, and anyone otherwise resembling Yasser Arafat. Such Palestinian-bashing is a reprehensible tactic which all advocates of tolerance and basic decency must condemn. Tragically, it might win Mitt Romney a few votes, it might even flip a few Hasidic communities to the GOP tent for good.

One should expect such below-the-belt jabs from the folks who brought you the “White Hands” ad and Willie Horton. But what is concerning is that the Democratic National Committee might take the bait and try to out-pander the panderers. One might hope that Democratic candidates will not join this race to the bottom in Palestinian-bashing because they are too good for that kind of gutter politics.

One might even hope that the enlightened Democrats might get the memo that the State of Israel is not the only matter of interest to each and every one America’s 6,544,000 Jews. It is insulting to think that a politician can buy our votes with a pledge for more reflexive embrace of everything the Netanyahu administration says and does in the same manner as, say, one stumps for votes among Iowan farmers by promising more subsidies for corn.

Zionism and diplomatic support for the State of Israel have always been an undercurrent in Jewish-American politics, but it was never the end-all-be-all until relatively recently. Not too long ago, candidates campaigned in Jewish neighborhoods in Park Slope and Brookline by stumping on the issues most relevant to a then-largely working class demographic; unionism, wages, and pensions, immigration reform, civil rights legislation. However, with the passing of generations, the bulk of us have moved from the ghettoes to the wealthy suburbs, and there is no longer a distinct economic pitch to appeal to both the seamstress in South Williamsburg who makes $22,000 a year and the bond trader in Greenwich who makes $2.2 million. Thus Jewish-American politics has been reduced to Israel: the one issue which (ostensibly) unites us all.

Nevertheless, in our day-to-day conversations, American Jews are more concerned about the job market, fairness in the tax code, the cost of health insurance, the quality of our environment. We are disproportionately in favor of taking measures to curb global warming, reforming our criminal justice system, and creating a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Why don’t candidates for public office come to our congregations and campaign on these issues which actually affect our lives, the lives of our friends and family members a whole lot more than a foreign country two continents and an ocean away? Of course, we will always have a special sense of sympathy for the Jewish State. But if we are going to speak about foreign policy, Israel is but one of 195 foreign countries (196 if you count Palestine) with which we are concerned.

If presidential candidates are going to speak to a Jewish audience on Israel and Israel alone, then they might as well appeal to our greatest hopes instead of our darkest fears. According to a 2011 J Street poll, the vast majority of American Jews want a U.S.-brokered solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (83%), and for the Obama administration to offer a peace plan that proposes set borders and security arrangements (70%). A healthy majority of American Jews even back a peace plan based on the 1967 borders with mutually agreed-upon land swaps (57%). If politicians are going to campaign for Jewish voters on Israel, they ought to pledge to sit down with Netanyahu and Abbas and hammer out a peace deal for once and for all.

Sure, 17 percent of American Jews are opposed to the Middle East peace process - just as 18 percent of American Jews are opposed to equal rights for gays and lesbians, 22 percent of American Jews thought that Sarah Palin should have been the Vice President, and there are even some of us who think there should be segregation on public transportation. But Democratic politicians have no obligation to kowtow to these forces of reaction, the very most closed-minded minority of my people - because they're Republicans. The DNC ought to accept this reality, move on, and campaign to the vast majority of Jewish voters who support a U.S.-brokered peace process.

Making peace in the Middle East is not a campaign liability which candidates ought to run away from – it is a badge of honor which Democratic Presidents ought to embrace. The legacy of Democratic administrations vis-à-vis Israel is not limited to Harry Truman’s recognition of the Jewish State in 1948. The greatest foreign policy achievements of Democratic administrations include Lyndon Johnson’s support for Resolution 242 in the United Nations, Jimmy Carter’s brokering of the Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt, Bill Clinton’s facilitation of negotiations over the Israel-Jordan peace treaty and the Oslo Accords between Israel and the PLO. The majority of Jewish voters want to see Barack Obama live up to this long legacy of Democratic achievement and oversee peace negotiations leading to a two-state solution in which the nations of Israel and Palestine are living side by side, in peace and security. That’s the kind of change we can believe in.


Matt said...

Obviously agree that Jews political allegiances are more complex than just finding a candidate with the most-agreeable stance on Israel, although the apparent movement of Jewish voters away from the left since Obama's comments, as evidenced, for instance, by Bob Turner's victory in Anthony Weiner's old district, is a bit concerning.

Unknown said...

The media narrative that the NY-9 special election was 100% a referendum on Obama's Israel policy is a crude analysis. This Queens district is after Staten Island one of the most Republican enclaves of NYC - it broke overwhelmingly for Giuliani and Bloomberg. The ultra-Orthodox community was peeved at the Democratic candidate Weprin for his vote for same-sex marriage. Moreover, btw, there was this big giant scandal about the previous Democratic Congressman tweeting a picture of his junk to underage girls - this turned off all constituencies of all ethnicities and all sects. Was Israel a factor to some voters? Yes. But same-sex marriage and Anthony Wiener's crotch shot aside, we probably would not have Congressman Bob Turner. This was a post-scandal fluke, nothing more, and Turner will probably lose re-election in November.