Today’s topic is the paradox–or one of them, anyway–of American Jewish political behavior. No, it’s not that hoary old cliché that they “earn like Episcopalians but vote like Puerto Ricans.” Rather, it’s that they think like enlightened liberals yet allow belligerent right-wingers and neocons who frequently demonize, distort and denounce their values to speak for them in the US political arena.
Don’t take my word for it. According to the American Jewish Committee’s 2007 survey of American Jewry, released December 11, a majority of Jews in this country oppose virtually every aspect of the Bush Administration/neocon agenda. Not only do they disapprove of the Administration’s handling of its “campaign against terrorism” (59-31 percent), they believe by a 67-to-27 margin that we should never have invaded Iraq. They are unimpressed by the “surge”–68 percent say it has either made no difference or made things worse, and by a 57-to-35 percent majority they oppose an attack on Iran, even if it was undertaken “to prevent [Iran] from developing nuclear weapons.”
Jews are also impressively sensible when it comes to Israel/Palestine, all things considered. Though barely more than a third think peace is likely anytime soon, and more than 80 percent believe the goal of the Muslim states is to destroy Israel, a 46-to-43 percent plurality continues to support the creation of a Palestinian state.
This wholesale rejection of the Bush/neocon agenda, moreover, is consistent with the way American Jews describe their overall political identity. Jews are more liberal than conservative (43-25 percent) and far more Democratic than Republican (58-15 percent). This preference, significantly, extends to national security issues, often considered a Republican trump card. By a massive 61-to-21 percent margin, Jews say Democrats, not Republicans, are “more likely to make the right decision about the war in Iraq.” Regarding terrorism, Democrats win 53-to-30 percent.
As a Jew who shares most of these beliefs, I am tempted to trumpet these numbers as big news, but it’s news only if you haven’t been paying attention. An examination of past AJC surveys as well as a number of other polls of American Jews demonstrates that Jews have remained remarkably faithful to the values of liberal humanism. These views, however, have been obscured in our political discourse by an unholy alliance between conservative-dominated professional Jewish organizations and neoconservative Jewish pundits, aided by pliant and frequently clueless mainstream media that empower these right-wingers to speak for a people with values diametrically opposed to theirs.
Take a look at the agendas of some of the most influential Jewish organizations, like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Anti-Defamation League, the Zionist Organization of America and the American Jewish Committee itself; each has historically associated itself with the hawkish side of the debate–and some have done so even when Israel took the more dovish side (the Jewish equivalent of being holier than the Pope). Forget for a moment the argument over whether what some call “the Lobby” is good or bad for America. My point is that it’s bad for the Jews.
In large part the trouble lies with the antidemocratic structures of these organizations and the apathy of most Jews with regard to organized Jewish life. Major Jewish groups respond to the demands of their top funders and best-organized constituencies. Most American Jews, however, have little or nothing to do with these groups. According to the AJC survey, while 90 percent of Jews say being Jewish is either “very important” (61 percent) or “fairly important” (29 percent) in their lives, exactly half say they belong to a synagogue or temple. A fraction of this number belong to Jewish political organizations, and the number of major funders is but a tiny percentage of that. As with so much of American life, the far-right minority is better funded and better disciplined than the liberal majority.
Fault can also be found with lazy editors, reporters, producers and the like who invite neocon and other unrepresentative people to speak for Jews and Jewish values. Consider the most prominent Jewish voices in the punditocracy who regularly sound off on Israel, Iraq, Iran, the Middle East, etc. My list includes Irving Kristol, William Kristol, Seth Lipsky, Martin Peretz, Norman Podhoretz, John Podhoretz, Richard Perle, Richard Cohen, Mortimer Zuckerman, Alan Dershowitz, Jeffrey Goldberg, Lawrence Kaplan, Charles Krauthammer, David Horowitz, Jonah Goldberg, David Gelernter, Ruth Wisse, David Brooks and David Frum. Most are Bush apologists, most supported the invasion of Iraq and most are sympathetic to the idea of an invasion of Iran. Not infrequently, leading Jewish pundits mock and ridicule the majority Jewish views. Irving Kristol, writing in Azure, attacks the “political stupidity” of American Jews. Gelernter, writing in The Weekly Standard, complains of Jewish political behavior as “a lesson in self-destructive nihilism.”
Given the scare tactics the neocons routinely employ–from their frequent deployment of the intellectually vacuous term “Islamofascism,” to Perle and Frum’s warning that the nation’s only choice is “victory or holocaust”–it is a remarkable tribute to the good sense of American Jewry that it remains a bastion of liberal humanism despite such naked attempts to manipulate longstanding fears and insecurities.
These pundits have every right to put forth their views, of course. It’s long past time, however, for the mainstream media to recognize just how out of touch they are with the values of the American Jewish mainstream.
If not now, when?