Thursday, September 25, 2003

My Bush Dilemma and Yours

We are just months away from the presidential primaries and a bit more than a year away from the 2004 election. While he has slipped somewhat, President Bush still seems unbeatable despite the unresolved questions and difficulties arising out of Iraq and despite the still faltering economy and job market. The tide may turn, as his father learned, although the uninspiring cast of Democratic aspirants adds to the likelihood that this won’t happen. With the exception of Howard Dean - and now Wesley Clark - none has caught fire. Dean’s good fortune is predicated on the suicidal instinct of Democrats who allow a tiny cabal of leftists to seize control of the primary system. As for General Clark, it’s too early to judge how he might do.

We Americans who still regard ourselves as Jewish have a problem. For all of the noise made by right-wingers and neo-conservatives in our ranks, overwhelmingly we remain identified with the Democratic Party and with liberal policies. The question many of us will face is whether to maintain this loyalty and reject an incumbent president who has been caring about Israel in favor of a Democrat who is likely to be less hospitable to the Jewish state. The problem is intensified by the dislike, even abhorrence, in most Jewish circles of Mr. Bush’s domestic policies.

In an interesting way, there is a mirror image on a much smaller scale of this problem among politically conservative Jews who support the President on nearly everything else but are aghast at the pressure he is exerting on Israel to accommodate the Palestinians. To be sure, especially behind the scenes, the White House and State Department have taken a tough stand and bullied Prime Minister Sharon to take steps that he believes might harm Israel. This being said, there is no reason to expect any American president to embrace every position espoused by our own hardliners. The President heads the American government, not Israel’s.

The issue that already confronts us is whether to ignore Mr. Bush’s views on taxes, the environment and a range of social and economic issues and say, in effect, that Israel trumps everything else. Or do we reject a right-wing agenda that for all of the soothing talk about compassionate conservatism is as reactionary as anything that America has seen in more than two generations.

This question does not appear on the radar screen of about half of those whom our numbers - crunching statisticians (aka demographers) identify as Jews because these folk no longer care much about anything Jewish. Nearly all of them are liberal and they do not care at all for the President or, for that matter, much about Israel. As campus events have demonstrated, more than a few are in the anti-Israel camp. One of the potent corrosive by-products of our wholesale Judaic abandonment is the erosion of identification with Israel.

As for the rest of us, should we hold our noses and disregard a tax plan that seems to have been fashioned by rejects from Argentina, a tax plan that is built on bullying and deceit, a tax plan that is cruel to many, especially the working poor, a tax plan that will contribute to an annual deficit of at least one-half trillion dollars and hurt this country for years to come?

Jews and, of course, many other Americans, must now include in their political calculations the inevitability that some time soon there will be several vacancies on the Supreme Court. It isn’t necessary to spell out the ideological implications, for the battle lines are already being drawn. Nor is it necessary to spell out how the great majority of American Jews passionately feel about control of the nation’s highest court .

Because old loyalties are hard to break and, in any case, younger Jews have been raised to believe in liberalism, the strong prospect is that in November 2004 most American Jews will once more be in the Democratic camp. The one caveat is that if Howard Dean or some other entirely unattractive candidate gets the nomination, there is a good chance for mass defections. Whatever the scenario, I believe that the percentage of Jews voting Democratic will decline, continuing a trend that began several elections back.

As I reflect on these lines, there is something strange about the discussion. We Jews constitute a tiny and shrinking proportion of all Americans and the percentage will go down further, even if we count as Jews persons who say that they no longer regard themselves as Jewish or are of questionable status. Yet, in constant bursts of ethnocentric exuberance we continue to act and even think as if we are at the center of the political universe, that somehow we are crucial in determining electoral outcomes. The incontrovertible fact is that we can scarcely determine who gets elected in Williamsburg and Crown Heights, but in the fantasy world that some of us occupy - and not only the Orthodox - we have come to believe that we have major influence over who resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Admittedly, the media – and therefore also politicians who follow what is being reported – contribute handsomely to this phenomenon by the exaggerated attention that they pay to us. This attention has the capacity to distort how 250+ million Americans who aren’t Jewish by any stretch of the imagination look at Jews. They think we are powerful because we do get so much attention and we do seem to be all over the place. In our mad and maddening ethnocentrism, too many of us think that this is a good thing, that it is good for Jews and for Israel that we are thought to have so much power. Why are these people so illiterate about history?

How pathetic and dangerously foolish are we to believe that it is in our interest to get all that attention, that it is in our interest to have others think that we control so much.