Friday, February 08, 2008

Where Have All the Jews Gone

I must have missed mention of our flock when the major candidates described their rainbow coalitions. Whites and Blacks were included, as were Latinos and gays and straights, women and men, old and young, liberals and conservatives, Evangelicals and others of assorted ethnic and ideological identification. But I recall no mention of Jews, doubtlessly because I wasn’t paying sufficient attention. Certainly, serious presidential aspirants would not leave us out.

I also must have been napping when the candidates spoke about Israel being a bastion of democracy, America’s most reliable friend and the other stock and trade phrases that have been part of our political rhetoric for sixty years. I guess I missed the slew of ads in the Anglo-Jewish press importuning readers to vote for this or that candidate.

I know that I must have missed all of these messages because, after all, we Jews are a critical voting bloc, if only because we have convinced ourselves that we are, especially in this past Tuesday’s super something or another states.

What I did not see or hear wasn’t there. There was no highlighting of Israel or Jewish-oriented ads or even a modest effort to reach out to Jewish voters. What was evident was a mirage, the ethnocentric imaginings of the media that somehow the Jewish vote remains critical and attention is paid. Before the recent Nevada primary – or was it a caucus? – there were articles about the Democratic candidates working hard to reach out to Jewish voters. That was a fairy tale. On a bit more solid ground, there were the pre-Super Tuesday musings about how numerous and important are the Jewish voters in key states. Hank Sheinkopf, always billed as a Democratic consultant and always good for a quote irrespective of whether it makes sense, told this newspaper’s reporter, “there may be more Jews voting as one group on Super Tuesday than at any time in history.” To say that this is nonsense is to be terribly unfair to that which is nonsense.

Mr. Sheinkopf who is capable of political insight also appeared this past Sunday in a meandering and meaningless New York Times article on the Jewish vote. The message was simple and errant: Although there are fewer of us who identify as Jews and Israel and other Jewish issues scarcely resonate in the minds of many, the band plays on because it is a useful cliché to write about the importance of the Jewish vote.

It’s true that ethnic groups are ethnocentric – aren’t they supposed to be? – believing that the world revolves around them. They exaggerate their numbers and importance, at times to good effect as politicians eager for votes lap up the misinformation. Excluding Blacks and Latinos, at the national level American politics are primarily in a post-ethnic phase. Political messages are couched in ideological and policy terms and not in ethnic terms.

We Jews no longer know how many of us there are, but we are certain that we constitute a formidable voting bloc. What is beyond dispute is that the number of Jews who care about being Jewish has decreased enormously, a process that continues. Candidates reach out to Jewish voters and other ethnic voters in terms of other identities and orientations. Even on Israel, there is a heightened tendency to say little of consequence, if only because as campus surveys show without exception, younger Jewish voters look at Israel through far less friendly eyes than previous Jewish generations.

I am certain that before November rolls around, there will be some Jewish-oriented ads, though fewer than in other presidential elections. Somehow, Israel will make it into the party platforms and policy statements. Overall, what we will get is a pale shadow of what once was.

What will expand and not diminish is the severe disconnect between the American Jewish reality and how we imagine ourselves as a vital part of the electorate. We will speak as if the past generation or more did not happen, as if we are still back in the 1950s when Jews voted in large numbers and were united in their allegiance to Israel and on vital social issues. This disconnect from reality is comforting because the reality is unsettling. Make-believe is functional, which is why many make believe. Unfortunately, there are those who can count, those who can distinguish between that which is real and that which is imagined.

The domestic implications of our sharp decline as a voting force are small, especially since most politics are local and where there are Jews, we will have an impact. What about Israel? Does it make a difference whether we are two-percent of the U.S. population or about half that number? If our votes are crucial in the U.S.-Israel relationship, there is what to be worried about. I believe that American support is largely predicated on other factors. On the quantitative side, there are the Evangelicals who are far more numerous than we are. They strongly support Israel and they aren’t assimilating. Qualitatively, there are geopolitical considerations affecting the Middle East and underpinning U.S.-Israel friendship. These considerations are not at all based on a calculation of the number of Jewish voters.

One reason why Israel does not figure in the 2008 election is that there is a consensus among the top candidates in either party. This consensus can be referred to as the road map or peace plan. There isn’t much of an argument regarding the details, no matter what American Jews think. Our next president is certain to follow the path taken by President Bush and Condoleezza Rice and they certainly have followed the path taken by their predecessors. The main open questions concern the actions of the Palestinians and, to a lesser extent, the Arab states.