Neither party can be sole vehicle for Jewish concerns

The 146th Psalm teaches, "Put not your trust in princes." Nevertheless every four years, American Jews sift through presidential candidates to find someone whom we can declare "Good for the Jews."

We have fallen in love with Democrats like Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Adlai Stevenson, only to learn decades later that one failed to take action to save Jews during the Holocaust and the other actually didn't like us very much (as a recent biography of Stevenson revealed, he thought Harvard had too many smart Jews).

Republican Jews placed their faith in Ronald Reagan, only to have their hearts broken when he visited the SS cemetery in Bitburg, Germany.

This year, Democrats tout President Bill Clinton as the "most pro-Israel president in history" while Republicans shout hosannas for GOP veep candidate Jack Kemp (since the top of the ticket has, shall we say, a spottier record on Jewish issues).

It would be far better for us to take heed of the psalmist who went on to say of those untrustworthy princes, "His breath goes forth, he returns to his dust; In that very day his thoughts perish." A better description of the lifespan of the political hot air we hear in election years has yet to be written.

Given the strange yet enduring loyalty of American Jews for the Democrats, it is more than likely that they will once again win the Jewish vote overwhelmingly.

Republicans have tried harder to compete for Jewish votes since the rise of Reagan, who got the most Jewish votes ever for a Republican when he topped 30 percent. The Republican Jewish vote hit bottom four years ago when the favorite candidate of most Jews was named "anybody but Bush."

Clinton did the usual pre-election pandering to Jews by promising to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Then, as Reagan and others before him had also done, Clinton actively opposed such a move once he was elected.

But with the signing of peace accords with the Palestine Liberation Organization on the White House lawn, there is no denying Clinton's gratitude to Yitzhak Rabin for giving him the photo-op of all time. It resulted in closer ties between Israel and the United States than we had ever seen. Clinton's tears when Rabin was murdered seemed genuine. It remains to be seen how much affection a re-elected Clinton would show the far less accommodating Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Republicans are trying to exploit this tiny opening. Dole's foreign policy advisers, former U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick and scholar Daniel Pipes are solidly pro-Israel and rather more sympathetic to the Likud than Clinton's crowd. Jewish Republicans are hoping a Dole administration would resemble the generally pro-Israel atmosphere under Reagan rather than the dark days of George Bush and James Baker. House Speaker Newt Gingrich's comment that a Dole administration would pull our ambassador from Syria instead of appeasing them as Clinton has done is yet another example. But if you believe that, I've got a bridge in Brooklyn (and a couple of slightly used JCCs) you might like to buy.

Still, Clinton has shown few signs about being worried about the Jewish vote. His refusal of clemency for Jonathan Pollard showed a lack of sensitivity. And his flip-flop on welfare reform betrayed not only the liberal faith of the majority of Jews with the end of guaranteed entitlements, it also endangered a very specific Jewish interest with its draconian anti-immigrant measures.

This illustrates the peculiar corner that American Jews have painted themselves into. Most of our national Jewish organizations — backed up by the voting patterns of Jews in recent elections — have taken positions that are clearly more liberal than the rest of the country. Liberal Jews have nowhere else to go even as the Democrats abandon liberalism. Our communal organizations need the big-government funding that both parties say they are in the business of dismantling. That makes most Jews the last of the liberal Mohicans. No matter who wins, it seems the organized Jewish world will still be out of step on domestic issues.

The Democrats' ace in the hole with Jews is still our inordinate fear of Christian conservatives who make themselves at home in the GOP. Dole and Kemp did their best to marginalize Pat Buchanan at the Republican convention, barely mentioned abortion and ignored and then contradicted their party's platform plank on immigration. But Jews still are more afraid of Pat Robertson than they like Jack Kemp. And they seem to care more about abortion rights than about who will put less pressure on Israel to make concessions, even assuming we could be sure of who that might be. As long as that is so, the Democrats will prosper in the Jewish community.

As for Ross Perot, to the extent that he thinks coherently about anything, he cares little about Jewish issues. More troubling is the fact that his Reform Party satraps have played footsy with anti-Semitic extremists like Lenore Fulani in order to promote Perot's personal vehicle. Is Perot good for the Jews? History shows that we haven't done too well under megalomaniacs.

But maybe what is really outdated is the idea that either political party or prevailing ideology can be the sole vehicle for Jewish interests. Unless either party puts forward a candidate who is openly hostile to Jews, like a Buchanan or a Jesse Jackson, one can always make a reasonable argument for either ticket.

Jews need to worry more about reassessing their own communal priorities to support Jewish education that promotes Jewish identity and less about the traditional liberal pieties that we believed promoted our safety. Tikkun olam — repairing the world — remains our duty.

Yet, the conviction that it can only be attained via the doomed welfare and entitlement state is absurd. So too are the claims put forward by some conservatives that their ideology best represents Jews. And if you care about Israel, support it more and worry less about which American politicians will be nice to it. That will save you from certain disappointment.

Looking to what is good for the Jews to decide whom to vote for in American elections may be an interesting intellectual exercise. But in 1996, it is largely irrelevant.

Jonathan S. Tobin portrait
Jonathan S. Tobin

Jonathan S. Tobin is opinion editor of and a contributing writer at National Review.