THE JEWISH VOTE 2004:Life and death election may leave community bitterly divided

washington | In some ways, it’s political business as usual in the Jewish community as a critical national election approaches.

The Democrats will win the lion’s share of Jewish votes on Nov. 2, but the Republicans are poised to make important gains. When the votes are counted, both sides will work hard to spin the Jewish numbers to their advantage.

But one thing is different: the depth and intensity of the community’s divisions. Jews for Kerry and Jews for Bush are furious at each other, and a small pool of Jewish undecideds seem angry that they’re being forced to decide between critical domestic and foreign policy priorities.

“The fault lines in the American Jewish community are getting much deeper,” said Mideast scholar Robert O. Freedman. “We’re seeing it in this election, and in Israel’s relations to the American Jewish community.”

And just as partisan warfare is producing gridlock in the nation as a whole, the growing polarization of the Jewish community points to an erosion of its traditional ability to reach out across party lines to achieve common goals.

In Florida, a state where the Jewish vote could actually tip the presidential balance, Jewish newspapers have been filled with venomous attack ads from the two sides and synagogues have been bitterly divided over the presidential race.

In normally polite Minnesota, Jewish activists report friendships ripped apart and neighbors who can’t talk because of their differences over the presidential contest.

In 2004, the American electorate is just as divided as it was four years ago, but angrier and more worried. President Bush, who promised to be a uniter but won office in a contested election that left a legacy of bitterness, has been one of the most polarizing figures in recent history.

Supporters credit the president with heroic actions in the wake of the 2001 terror attacks and with a domestic resolve unlike his conservative predecessors, who talked the talk but didn’t walk the conservative walk.

Jewish supporters also praise his surprisingly strong support for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, whom he sees as a genuine comrade-in-arms in the terror fight. That has won some support from longtime Democrats who dislike most of the president’s domestic positions.

To detractors, Bush has compromised the war on terror by attacking the wrong enemy, undercut constitutional freedoms at home and helped the nation’s richest citizens at the expense of its poorest. To many Jews, his disinterest in Mideast peacemaking has left Israel with a violent, untenable status quo, while at home, he has allowed himself to be steered by an extremist religious faction that, for all its support for Israel, can never be good for the Jews.

Jewish Republicans are furious that their Democratic neighbors can’t see the good Bush has done for Israel, or the threat they perceive in Kerry, who they claim will “internationalize” Mideast peacemaking and give control to Israel’s enemies.

Jewish Democrats are stupefied that their co-religionists could side with pro-Israel Christians who support Israel mostly because of horrific apocalyptic prophecies, or support an administration that wants to remove the constitutional safeguards that have protected religious minorities.

More and more Jews, echoing a nation that seems to get its political tone from talk radio, political preachers and attack ads, talk about the election in apocalyptic terms. Israel risks annihilation if Kerry wins, the Republicans say. The Constitution will be shredded if Bush emerges triumphant, the Democrats warn.

When both sides see the stakes as so high and positions so black and white, polarization becomes the dominant political dynamic. There can be no middle ground when survival is at stake, they say.

The war on terrorism has heaped new fuel on that fire.

The nation has been moving in this direction for a long time, with troubling results.

Congress becomes more gridlocked by the year. The last vestiges of bipartisanship have disappeared: Fighting partisan battles has become more important than protecting the nation against terrorism, curbing a runaway budget deficit or fixing a collapsing health care system.

The Jewish community seems heading down the same destructive path.

Traditionally, a major source of the community’s strength has been its ability to unite behind a few core issues, including protecting Israel, fighting anti-Semitism and opposing attempts to impose the dictates of the religious majority in the nation.

That critical unity has been eroding for years, but in 2004, it has collided head-on with the rancorous partisanship of the day to create the potential for communal gridlock.

At risk is the bipartisan approach that has built the pro-Israel movement into the powerhouse it is today. It’s hard to maintain bipartisan pro-Israel support when the parties and their supporters are engaged in a to-the-death war that allows little fraternization with the enemy.

Increasingly, the pro-Israel movement is being identified with one of the most strident, uncompromising and partisan forces in American political life— the Christian right, a lightning rod for much of the angry political passion of our age.

Domestically, it will become much harder to maintain the broad-based coalitions on which the Jewish community has traditionally depended if Jewish politics takes on the partisan excesses that have rendered the nation almost ungovernable.

Jewish voters are angry and deeply polarized in 2004, mirroring a nation that increasingly can’t find the common ground to make democracy work. That’s bad news for America and it’s bad for the Jews.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” a longtime Jewish community activist in Florida said recently. “People in our community on both sides see this as a life-and-death election and they just can’t believe their friends and neighbors could see things differently. It’s been incredibly divisive, and it’s hard to imagine how we can work together after this is over.”

James D. Besser is a Washington correspondent for Jewish newspapers across the country.


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