Rational debate is harder to find than a minyan in Wasilla

Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin does not have a long history with Jewish issues.

And why should she?

Neither the town of Wasilla, Alaska, nor the 49th state, where she has served as governor for the past two years, have large Jewish populations or much foreign policy.

But Palin does have a little Israeli flag in her office. Or at least she did last winter.

I know that because in an e-mail forwarded around the world, Jewish Republicans were quick to point to the flag as a sign of her interest in the Jewish state.

It isn’t much, but in politics you go with what you’ve got.

Palin is obviously a sharp and articulate woman with a thin political résumé that has been offset by a winning style and a record as a reformer. But her introduction to the big leagues has illustrated two points — one Jewish and one general — about our current political culture these days.

First, Palin’s little flag and the subsequent obligatory kind comments about her from Alaskan rabbis, whose events she has graced with her official presence, illustrate what should have become obvious a long time ago: The partisan impulse to pretend that all candidates are longtime bosom buddies with the Jewish community is getting a little silly.

Not every pol running for office grew up in a Jewish neighborhood, such as former New York governor Mario Cuomo, who used to boast to Jewish audiences that he served as the “Shabbos goy” for a synagogue in the South Jamaica section of Queens.

Nor can a politician who is not from the Northeast and has not worked on foreign policy issues match a record on Israel like that of Palin’s Democratic counterpart, Sen. Joe Biden.

Like John McCain, Biden has a paper trail a mile long on Jewish issues. Like McCain’s stands, Biden’s history of engagement with Jews and the pro-Israel community is a reasonable argument to be made by those who advocate his election. But the fact that the top of the Democratic ticket couldn’t match Biden’s record on Israel won’t stop Jewish Democrats from voting for Barack Obama.

Instead, they have chosen to judge the candidate on the positions that he has articulated during the course of the campaign. Since Obama has jumped through almost every one of the pro-Israel community’s hoops, they have every right to now claim that their candidate is entitled to the “pro-Israel” label.

All of which ought to serve as a reminder to those partisans whose job it is to spin the candidates to the Jewish public that what we need is substance, not nonsense. Whether or not some of McCain’s or Obama’s or Biden’s or Palin’s “best friends” were or are Jewish isn’t really material.

This is not 1948 when, as the story goes, intervention by president Harry Truman’s former business partner and army buddy, Eddie Jacobsen, helped influence White House policy on the creation of a Jewish state.

Nowadays, the people most likely to effectively lobby wavering presidents to stand up for Zionism are evangelical Christians. Whether Palin will help further that cause remains to be seen, but the outcome probably won’t depend on whether or not she has attended as many bar mitzvahs as Biden.

What really matters is whether these people will adhere to the nonpartisan and nondenominational tradition of sympathy for Zionism that has deep roots in the history of American religion, culture and politics. What we need from them are credible pledges to avoid pressuring Israel and to support its right of self-defense, as well as tough action on Iranian nukes. We don’t need testimonials from their Jewish friends.

In other words, “Jewish ties” are not all that they’re cracked up to be.

Second, the reaction to the Palin nomination by the bloggers, much like the Internet whispering campaign against Obama, demonstrates just how low the political debate in this country is getting.

To his credit, Obama — who has been stung himself by the radical right-wing Internet onslaught putting forward the fantasy that he is an Islamist Manchurian candidate — asked his followers to back off from stories about Palin’s family. But the nature of political jabbering these days means that nothing can stem the ugly flow of slander.

Some partisan Democrats feel that they can say and do anything in the cause of halting what they falsely claim is a Republican effort to destroy democracy and institute fundamentalist tyranny. In turn, some Republicans think anything goes in the cause of keeping a man out of the White House who they believe will deliberately lose the war on Islamist terror.

In such an atmosphere of hate, rational debate seems to be harder to find than a minyan in Wasilla, Alaska.

Jonathan Tobin is the executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent, where a longer version of this column originally appeared.