2004 Takes Some Unexpected Turns


There’s nothing as risky as end-of-year predictions, as 2004 so painfully demonstrated.

Twelve months ago, otherwise sober analysts were predicting a political upheaval among Jewish voters and that Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor, was a cinch to win the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination. President Bush, the pundits predicted, would turn to the political center in his fight for re-election. And in Israel, suicide bombers seemed poised to continue their deadly work, apparently still given the go-ahead by Yasser Arafat, the Nobel-winning Palestinian leader who just couldn’t forsake his roots as terrorist-in-chief.

At the dawn of 2005, Arafat is in his Ramallah grave, there are flickers of hope across the Middle East and Dean engineered the most spectacular nosedive in recent political history.

Here are some of the top Jewish stories of 2004 — and some pointers on what could be in store in 2005:

The Jewish Vote

For months, the hype was unrelenting; Jewish voters were on the verge of a great shift to the right, and Bush, thanks to his strong support for the Likud government in Israel, would reap windfall benefits on Nov. 2.

It didn’t turn out that way. When the results were in, Bush had received a mere 23 or 24 percent of the Jewish vote, far below the 40 percent or more some analysts predicted. In the end, Jewish voters ran true to form — driven mostly by domestic politics and particularly by fears about the growing influence of the religious right on the Republican administration and Congress, not by Israel concerns.

That doesn’t mean 2004 was a complete disaster for the Republicans. The GOP continued making inroads in Jewish political fund-raising and building a grass-roots infrastructure that could result in incremental change in coming elections.

In addition, the Republicans continue to benefit from a dramatic shift among the Orthodox minority. According to some estimates, more than 60 percent of Orthodox voters voted Republican this year, giving the GOP a small but important foothold among Jewish voters.

But for now, Jews are mostly where they’ve always been: Democratic, liberal and deeply suspicious of those who claim to be interpreting the word of God in politics.

Arafat’s Death

On Nov. 11, the Palestinians lost the man who symbolized their quest for statehood but also thwarted it. The death of Arafat reshuffled the Mideast deck in ways that won’t be fully known for years.

But several things are already clear. His departure means the Palestinians will have to get serious about whether they want statehood sometime this century, or just continue the political melodrama on the world stage that brings them much sympathy but little real forward progress.

Arafat’s death means that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, focused now on his Gaza withdrawal plan, can no longer sit back and say only that there’s no viable partner for new peace negotiations.

Washington, by most accounts, still has little interest in getting back into direct Mideast mediation, especially not while the administration is preoccupied by the mess in Iraq and a complex, ambitious domestic agenda. Arafat’s death will make it harder to stay on the sideline and much riskier. In the eyes of the world, it’s getting close to put-up-or-shut-up time for a U.S. administration that had demanded new Palestinian leadership as the precondition for new U.S. involvement.

“The Passion of the Christ”

Early in 2004, Jewish leaders were in high dudgeon over the upcoming Mel Gibson movie depicting the crucifixion of Jesus. The movie, with its harsh portrayal of Jews and their role in biblical events, would rekindle an old-fashioned theological anti-Semitism, groups like the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) warned. The movie came and went and had a second coming in DVD form, and the pogroms have yet to erupt.

That doesn’t mean the ADL and other groups were wrong, though. The phenomenal number of Christians around the world who saw “The Passion” — and the even larger number who will see it over and over again on video and DVD — means the film’s perspective is seeping into the religious perspective of millions worldwide.

Exactly how that will play out in terms of their views of Jews and the idea of perpetual guilt for Jesus’ death is unclear. But it’s too early to say “The Passion” was a fizzle. It will be years before Jewish leaders can accurately assess its real impact.


In July, the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted to begin the divestment process against Israel, applying the political action model that was so effective against the apartheid government of South Africa. Since then, Jewish groups have convinced other mainstream Protestant denominations to pull back from the divestment precipice or at least to move more cautiously, although the Presbyterians appear to be sticking to their guns.

Divestment represents a looming disaster for Israel and a community relations crisis for American Jewish groups. Unchecked, the effort would directly challenge and undermine the very legitimacy of the Jewish state by pressing the comparison with the odious former government of South Africa.

Beating back the divestment push will become easier if Israel moves forward with its Gaza disengagement plan and shows signs of a willingness to remove major settlements from the West Bank. But if the Gaza plan turns out to be a ploy to tighten Israel’s hold on West Bank areas, as some officials of the Sharon government have hinted, it will be harder to confine the divestment effort to the Presbyterians, who have traditionally displayed an overwhelming bias against Israel.

Stay tuned.