Faith and Folly

The Democrats have had all week to prove that this election is for John Kerry, not against George Bush, but nobody I know is buying it.

I’ve come across a lot of anti-Bush sentiments among Jews of all sorts, but very little Kerry enthusiasm. Bush partisans tell me this phenomenon is further proof that, come November, Jews who usually vote Democrat will vote for the Republican president in numbers unseen since Ronald Reagan captured 39 percent of the Jewish vote against Jimmy Carter in 1980.

Because Jews are likely voters, that shift could make an important difference in swing states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida. In an election that pollsters even now say is riding on 12 percent undecideds, a change in historic Jewish Democratic loyalties could be crucial. But is the shift itself likely to occur?

I say no. But I also say it may not be too late for Bush to change the one position that keeps Jewish like from turning into love.

Polls show that Jews are not so much moving from Democrat to Republican as they are migrating toward independent. Many of these Jews want to reward the president for his support for Israel and his decision to invade Iraq.

What’s wrong with this analysis is that it misses the one key issue that, for these potential new Bush supporters, is a deal breaker. Three words: stem cell research.

The president’s capitulation to the Christian right on this single issue will cost him dearly among conservative-leaning Jewish voters. I’ve spoken with numerous Jews who check the Bush box down the line on tax cuts, Iraq, Israel and leadership. They have no problem with his born-again Christian faith, even as he applies it to his anti-abortion stance or homosexual marriage. But squelching medical research on diseases that could threaten anyone and everyone they see not as faith, but folly. The choice has led Jews to again side with a Reagan over the incumbent; that is, Ron Reagan, the late president’s son who spoke eloquently on behalf of stem cell research last Tuesday at the Democratic Convention. We are a people of the book, and the book is the Merck Manual.

Whether you think Bush is Israel’s personal savior — and most Jews would be hard-pressed to find a lot of light between the president’s position and John Kerry’s — more Jews will suffer and die from heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s, cystic fibrosis, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis, ALS, HIV/AIDS, diabetes, strokes and severe burns than Yasser Arafat can ever hope to kill. The existential threat to the Jewish people — the thing especially older ones fear most — is that they or their loved ones contract a devastating disease for which medical research has slowed, or stopped, due to Bush-supported federal limits on embryonic stem cell research (see page 13 for more on stem cell).

Into this void steps John Kerry. This week in Florida — yes, Florida — he called for increased embryonic stem cell research, as did his running mate John Edwards. There are few controversial domestic issues left which don’t split the so-called Jewish vote. But a quick check of the supporters for Proposition 71, the proposal on the November ballot that will create a state funding mechanism for stem cell research, reveals that this is one of them.

The pro-71 forces include Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, dozens of Nobel laureates, Haddasah, Reform and Conservative rabbis and Jewish doctors and biotech researchers too numerous to list here. Although no Orthodox leaders have signed on yet, several have already spoken out in favor of embryonic stem cell research.

"Nobody could even think that something in a Petri [dish] could be declared human, but President Bush did and then declared it abortion at a time in America when abortion is your constitutional right [thus prohibiting] all stem cell research," Rabbi Dr. Moshe Tendler, a Yeshiva University biology professor and the rosh yeshiva of the school’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, told The Journal in a December interview. "In Torah law it is quite clear what is humanhood and what is not humanhood," he said.

The anti-71 Web site offers two names, one of whom is listed as Richard Deem, a researcher/scientist at Cedars-Sinai. Deem’s Web site recounts his conversion to Christianity and his belief that heaven is off-limits to Muslims, pagans and Jews. He is welcome to his belief, as is the president. I am sure both men have struggled to balance the Bible’s commandment to choose life — as their tradition defines it — with its charge to alleviate suffering.

But more than any other single issue, stem cell research reveals an impractical, illogical intrusion of faith into politics. Scratch that: Jews are fine with politicians espousing their faith. What even many conservative Jews will not abide is a president whose take on the subject of when life begins may determine when their own life ends.