Opinion: In survey of American Jews, questions for right and left

Mark Twain famously distrusted statistics. This was due to their malleability. Ask the question the right way, and you can claim a mandate for anything.

In contemporary society, statistics are often used to provide “unbiased evidence” for our pre-existing viewpoints. This is not to say that statistics tell us nothing useful. I believe they tell us much that is useful. But statistics are most illuminating if you look more intently at the numbers that challenge rather than simply confirm your assumptions.

On Tuesday, the Public Religion Research Institute released a survey of Jewish values and opinions commissioned by the Nathan Cummings Foundation. We underwrote the survey because, as a funder of the Jewish social justice sector, and of Jewish life and values more broadly, the foundation believes it is important to better understand how Jews today understand our experience, engage our values and consider the issues facing our country.

The survey is fascinating. Some of the information confirms conventional wisdom, but not all. Liberals and conservatives who care about the Jewish future would benefit from mulling over the data beyond the headlines.

For example, conservatives might want to grapple with this finding. We asked participants: As a Jew, which of the following qualities do you consider most important to your Jewish identity?

The most popular quality was “a commitment to social equality,” chosen by 46% of American Jews. Support for Israel and religious observance came in second and third with 20% and 17%, respectively.

More and more we do an excellent job meeting the needs of those for whom Israel or religious observance are most important to how they see themselves as Jews. Yet too often we outsource our commitment to social equality to non-Jewish institutions, or make a passing wave at tikkun olam while dramatically underfunding the very Jewish organizations that embody this broadly held commitment. This is in part because conservatives assert that Judaism is—and should be—largely about religious observance and Israel.

Those on the right must rethink their campaign to belittle, delegitimize and excise Jewish social justice from the Jewish community. At a time when we need more avenues into meaningful Jewish life, they are imperiously dismissing almost half of the community. They declare certain conversations or advocacy issues verboten (taxes, human rights in Israel), attack funders who make grants to the social change sector (Open Society Foundations; Ford Foundation) and ridicule those who make connections between Jewish text and contemporary efforts to create a more equitable society.

On the other hand, liberal Jews take for granted popular support within the Jewish community. Often the support is there. But not always.

The survey asked whether or not poor people have become too dependent on government assistance programs. A clear majority (54%) said they had.

So while Jews may support legal abortion and gay marriage in overwhelming numbers (93% and 81% respectively), they also agree with an argument long advanced by conservatives: Social programs create dangerous dependency.

What are the implications of this belief? Consider the fact that much of the money spent by Jewish institutions goes to administer government assistance programs. The entire federation system supports agencies that provide poor people with government-funded health care, food assistance, housing and more. Support for the poor has been at the core of Jewish communal norms for centuries.

Jews who believe that the government has an important role to play in providing a safety net for the poor are losing this argument in their own community, even among those who support most other elements of the liberal agenda. This new majority perception must be engaged.

There is a great deal more to say about the PRRI Jewish values survey. Soon the headlines will assert that some of us are right and others wrong. Instead of falling into self-congratulations, let’s instead take it to our Seder tables and ask a new set of questions about our experience, our values and our distinctive role here in America.

Simon Greer is the president and CEO of the Nathan Cummings Foundation.

At AIPAC, effort to shift focus back to agenda: Iran, foreign aid, Capitol Hill relationships

Let’s get past this U.S.-Israel relationship thing, so we can get on with important stuff, like the U.S.-Israel relationship.

That seemed to be the message this week at the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

With a record 10,000 people and both the U.S. and Israeli leaders in attendance—plus 67 U.S. senators and 286 members of the U.S. House of Representatives at the gala dinner on Monday night—this AIPAC parley was the biggest and in many ways the most impressive ever.

After the bickering last week between President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, AIPAC leaders were keen to focus on what they had hoped would be the headline-makers for this conference: Yanking the public’s attention back to Iran after months of distraction by the so-called Arab Spring, and bludgeoning the Palestinian Authority with the threat of isolation if it presses forward with its inclusion of Hamas and its quest for statehood recognition at the United Nations in September.

The other agenda item for the AIPAC crowd was trying to make sense of how to foster support for Israel in a U.S. electorate that is changing more rapidly and dramatically than it has in generations.

Lee Rosenberg, AIPAC’s president, described for the convention in dramatic terms the realities posed by a Congress that has turned over by a third in just two years.

“Capitol Hill is no longer a place of entrenched incumbency,” Rosenberg said. “Knowledge and institutional memory—gone! Continuity—gone! Relationships—gone!”

Those elements, for decades the basis of AIPAC’s success in cultivating long-term relationships, have been jeopardized by the Tea Party insurgency. AIPAC insiders and conference speakers said the lobbying group has little to fear from the Republican Party’s conservative wing, which has embraced the party’s pro-Israel posture.

Nonetheless, the massive turnover in Congress hinders efforts to form the lasting relationships on Capitol Hill that get AIPAC activists into the door and give their priorities a hearing.

Those relationships are key to getting the lobby’s preferred bills “dropped”—Washington parlance for introduced—and as usual, many of these were rushed to the floor in the days before the conference. The bills appeared in the kits that the AIPAC attendees picked up at registration.

One bill, already under consideration in the U.S. House of Representatives and likely to appear soon in the Senate, would considerably tighten Iran sanctions that already were enhanced less than a year ago. The newest bill would expand sanctions against Iran’s financial institutions, target human rights abusers, facilitate assistance to democracy activists and, most critically, reduce to $5 million from $20 million the minimum amount in annual trade with Iran’s energy sector that would invite sanctions.

AIPAC has been unhappy with the pace of the Obama administration’s imposition of the most recent sanctions, and has recruited top Democrats and Republicans in the House to advance new sanctions.

The other legislative initiatives that the conference’s attendees were slated to raise during their annual lobbying day Tuesday—when thousands of activists drop in on Capitol Hill for face-to-face conversations with their senators and congressional representatives—are nonbinding resolutions in both houses that call on the Obama administration to review assistance to the Palestinian Authority in light of its pact with Hamas and U.N. initiative for statehood.

The lobbying group also was focused on maintaining current levels of aid for Israel at $3 billion a year and, more broadly, of sustaining foreign aid in general. Republicans and Tea Party leaders for the most part have committed themselves to sustaining those levels of assistance but want to slash foreign aid. AIPAC insiders oppose separating Israel aid from the regular foreign assistance package, saying it would undercut friendliness to Israel overseas and make Jews at home vulnerable to claims of special treatment.

In a video at the launch of the conference, Ester Kurz, the lobby’s legislative director, made clear that AIPAC’s agenda encompasses all foreign aid.

“Foreign aid is only 1 percent of our budget and virtually all of that is spent here at home,” she said.

Rosenberg, the lobby’s president, said sustaining support for Israel faced a threefold challenge: Populations were shifting to the South and West, meaning more change in Congress and to states with fewer Jews; Congress was turning over more rapidly than ever; and political giving is not growing in the pro-Israel community.

“The number of pro-Israel Americans contributing to those campaigns has not increased,” he said. “It is not sustainable.”

AIPAC, Rosenberg said, is now training its activists to be political givers. It was not enough to fund the lobby; activists must fund candidates.

“Being involved in AIPAC and not making financial contributions to politics is like riding a bicycle without pedals,” he said.

A succession of activists then crossed the stage, recounting their journeys from apathy to deep political involvement.

Howard Kohr, AIPAC’s executive director, told the conference that it was critical to get across the AIPAC message, particularly on Iran, because world attention to the Middle East has been sapped by the Arab Spring.

“In January and February, we had momentum when it came to Iran,” Kohr said. “Then the Arab demonstrations began and the focus shifted. Nations everywhere began dealing with the very legitimate challenges and problems that the turmoil presented, and suddenly the world was not talking about Iran with the same sense of clarity and purpose.”

He went on, “And so, it falls to us: We must refocus our policymakers’ attention on what Iran is doing in this time of turmoil: its efforts to cultivate fifth columns in neighboring nations to advance Iranian ends, its use of terror by proxy, its relentless march toward a nuclear weapon.”

Kohr made it clear that he did not want that agenda clouded by the latest Obama-Netanyahu contretemps.

On May 19, in a Middle East policy speech at the State Department, Obama had said that it was the U.S. position that Israeli-Palestinian peace would be negotiated on the basis of the pre-1967 lines, with land swaps. Netanyahu immediately countered that those lines were “indefensible.”

Three days later, addressing AIPAC on Sunday morning, Obama made clear that by “definition” any Israeli-Palestinian border would be “different” than the 1967 lines. Netanyahu said he “appreciated” the distinction.

That was good enough for Kohr, who kept on praising Obama’s role in advancing AIPAC initiatives.

“It is so important that America and Israel work out whatever differences arise between them privately, and when tensions do arise that the leaders work together to close those gaps,” he said Monday. “The president’s speech to us yesterday reflected just such an effort to close those gaps.”

Netanyahu, in his speech to the lobby Monday night, also went out of his way to put the matter behind him, praising Obama.

“President Obama has spoken about his ironclad commitment to Israel’s security,” he said. “He rightly said that our security cooperation is unprecedented. He spoke of that commitment not just in front of AIPAC but in two speeches heard throughout the Arab world. And President Obama has backed those words with deeds.”

That didn’t stop the politicking, nor did it assuage an AIPAC crowd still shellshocked from the bitterness of just days earlier. Obama earned warm applause for his condemnations of Iran, call to free captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, denunciations of Hamas and vows of America’s commitment to Israel, but the applause for the president wasn’t as loud as the applause later in the day for Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the House majority leader.

When Cantor, hours after Obama’s AIPAC speech, told the conference crowd that the root of the conflict was Arab hatred of Israel and Jews and “not the ‘67 lines,” he received a 40-second standing ovation. It may have been the biggest cheer of the conference.

I rode on the wild side — when road rage met anti-Semitism

I am safe on the plane now.

On the way to Los Angeles International Airport this afternoon, I thought I was about to be murdered.

In the run-up to a weeklong
business trip, I called the car service I’ve been using for years to pick me up at my home. The driver arrived promptly at 1:30 p.m., the arranged time.

The ride to the airport started out just fine. The driver began making small talk. I noticed he had a Jamaican flag on his dashboard, so I asked if he was Jamaican. He said he was, and he asked if I was American.

“Were you born in California?” he asked.

I told him I was born in Chicago, and he commented how different the two cities are. I asked him if he came directly to Los Angeles from Jamaica. He told me he was first in New York.

He was playing reggae music, so I told him I liked the music and asked if he was Rastafarian. He said he was and explained that Rastafarian is a form of Christianity. He asked what my religion was. I told him I was Jewish.

One of the things I like about the drivers of this company is that they are always from other countries. When I ride in their cars, I get to learn a lot about where the drivers come from and their views of life in America.

We were both quiet for a while, and then he began tapping to the rhythm of the music. I noticed he had a plethora of CDs stuffed into his visor. I asked him what other reggae or Rasta singers he had.

“My music is political,” he said.

That was a pretty interesting comment, so I asked, “About what kind of politics?”
“I hope as Jew,” he now raised his voice and sneered, “you can take what I am about to say. My politics are about the Jews.”

And then the rant began. Continuing to raise his voice, he told me that Mel Gibson knew what he was saying. He told me he used to favor the Jews until they, themselves, became the Hitler under whom they suffered. He told me that the Jews are indeed the root of all the world’s problems today.

“The Jews, who were the victim of the white man, now think that they are white. They have forgotten and have become the oppressor,” he said.

He continued to rant for another 10 minutes. Between his shrieking voice and the Jamaican accent, I could barely understand the things he was saying — about Oprah becoming rich and just like the white man because of the Jews, and that Saddam Hussein’s hanging was posted on the Internet because of the Jews. He then turned to look at me in the backseat, while driving on the freeway.

“You Jews are the cause of the black man’s suffering today,” he screamed at me as he took his hands off the wheel. “I suffer, because of you.”

Until this point, I had been quiet.

“Please sir,” I said calmly understanding my predicament, “please keep your hands on the wheel.”

That was it.

“Just like a Jew — always telling the world what to do,” he responded. “Don’t you worry about me. Worry about what you do in the world. You make my life miserable. I don’t care if I die. Maybe I’m a terrorist, like my Palestinian and Arab brothers whose lives you have destroyed. Maybe I am just going to now crash this car and kill both of us.”

He was completely hysterical. The car was swerving out of control.

I wanted to get off the freeway and onto a city street, so I could have an escape route to jump out of his car if need be.

“It would be best,” I said quietly, “if you get off at Howard Hughes Drive, so that we can come directly into the airport the back way, because it is quicker, and I am late.”

“There you go again, always knowing better than anyone else. I drive all the time. And now you Jews know better how I should drive.”

He continued to rant. But he did get off on Howard Hughes.

“The tables are turning, mon,” he said. “The tables are turning. You will no longer have the power. The world is sick of you and knows who you are.”

We were now inside the airport, and I felt safer. I leaned forward, “You have no idea who I am or who my people are. All you did was spew hate.”

“I don’t want to listen to anything you have to say,” he said. “You think about what I said. We’ve heard enough from you.”

As he handed me my bags, he said, “Are you going to report me like the Jew did about Mel Gibson? Are you going to get all your Jewish organizations after me now?”

I walked into the airport, relieved to be alive and away from the guy. I thought about Gibson; about recently fired publisher Judith Regan, who was going to publish the O.J. Simpson book; about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; about the brutal torture and killing of Ilan Halimi in France; about all the recent pronouncements of anti-Semitism throughout the world.

I looked around me and thought, “Who else hates us? Hates me? Do I need to live in fear right here in Los Angeles?”

Aside from studying the Holocaust and being marginally active in the Soviet Jewry movement, I never gave much thought to anti-Semitism around me. I believed it hardly existed and had little to do with living in the United States.

I was uncomfortable when other Jews talked and acted with what I considered to be a victim mentality. I drew my Jewish political lines around who saw the world as victims and those who saw the world as accepting. Victims were right wing. Those who saw acceptance were more liberal.

I remember my Wexner Heritage class of just nine short years ago and the many discussions we had about the golden age, in which we were living as Jews with growing world acceptance.

GOP pro-Israel campaign is the real deal — why the hysteria?

Sure, the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) has an agenda.
 The RJC wants Jews to become Republicans. So, the RJC buys ads in Jewish newspapers.
Why the unbridled hysteria?
Were the ads pornographic?
For some liberals, free
speech is selective. For them, (Jewish) community standards define the Republican Party as obscene. They don’t want to read what the other side has to say, and they do not want you to read it, either.
To be fair, some Republicans also blindly follow their political party. And I am not one of them. I don’t think the Republican Party is perfect. But on most issues, Republicans are a better fit for me.
For many in either party, party allegiance is based on gut feeling, for others, a multiplicity of issues that can be discussed another time. For now, let’s talk about the most controversial issue RJC confronted — Israel.
The message in the RJC ads sent some Democrats up the wall. Why take it out on the messenger? These angry Democrats had two intellectually defensible alternatives. They could have said that Israel is important to them and, also added: (a) “Other issues are more important to us than Israel,” or (b) “We have an Israel problem in our party, and we’ll work it out within the party.”
But party hacks are loyal to their party, not principle. And major Jewish Democrats, who could rise to the occasion, are in denial.
Let’s not pretend, as Rep. Howard Berman (D-Van Nuys) does, that the RJC rhetoric somehow challenges a bipartisan coalition for Israel. Congressman Berman is a bright, honest, decent man who knows better. I respect Howard, but his political identity, vested in the Democratic Party, trumps his formidable IQ. It is not that he cannot, but he chooses not to see reality.
Bipartisan coalition? Anti-Semite Rep. Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) merely spoke more boldly than many of her African American colleagues in Congress, who are, I am sad to say, anti-Israel populists. The more patrician Rep. James Moran (D-Va.) publicly buys into the Jewish conspiracy line.
Then there is the “Southern gentleman” — then-Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.), who on the Senate floor blamed the Iraq War on Jews. I could go on and on (Lois Capps [D-Santa Barbara], Barbara Lee [D-Oakland], Fortney Pete Stark [D-Fremont] and Maxine Waters [D-Los Angeles] to name just a few more members of Congress).
Berman’s Jewish brethren in Congress are disingenuous. For years, if not decades, they have supported cuts in the size and scope of our intelligence community. Soft on defense, they also have consistently opposed U.S. strategic and tactical weapons systems.
Do Jewish Democrats like Sen. Barbara Boxer (California) and Rep. Henry Waxman (Los Angeles) really believe that an intelligence out-to-lunch and militarily weak United States can support an ostracized, isolated Israel? These politicians embarrass me.
Indeed, my friend (and Republican) Michael Medved’s political re-awakening came after he, as a young Democratic aide on Capitol Hill, organized opposition to the Lockheed C-5A as a boondoggle. A few years later (1973), those aircraft transported armaments that literally kept Israel alive during the Yom Kippur War.
Consider the “Democrats for Israel” ad in this newspaper (Sept. 29). It argued that 96 percent of congressional Democrats supported “Israel’s right to defend itself against Hezbollah, Iran and Syria.” So did Saudi Arabia. Big deal. Besides, what about the most senior Democrat from Michigan, Israel-bashing Rep. John Dingell, who declared himself neutral between Israel and Hezbollah?
In most states in this country, you’ll have no problem getting a pro-Israel resolution at a Republican state convention. You won’t fare so well at a state convention of Democrats.
Why? For two reasons. Their party’s activists are allied with politically correct groups that are increasingly receptive to the anti-Israel theology. Increasingly, Palestinians are seen as a suffering group that must be supported by victims groups — African Americans, gays, feminists, immigrants.
And the second reason: That Democrat politicians reflect their base. Let’s talk reality. Polling data, as highlighted in the RJC ads, are conclusive (for example, NBC/Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg). A majority of Republican voters support Israel; a majority of Democrat voters do not.
Since most Jews are Democrats, this would seem counterintuitive, because you would expect them to show up statistically. Until you realize that evangelical Christians who support Israel are disproportionately Republicans. And, conservative Republicans, as a group, generally see Israel as a worthy ally.
In contrast, many rank-and-file Democrats, including what James Carville might call “trailer trash,” buy into the Jewish-Zionist conspiracy. If you still don’t get it, look at Sen. Joe Lieberman’s (D-Mass.) defeat. It wasn’t just Iraq. Look at the anti-Semitic ravings against him on liberal Web sites.
What of the distinguished Democrats? Former President Jimmy Carter has used his stature as a former president to travel the world attacking Israel. Former President Bill Clinton is hardly anti-Israel. But after the first Persian Gulf War, we had arguably the best opportunity for a negotiated peace. Yasser Arafat, discredited and isolated, was at his lowest point. What did Clinton do? He resurrected and legitimized him with an invitation to the White House, and the true moderates for a Mideast peace lost more than a decade.
What happens next month if the Democrats gain control of Congress? Anti-Israel John Conyers (D-Mich.) will chair the powerful House Judiciary Committee. Anti-Israel Dingell will chair the critical Energy and Commerce Committee. Anti-Israel David Obey (D-Wis.) will chair the key Appropriations Committee. This rogue’s gallery is far from complete.
Politicians pander to Jews on Israel. Does it matter whether Republicans remain in power?
If you still don’t get it, ask someone in Israel.

Arnold Steinberg is a political strategist and analyst. He has written graduate texts on politics and media.

For Whom Poll Tolls

The Gallup Poll recently released its newest data on Jewish political attitudes, and it holds bad news for George W. Bush and for Republicans searching for Jewish votes. Based on polling from 1992 through May 2004 (of admittedly small, rolling samples of Jewish voters), the Gallup organization found great stability in Jewish identification with the Democratic Party and a significant decline in Jewish approval for Bush. Jews continue to differ dramatically from Protestants and Catholics on these measures.

From 1992 through the present, a remarkably consistent 50 percent of Jewish voters have called themselves Democrats, roughly one-third independents and 16-18 percent Republicans. When "leanings" are analyzed, however, the picture gets even more strongly Democratic. In the most recent surveys, conducted between 2002 and 2004, 68 percent of Jewish voters lean Democratic, and only 28 percent Republican. By contrast, 51 percent of Protestants lean Republican and only 43 percent Democratic. (Presumably, the difference between Jews and non-Jews would be even greater if African Americans, the majority of whom are Protestants, are taken out of the equation and the comparison is made with white Protestants.)

The Gallup Poll found low approval ratings for the Bush presidency among Jews in the latest surveys; only 39 percent of Jews approved, compared to 63 percent of Protestants. And Bush’s approval rating has dropped farther among Jews over the last several years than among other religious groups, a 17 point free-fall from an earlier 56 percent rating.

Based on this data, Gallup staff writer Joseph Carroll concluded that "Bush will be hard-pressed to win the votes of Jewish Americans." What happened to the high hopes of Republicans that this was finally their year to win over the Jews? Early polls had shown a significant bloc of Jewish voters considering voting Republican in 2004.

Bush has pursued an unprecedented and risky plan for winning Jewish votes. He has thumbed his nose at every issue that has ever counted for the majority of Jewish voters: choice on abortion; fairness in economics; standing up to the religious right; respecting the viewpoints of Democrats and moderates in the formation of public policy; respect for international alliances.

He has given Jewish voters one thing, and one thing only: absolute support of Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. That is no small thing, and it has certainly won some goodwill and trust among many Jewish voters; unconditional love is hard to turn down. But Bush’s plan presumes that Jews will trade everything that has characterized the American Jewish political ethic going back to the eras of Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt for a single-minded Middle East approach devoid of nuance or long-term thinking.

It also assumes that the Democrats will nominate a national ticket that abandons Israel. With John Kerry as the presidential candidate, and any of the short list of vice presidential candidates currently being considered, the Democrats are likely to select strongly pro-Israel candidates with significant foreign policy experience who are in close accord with Jewish voters on other issues.

Had the Iraq war gone as advertised, many Jewish voters might have felt that Bush’s unilateralist vision of the Middle East would make Israel safer: perhaps, as the Bush folks promised, "the road to Jerusalem passes through Baghdad." But instead, Bush has bequeathed a quagmire, strengthened the regional hand of Iran, another foe of Israel (possibly even allowing Iran to obtain critical American military secrets), and endangered the political position of Israel by linking it to an increasingly unpopular war and by weakening and diluting the American political, fiscal, diplomatic and military strengths that have been pillars of Israel’s security.

Bush will probably lose badly among Jews, therefore, for the same reasons that he is in trouble across the board, and his narrowcast pro-Israel position will not solve the problem.

So will Republicans, ever vigilant for Jewish votes, learn the obvious lesson? The key to winning Jewish support lies not in changing Jews, but in changing the national Republican Party. The right wing’s semi-biblical attachment to Israel and to little else about Jews is a dead end. We would never want America to buy world popularity at Israel’s expense. But an isolated, even hated, America is less able to exert its influence on Israel’s behalf.

The case of Ronald Reagan, however, gives one pause. Here was a Republican right -winger, who by this analysis should have completely alienated Jewish voters. While Reagan never won a majority of Jewish votes, his pro-Israel stance did make it respectable to be a Jewish Republican. Democrats, wandering in the foreign policy wilderness during the Reagan years, seemed insufficiently strong and determined in world affairs.

But as we can see in the increasingly intense battle between Reaganites and the Bush administration about who owns the Reagan legacy, Reagan’s assertiveness in foreign policy lacked the unilateral and interventionist zeal of the Bush group. Reagan, who was tough in rhetoric but inclined to avoid risky military conflicts, would have been unlikely to undertake and pursue the misguided and incompetent Iraq adventure. Even though many foreign leaders were initially alienated from Reagan, by the time he ran for re-election in 1984, he was seen as less dangerous overseas than he had been at first. One senses an impending world celebration, by contrast, if Bush is defeated.

Other than unusual characters like Reagan, who could mix conservative ideology with an appealing persona, the people who hold the key to Jewish support are precisely the Republican moderates so reviled by conservatives. History shows that numerous moderate Republicans have won substantial Jewish support. Republican politicians who have won Jewish votes have never sought to turn Jews into conservative Republicans. While Reagan was an aggressive Republican partisan, he was largely content to turn lifelong Democrats into temporary "Reagan Democrats," a strategy that avoided the traumas of seeking partisan conversion.

To see an example, one needn’t go any farther than Sacramento, where Republican Gov. Arnold Schwartzenegger is following a path likely to win many Jewish voters over. Schwartzenegger is socially liberal, listens to the views of Democrats and moderate Republicans, and shows at least some interest in the human impact of cutbacks in state budgets. And he visits and supports Israel. As a result, the prospects for California’s Republicans to win significant Jewish support (even without a partisan conversion) have suddenly gone from hopeless to hopeful. At the national level, by contrast, it will take an extreme makeover by Republicans and a suicidal wrong turn by Democrats to turn the tide of Jewish voters in 2004.

Raphael J. Sonenshein, a political scientist at California State University Fullerton, is the author of “Politics in Black and White: Race and Power in Los Angeles” (Princeton U. Press, 1993).

Jews in U. S. Politics

A woman who was the trusted adviser to the governor of New York in the 1920s.

The ambassador to Turkey in 1889.

The attorney general in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal.

Belle Moskowitz, Solomon Hirsch and Edward Levi were all Jews involved in U.S. political life in different periods. Previously confined to the footnotes of political science textbooks or familiar only to political junkies, these figures and others are part of a new book charting Jews’ impact on American political life.

The book, "Jews in American Politics," (Rowman & Littlefield, $39.95) is not simply a "locate the landsman" exercise but an attempt to address a number of issues — such as Jewish political behavior, Jewish advocacy and the relationship between politics and Jewish identity — along with important demographic information and more than 400 biographical profiles.

Today, as politics is seen as just another profession toward which Jews gravitate, the changes in the level of Jewish political involvement through the decades are interesting to follow. From hiding one’s Judaism in order to enter politics to last year’s watershed event — when Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) became the first Jewish vice presidential candidate for a major party — the leaps make for good reading.

Some of the old challenges Jews faced in politics have not entirely disappeared. While it is possible today to balance one’s Judaism with a political life — and it is much more legitimate for a candidate today to have a strong religious identity — having it all remains a conundrum.

Observant Jews such as Lieberman, Jack Lew — the former director of the Office of Management and Budget — and Stuart Eizenstat, the former deputy treasury secretary, are the models for today’s young Jews, says Ira Forman, co-editor of the book with L. Sandy Maisel.

The Jews’ future in American politics depends on "where as a community we are going to go," Forman says, either toward continued distinctiveness or greater assimilation.

After the Election

For a few strained hours last week, I was afraid we’d be witnessing the Jewish version of Elian Gonzalez, Part II. Could Jewish blood pressure withstand the tension of the Palm Beach vote taken hostage?

As hours of electoral anxiety passed into weeks, I worried that the world would soon know how the Chosen People behave when the food comes late, let alone when an election result is held up. I feared that Fox News would send Joan Rivers to cover the re-vote protest, that Saturday Night Live would point out the ironic casting of Jesse Jackson as Moses. Frankly, I was ready to die of embarrassment.

Yes, my own mother was temporarily unhinged by the thought that her absentee ballot might have been thrown away like a receipt from Bloomingdales. But soon, like the rest of us, she simmered down.

“I don’t trust any of them anyway,” my father said. That’s when I knew the nation was going to be all right. My father makes his political pronouncement every four years, as the Republic is transferred to the next generation of scoundrels. It’s a tradition, like the losing candidate’s concession speech. It assures me that, in our family, healthy cynicism has been restored and everyone is once again well behaved.

And decorum was very much the issue last week: how to behave when the eyes of the planet are upon you. The Election 2000 Cliffhanger has been a national civics lesson, but for Jews it is something else, like taking off control-top pantyhose and letting yourself breathe naturally. Regardless of who ultimately “wins,” (would you want such a blessing?) it has taught American Jews, as well, that all the world really is just one big condo project, and that we feel right at home.

Joe Lieberman is one part of the comfort factor, but only one. The affable, Torah-quoting son of a bakery truck driver himself has been a tonic. The first Jewish vice-presidential candidate brought Orthodox Jews back into the Democratic column. He gave young activist Jews a place for their political hopes. Prof. Kenneth Wald, head of the Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Florida, tells me that the AIPAC offices were raided of eager staffers, gone to Gore-Lieberman.

But Lieberman is a career politician, concerned with far more than proving that there is no secret obsessive anti-Semitism lurking in the hearts of mainstream America.

Through his relentless day-after-day campaigning along the Condo Coast, he put the Sunshine State, whose governor, after all, is the GOP candidate’s brother, into play. In doing so, he set up the Jewish vote for what it has traditionally hated the most: attention to itself as a political force.

Over many years, I’ve seen this parochial fear of public disclosure in action. In every election cycle, a candidate or a race emerges in which Jewish votes are regarded as “swing.” In Los Angeles almost eight years ago, for example, 50 percent of Jewish voters punched out the chad for Republican Mayor Richard Riordan (as had an equal number of Jews in New York supported Mayor Rudolph Guiliani).

Like the “Seinfeld” episode in which Jerry gives his father a Cadillac, we like being close to power, but we don’t want anyone to see us pulling into the driveway.

Underlying this reluctance to get too comfortable is the lingering conviction that we will somehow handle power wrong. For all our pride at Jewish involvement in American civic and economic life, many feared that if Gore-Lieberman won, the Jews would be blamed for any Wall Street reversals.

That’s why the events of last week provided real threshold tests of our civic engagement tolerance.First came the newspaper stories asserting the undeniable: Jewish votes for Pat Buchanan provided conclusive evidence that the butterfly ballot did not fly. Then came the political analysis showing that Broward and Palm Beach Counties were heavily weighted with Jewish Democrats; the fate of the nation rested on residents who moved South but vote North.

Finally, there were the votes of Aliyah Americans, the Jews of Haifa and Tel Aviv, giddily hoping to repay Bill Clinton’s pro-Israel foreign policy with a vote for Al Gore. Florida Jews kicked off their shoes and settled in for the long American vote count.

It feels good.

American Jewish commitment to the political system is intense, loyal and strong. Our love of democracy verges on religious devotion, extending even to the archaic punch card ballot and the Electoral College. From Florida this week, my friends sent e-mail assertions that they personally would volunteer to oversee the presidential recount. Whatever it took, they were there. Just two weeks ago it was clear to me that Jews were no longer a swing vote, that our place had been taken by Latinos, Asians and, yes, Arab Americans.

Shows how much I know.

The fact is, the whole nation is swinging. But we can still carry the tune.

Crypto – Jews Unmasked

This past October I found myself, along with four other North American Jewish journalists, flying business class — a wonderful way to fly — to Croatia on Lufthansa Airlines. The Croatian Tourist Office in conjunction with Lufthansa had generously put together a 12 day guest package, hoping we would like what we saw (after all, parts of Croatia, especially the Dalmatian coast on the Adriatic Sea, are quite beautiful). The thought was we would combine descriptions of the famous tourist sights with a report to our readers on the life and times of Jewish Croatia.

There was a certain disarming lunacy about the whole enterprise. Certainly a journalist can discover interesting and important stories to recount about Croatia — its politics, its recent history, and its estrangement from the West; reportage about Croatia’s dying, autocratic President Franja Tudjman and the likelihood of his party’s (the HDZ or Croatian Democratic Union) success in the elections scheduled for Jan. 3; accounts of the high levels of unemployment (nearly 20 percent) along with the moribund tourist trade; or the way in which modern life continues to persist (with energy) in this strange isolated land: from urban Central European Zagreb, the capitol city, all the way to the Dalmatian Coast on the beautiful Adriatic, with its Italian and Mediterranean ambiance looming out of the sea in such lovely port cities as Split and Dubrovnik.

Despite the generosity of the Croatian Tourist Bureau towards me and the other journalists, these are not Jewish stories and have little to do with what might be called Jewish Croatia. Ironically, the outcome in all these political matters — Tudjman’s successor, unemployment, tourism, relations with the U.S. and Western Europe — will determine the fate of Croatia’s 2,500 Jews just as it will the rest of the nation’s near 5 million population.

Jewish Croatia to all intents and purposes is a statistical blip. More than half the Jews, 1,500, live in Zagreb which has a population of about one million. Split, a jewel of a city (population about 200,000) on the Dalmatian Coast, contains about 150 Jews, but not all are participants in the community. In Dubrovnik, with its marvelous old walled city, there are 44 Jews. Bruno Horowitz the leader of the community, explains that services are held infrequently; only “when there are enough tourists to have a minyan.” Carefully he traces through the list of each Jewish family in Dubrovnik: he’s a dentist; she’s a teacher; he’s a photographer; and on through all 44.