Analysis: Sarah Palin . . . and the Jews

When Sen. John McCain tapped Alaska Governor Sarah Palin to be his running mate today, the Jewish political blogosphere — as loud and fast and opinionated as (for lack of a better word) the Gentile Web — came to a screeching halt.

After all, you can fight about John McCain, and Barack Obama, and Joe Biden . . .but Sarah Palin?

It took an Internet eternity for Jewish Republicans to come out swinging for Sarah, an just as long for Jewish Democrats to hit back.

“Homerun!” Larry Greenfield, the California director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, wrote me via e-mail five hours after McCain’s announcement. “Governor Palin has a very close relationship with the Jewish community of Alaska, with Chabad (Rabbi Greenberg) and with AIPAC. She is close to the Frozen Chosen!”

Seconds later came a blast from Congressman Robert Wexler (D-FL) claiming Palin endorsed Pat Buchanan’s presidential run in 2000: “John McCain’s decision to select a vice presidential running mate that endorsed Pat Buchanan for President in 2000 is a direct affront to all Jewish Americans.”

Oh, now it’s getting good.

When Sen. Barack Obama picked Sen. Joe Biden last week, the Democrats had nothing but praise for the long term senator, citing positive comments from AIPAC and decades of foreign policy experience. And Jewish e-mail boxes filled with Biden’s now familiar quote: “You don’t have to be Jewish to be a Zionist, and I’m a Zionist.”

Then Republican Jews struck.

An e-mail quickly circulated linking to an article on a right-leaning web site claiming Biden was in the pocket of the Iranian mullahs. As for AIPAC’s kind words about Biden? “AIPAC has to say nice things,” a Republican activist told me. “They have to be bi-partisan.” And that pro-Zionist quote? Pretty words, just like his boss, Obama.

The Dems responded with a further defense of Biden’s record. If you could call Biden’s support for Israel into question, said the Executive Director of the National Jewish Democratic Council Ira Forman, then you could call Golda Meir’s loyalty to Israel in question.

The Veep debate among Jews is important because there are many Jewish voters who are still a bit leery about Obama. Jews traditionally vote Democratic (upwards of 75 percent voted for John Kerry in 2004 — and we didn’t even really like him). A growing number of Jews have found a home in the Republican party, and are fairly candidate-proof — they vote red no matter what.

A significant number of Jewish voters, however, will change their vote depending on which candidate they perceive as “better for Israel.” These voters believe that Israel is facing immediate existential threats from Palestinian terror, from a near-nuclear Iran, and from over-eager politicians forcing it to make dangerous territorial concessions for the sake of elusive peace. These voters — call them “Israel Firsters” — see their one vote as crucial to preventing another Holocaust, and theirs are the votes that Jewish Dems and Jewish Republicans are fighting over.

Obama and Israel is the battleground issue for Jewish voters in the 2008 election — these are the Jewish votes up for grabs in this race. If Republicans can paint Obama as a Muslim or Muslim sympathizer, as an appeaser to Iran, as inexperienced on foreign policy, as insufficiently caring about Israel in his kishkes — the Yiddish word for guts — then they can peel off Jewish votes.

This strategy won’t matter in heavily pro-Democratic states like California and New York, but it can matter in swing states like Ohio and Florida. And it matters elsewhere in the race: Jews give money, Jews get involved, Jews shape opinion far out of proportion to their numbers. (Yes, there are only six of us in the entire country. Amazing what controlling the media will get you!)

Enter Sarah.

If McCain had picked Mitt Romney or Tom Ridge or — cue the bar mitzvah band — Joe Lieberman, he would have unquestionably swept up the Israel Firsters. These men have track records and gravitas when it comes to Israel and foreign policy. (This debate among Jews and Israel reflects the larger foreign policy concerns about Obama that Republicans are making the centerpiece of their opposition. Many conflicts in Jewish life mirror conflicts in the larger culture — that’s Anthropology 101).

But he chose Sarah Palin: former mayor of a small Alaska town, governor of Alaska, devout Christian.

For Jews who are not necessarily Israel Firsters, she carries some positives and negatives. Positives: she is a crusader for good government and a fiscal conservative. She is smart and successful and patriotic. Jews like all these things.

“As governor of Alaska, Palin has enjoyed a strong working relationship with Alaska’s Jewish community. She has demonstrated sensitivity to the concerns of the community and has been accessible and responsive,” said Republican Jewish Coalition Executive Director Matt Brooks.

Negatives: She is anti-abortion.

Jews are among the largest pro-choice constituency in the country. She has, according to one web site, supported the idea of teaching Creationism and evolution in public schools. “‘Teach both,” she was quoted as saying on a local TV station. “You know, don’t be afraid of information. Healthy debate is so important, and it’s so valuable in our schools. I am a proponent of teaching both.'”

Dependence on foreign oil is a major issue for American Jews, since a lot of that oil comes from regimes that hate Israel and support terror.

Republican Jews are emphasizing Palin’s desire to drill Alaskan oil and develop domestic oil resources as away to decrease our dependence.

“Palin has been a leader on the critical issue of energy independence and lessening our need to buy oil from nations not sharing American and Israel’s foreign policy,” Brooks said in his statement.

But Jews are also pro-environment, and have jumped on the alternative energy (hybrid) bandwagon in a big way. Obama’s convention speech calling for a 10 year campaign to switch to alternative sources of energy may carry deeper resonance.

For the Israel Firsters, Palin may be a problem. Palin has no foreign policy experience. No Israel experience. Her AIPAC rating? When you enter her name on the AIPAC home page, you get this:

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The RJC’s Greenfield says her AIPAC relationships are great, but confined to Alaska. And Republicans are now marshalling a great comeback to the charge that Palin once supported Pat Buchanan.

Buchanan is anathema to the Jews. He is someone who has blamed Israel and American Jews for directing American foreign policy against American interests. He has spoken kindly of Adolph Hitler — who is not popular with Jews — and, well, this is going to be interesting.

Sarah Palin might cause the Israel Firsters, who seemed to be pretty much done with Obama, to take a second look.

Rob Eshman is Editor-in-Chief of The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles and

Sarah Heath (Palin), sportscaster

Editor’s Corner – Junk Science

“Both sides ought to be properly taught,” President George W. Bush told reporters in Texas Aug. 1, “so people can understand what the debate is about. Part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought…. You’re asking me whether or not people ought to be exposed to different ideas, and the answer is yes.”

Bush, of course, was talking about the debate over whether “intelligent design,” which is reclothed creationism, should be taught alongside the theory of evolution in biology classes. And his declaration is consistent with his past statements on this matter, which have riled his critics then and now. Those who rail, however, that Bush’s views represent a fundamentalist, right-wing takeover of reason should remember that William Jennings Bryan, the most articulate and forceful opponent of evolution in American history, was a lefty.

A really big lefty.

The man who came to embody a reactionary opposition to modern science did so out of a deep concern for the fate of all of society’s oppressed: the poor, the trade unionists and women. He ran four times for president as a populist Democrat, once on the same ticket that offered his Scopes trial nemesis, attorney Clarence Darrow, as a congressman.

Bryan’s objections to evolution will be spookily or wearily familiar to anyone who has been following the current revival of the debate. The literature of the intelligent design movement makes a totem of the eye, using its complexity on the cellular level — of which Darwin had no idea — as proof of Darwin’s blind spot. Bryan was drawn to the eye as well. The chances that an eye evolved out of “light-sensitive freckle” are so astounding, he orated, “Is it not easier to believe in a God who can make an eye?”

Bryan opposed teaching evolution not only because he believed it would undermine belief in God and the Bible, but the Great Commoner also feared that a Darwinian view of humanity “would weaken the cause of democracy and strengthen class pride and power of wealth.”

The end result would be social Darwinism by those who “worship brute ancestors” and the unrestrained use of eugenics.

What Bush and Bryan have in common, if not their political affiliations, is a faith-based understanding that science devoid of moral compass is a dangerous enterprise. And the 20th century provides plentiful examples that this is true. As wrong as Bryan was about the science of Darwin, he was prescient as to the implications. Francis Galton repackaged the science of his cousin — Charles Darwin — into junk science. In the late 19th century, he invented eugenics, and the idea held England in thrall until the 1930s. One fan across the Channel was Adolf Hitler, who wrote adulatory letters to leading eugenicists, and would use their crackpot theories to give his human experiments the patina of medical research.

The president’s partiality to intelligent design keeps with a fundamentalist religious tradition that from the beginning has viewed evolution as contradictory to the word of God as revealed in the Bible. If humans evolved from lower life forms as a result of a mechanistic biological process, where is our sense of purpose, our meaning? If we are no different than animals, what prevents us from treating others like animals?

No such contradiction need exist. Bryan famously said that where the Bible and the microscope disagree, throw out the microscope. But 700 years earlier, the Jewish scholar and physician Maimonides said that if religious teachings contradicted direct observations about the natural world, either we failed to understand the teachings or the observations. In other words, the deeper we contemplate science, the more profoundly we must understand faith. The study and acquisition of scientific knowledge, he wrote, “are preeminently important religious activities.”

Through scientific understanding, Maimonides wrote — and centuries of Jewish doctors lived to prove — we can better take care of our bodies, that we may more fully serve God.

A great wealth of Jewish tradition adheres to this view. We need science to explain how the world works. We need scripture, study and prayer to understand why it works, and to what ends. All of which suggests that, even for a religious person, intelligent design belongs in a comparative religion class — or perhaps in a design class.

Abba Hillel Silver, the great American rabbi, said it best — to Bryan no less. Silver stepped into the fray just as Bryan penned his 1925 attack on evolution, which he titled, “Is the Bible True?” Silver answered Bryan — and Bush — in a sermon at The Temple in Cleveland.

“Science or religion?” Silver said. “Which will survive? Why, both — if man is to survive. Without religion, science is a dreadful destroyer, a machine that will crush the very man who invented it; for the mind let loose in the world, unrestrained by ethical and moral consideration, uninspired by purpose, is so much dynamite in the hands of a child. Religion without science is a helpless thing, subject to all the angers of superstition, subject to constant degeneration, because with the mind atrophied and the intellect left untrained, a man remains permanently incomplete. Science and religion are friends. God created His world by wisdom, and the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord.”

Creationism and the Bible 101

In Kansas, the state school board decides to remove evolution from its science curriculum.

In Cleveland, a federal judge throws parents and students into a state of turmoil when he blocks a state-funded school voucher program that lets students attend private or parochial schools at taxpayer expense — and then reverses his decision.

In Mississippi, school officials bar a student from displaying a Star of David symbol in class and then change their policy concerning “gang symbols” in the face of a public outcry.

Elsewhere around the country, school districts contemplate posting the Ten Commandments to help counter what they see as a lapse in morality.

As the school year begins, no ground has proved more fertile in the ongoing debate over the constitutional separation of church and state than America’s public schools.

While church-state watchdogs say there is no evidence of any trend linking the disparate controversies that have been playing out across the country, such issues appear to have gained a higher profile in recent months.

In recent years, prayer in public schools and during graduation ceremonies has been the primary source of church-state contention. Now issues such as school vouchers and displaying the Ten Commandments — topics that are playing out in both the political and educational arenas — have been providing additional grist for the church-state mill.

Some experts believe that recent incidents of school violence provided the impetus behind some of the recent activity. But in many ways there is little new about the debate over religion in schools.

“Adults have been playing these games with children for a very long time,” said Marc Stern, a lawyer with the American Jewish Congress.

Schools have long provided a testing ground for many of the most divisive issues on the national scene, Stern said, pointing to the battles fought over segregation, women’s equality and multiculturalism.

“If you’re going to fight about the values that the government has and that are spoken in the name of society, the only place that surfaces in any systematic way is in the schools,” he said.

Most experts say the recent attention to religion in schools is simply part of the normal ebb and flow of the debate.

“These issues kind of wax and wane,” said Joseph Conn, a spokesman for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

“Sometimes there will be a few months or a few years when the issues aren’t so important, then suddenly you’ll have a dozen different fronts. Right now we’re just at one of those points where there’s a lot of discussion on the issue.”

The recent spate of violence in schools — particularly the massacre in Littleton, Colo., in April — may have a lot to do with that.

In the wake of the shooting spree and other incidents of gun violence, elected officials around the country have been pushing the Bible as a solution to what they say is a breakdown in morality.

School board officials in Kansas made no explicit mention of moral concerns in voting in August to delete any references to evolution from the state’s recommended science curriculum and its standardized tests. But some observers believe that the decision reflects parental worries that their children are growing up without an agreed-upon moral compass.

Others see a larger trend.

Nathan Diament, director of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs, sees the focus on religious issues as a reaction to what he calls a long-standing “anti-religion” bias in schools — an attitude he believes is at odds with the fact that most people in this country are religious.

“A lot of this has to do with the fact that the pendulum swung much too far in one direction, which is that religion across the board was really driven out of the schools, and there’s still a bureaucratic suspicion, if not antipathy, toward religion.”

Now he said, the pendulum is swinging back because parents have become “frustrated” by seeing “such a central part of their lives trod upon and sometimes abused in their kids’ schools.”

Other Jewish observers see it differently.

“One of the things that I think a lot of these issues have in common is that they’re all instances in which religious issues are being advanced for political purposes,” said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

He pointed to the juvenile justice bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this year as an example of elected officials “trying to play political games with our first freedom.”

The measure, which lawmakers said was aimed at instilling children with traditional values, permits schools to display the Ten Commandments in schools and other public places.

The measure stands little chance of becoming law because the Senate has not approved it and President Clinton is likely to veto any such legislation.

Meanwhile, most church-state watchdogs emphasize that they are not calling for America’s public schools to be “religion-free zones.”

In fact, most continue to support a wide variety of privately initiated religious activities in accordance with a set of guidelines drafted five years ago by the AJCongress together with a coalition of religious and public policy groups.

The guidelines, intended to clarify permissible activity in order to help schools avoid divisive debates over religious issues in cases in which the law is clear, have since been updated and circulated by the Clinton administration.

While the guidelines delineate, for example, that students cannot be compelled to pray and that religion cannot be promoted in schools, they also make clear that students are permitted to pray individually and that teachers may teach about religious contributions to civilization.

“I think these guidelines have gone a long way toward addressing that confusion,” said Pelavin, formerly of the AJCongress.

But he added, “one of the things we’ve said all along is that in a country this size, there are still going to be school officials that get it wrong.”