The Cost of Latinization

For the most part, Jewish leadership in Los Angeles and elsewhere can be expected to oppose the recall of longtime "ally" Gov. Gray Davis and, in a pinch, support his Mini-Me proposed replacement, Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante (see page 12). "Go along to get along" expediency and Pavlovian liberal sympathies provide much of the explanation.

Yet, as is all too often the case, the more pressing, long-term issues will be lost. Not only has Davis presided over a disastrous decline in the state’s finances and an unprecedented debasing of its political culture. Now he has become handmaiden to the undermining of our most precious principles, the sanctity of citizenship.

By signing a bill to allow illegal aliens to receive driver’s licenses, something he had hitherto strongly opposed, Davis has opened the door to a massive debasement of citizenship itself. Once allowed driver’s licenses, there seems little to prevent illegal aliens — many of whom have only marginal attachment to the nation — from becoming full participants in our political culture, including the right to vote.

Will this move backfire? It should and could. Citizenship has always been seen as a precious thing, particularly among immigrants. It reflects both the openness of American society as well as the obligations one takes to become part of a democracy. The swearing-in ceremonies in Los Angeles and other immigrant centers are testament to the power of the American ideal.

Opposing the de facto legalization of all illegals is not the same as opposing Proposition 187. That measure sought to punish as well the children of illegal aliens and would have deprived people of essential medical services. It was mean-spirited and poorly drafted. Opposing driver’s licenses for illegal aliens represents entirely something else: an affirmation of the importance of citizenship.

After Sept. 11, it also should be noted that the measure damages the slender controls we have to contain terrorism. This has always been a concern of those who opposed the legislation, including Davis himself. Future Mohammed Attas will now find it even easier to get on planes and enter public buildings, including such prime targets as Jewish institutions.

But the key concern here is not really about our security in this direct sense. It relates instead to the fundamental nature of the country that we live in. In their long history, Jews have done best when membership in society was measured not by race or ethnicity, but as a function of citizenship. This was true to some degree in ancient Rome, in the British empire, under the French Republic after 1789 and, most importantly, in the United States.

Citizenship is about responsibility and shared goals. As American citizens, Jews have been protected by the same laws as non-Jews. This principle also has made America an attractive place for a wide range of peoples, including millions of Asians and Latinos, who have fled from racist or authoritarian regimes.

Citizenship is also about being a nation of laws. In states such as 19th-century Russia, contemporary China or 20th-century Mexico, ethnic power and grievance alone could be used to justify state action. Laws could be amended, twisted and shaped to the liking of labor, the political and big business insiders. If you have elections, you change the rules and count the votes as you please.

Although such things happen in America, they are against the grain and the basic constitutional order. Yet now we see something else on the horizon — an attempt to change an entire state by allowing the massive de facto legalization of aliens. That this is part of an explicit racial agenda makes this even more dangerous, particularly for exposed minorities like Jews.

The key thing here is to understand the nationalist motivations of the legislation’s backers. Until recently their agenda — which essentially seeks to wipe out the border — thrived only at the political margins. It was supported largely by a handful of Chicano history professors, left-wing labor organizers and activists. But now the ill-advised recall has led the unscrupulous and desperate Davis to sign a potentially disastrous order to garner the support of his core constituency, which also includes labor unions seeking to expand their base of undocumented members.

Like much of the Latino caucus in the legislature, Bustamante supports virtually every element of separatism, including bilingual education, a flawed and highly damaging idea whose strongest justification has always lay in an essentially nationalist rationale of preserving a specific ethnic culture.

Equally disturbing has been Bustamante’s refusal to break with his past association with MEChA — a campus group with an openly separatist agenda, whose chairman describes the Southwestern United States as "occupied land."

Overall, there is little positive in the Latino nationalist scenario for Jews. A racially dominated state, based on a swelling of illegal residents, does not bode well for a minority group that has thrived on a citizen-based democracy. Before jumping on to the Davis or Bustamante bandwagons, Jewish leaders and voters might think less about their short run self-interests and more about the best interests of America’s pluralistic democracy.

Joel Kotkin is a Senior Fellow at the Davenport Institute for Public Policy at Pepperdine University. He is writing a book on the history of cities for Modern Library. He can be reached at

Upsetting the Bipartisan Applecart

It is a troubling paradox: Israel may be protected from new pressure from Washington by the upcoming presidential election, but that protection could foreshadow long-term damage to U.S.-Israel relations.

The reason: more and more, the pro-Israel effort is getting sucked into the quicksand of bitter partisan politics.

In today’s take-no-enemies political climate, the bipartisanship that has been the goal of pro-Israel activism in Washington — a goal steadfastly pursued, if not often attained — is in dire jeopardy.

The good news for pro-Israel lobbyists is that President George W. Bush and his political team see strong, smooth U.S.-Israel relations as a political necessity. Two big reasons: Jewish money and Jewish votes.

With his poll rankings sinking, the President is counting on a record war chest to blow past the Democratic opposition next year. Increasingly, re-election strategists see Jewish money as an important piece of the funding puzzle. Bush’s support for a hawkish government in Israel, they believe, will be a strong selling point with pro-Israel donors.

Even the wildest optimist among the Republicans doesn’t expect Bush to win a majority of Jewish votes. But a jump to 30 percent — in 2000, Bush won only 19 percent — could prove critical, especially in a state the Democrats remember with trepidation: Florida.

Maintaining a cordial relationship with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is seen as a catalyst for that kind of financial and electoral bounce from Jewish donors and voters. Republican Jewish activists are already hitting hard on the Democratic challengers for being soft in their support for Israel.

Even more important, smooth relations with the Sharon government are necessary to keep Evangelical Christians in line. In recent years, the religious right has made support for Israel its top foreign policy priority. The Evangelicals say they simply feel called by God to support Israel, but apparently the Lord has a special preference for Israel’s right wing; even Ariel Sharon isn’t hawkish enough for many of today’s new breed of Christian Zionist.

There’s no danger the religious right will turn to the Democrats next year, but Bush needs a high and enthusiastic turnout from them, and winning amens from their top leaders for his support for Sharon can contribute to that cause.

Those political factors point to relatively smooth U.S.- Israel relations in the short run — not an insignificant development at a time when world opinion is overwhelmingly hostile to Israel. But the auguries for the future aren’t so reassuring.

In an increasingly polarized America, there is a growing danger that Israel will get whipsawed by a partisan balance that can change with staggering speed. For decades, pro-Israel activism has tried to steer a deliberately bipartisan course. The idea was that support for Israel should never be associated with any particular faction, providing a layer of insulation for those inevitable times when the political winds change direction.

True, politicians in both parties sometimes tried to gain an advantage by using Israel as a political club to bash their opponents. But for the most part, there was an acknowledgement that support for Israel should not be Democratic or Republican , liberal or conservative.

That could be changing.

Conservative Republicans, who now ardently support Israel, are increasingly using support not just for Israel but for the most right-wing factions there as a litmus test that they hope and expect most Democrats will fail. The religious right is one of the most polarizing forces in the nation today; Americans are either for them or bitterly against them, with middle ground hard to find. To the extent that support for Israel is now linked to this faction, the Jewish State could be dragged into the center of one of the "culture wars" that increasingly dominate American political life.

It’s revealing that some of Israel’s biggest boosters today — former presidential candidate Gary Bauer, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and the Rev. Pat Robertson — are slashing, controversial figures who have brought the same aggressive stance to their support of the Sharon government. That association could discourage even loyal supporters of Israel on the left and add to the erosion in the bipartisan foundation built so carefully by the pro-Israel lobby.

And what will happen when the volatile Israeli electorate turns to left-leaning leaders? Will the Evangelicals still support an Israel that aggressively seeks land-for-peace agreements with the Palestinians?

This isn’t to say that support from the right should be spurned. But it should be balanced by much more energetic and sustained pro-Israel outreach to other factions, starting with the liberal Democrats who once comprised the pro-Israel base in Washington.

The Jewish community itself needs to avoid being caught up in the venomous political environment of the day. There is an important place in the Jewish community for the political right, which is enjoying its day in the sun — but also for groups on the left, which seem to be in full retreat.

Partisan leaders can afford to play zero-sum games with Israel; the Jewish community, concerned more about Israel’s future in a troubling time than about scoring political points, needs to take a different approach.