During breakfast one day last week, I pointed out to my wife an article in
The New York Times that piqued my interest being someone with a background in
British history and politics.
The piece concerned the likelihood that the next head of Britain's
Conservative Party would be a Jew one Michael Howard, M.P., the son of Romanian
immigrants who grew up in Wales.
I remarked on the fact that the account referred to Howard's chance to walk
in the footsteps of 19th-century British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, whom
the newspaper wrongly referred to as Jewish (though he was proud of his
heritage, he was baptized in the Anglican Church as a child).
All of which provoked my wife to tersely ask, "What does any of this mean for
Awakened from my musing by her characteristic clarity of thought, I could
only reply, "Well, actually, nothing."
The point being that Michael Howard's ascent to the head of the Tories
probably wouldn't help or hurt America's alliance with Britain; it wouldn't mark a
turning point in the struggle against the rising tide of European
anti-Semitism, and it certainly wouldn't help or hurt the State of Israel.
It just meant that one highly ambitious Jewish Brit was climbing, as so many
American Jews have done, to the top of the proverbial greasy pole of politics.
The days when we needed such triumphs as meaningful barometers of the
acceptance of Jews are long gone. In the United States and, to a lesser extent, in B
ritain, the barriers to Jews have fallen in literally every sphere of life.
BARRIERS ARE BROKEN
Such milestones are worth noting, and even celebrating to some extent, as we
did with the nomination of Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman as the Democrat's choice
for the vice presidency in 2000.
But once these barriers are broken, Jewish politicians and others who trade
on their shaky genetic ties with the Jewish people need to remember that
they're on their own. And that is a lesson that some of us often forget.
Voting for people who remind us of ourselves is a common trait of American
politics, and certainly not limited to Jews. As with other groups, many of us
find it satisfying to see a fellow Jew do well in politics. This is indicated by
the Jewish tallies for the Democratic presidential ticket in 2000, as well as
for Sam Katz, a Republican who was defeated this week in his second attempt
to become mayor of Philadelphia.
But while today, Jews can be candidates for literally any office in the land,
there's still a difference between a Jewish candidate and being the Jewish
candidate. Jewish issues, such as support for the State of Israel, social
justice and education measures, are one thing. The religious identity of the
candidate is quite another.
With the 2004 presidential election now just one year away, it's worth
pondering what obligations the presence of Jewish candidates places on Jewish voters.
The answer is, of course, none.
NON-JEWISH POLITICAL HEROES
Candidates need to be judged by their stands on the issues, including those
of particular interest to the Jewish community. Those who believe that only
Jewish candidates can properly represent our views on such issues simply haven't
been paying attention to the last 60 years of American political history.
In that time, we have learned that non-Jewish politicians are just as if
not more likely to take the lead on Jewish issues, while their Jewish
counterparts, more often than not, backed off.
That was certainly the case during the Holocaust, when prominent Jews in
politics shrank from advocating the rescue of European Jews. It was also true
during the struggle for freeing Soviet Jewry in the 1970s, when Sen. Henry
"Scoop" Jackson (D-Wash.) stuck his neck out for the refuseniks.
This has also been illustrated over the past decades when it came to advocacy
for Israel. Most of the Jewish nation's best friends in Washington have not
been Jewish, including many conservative Christians whom liberal Jews despised.
This is especially significant because, at the same time, some of those
politicians least interested in Israel's security have, in actuality, been Jews.
That is not to say that some Jewish pols haven't been courageous in their
advocacy for Israel. But as political animals, they are also just as likely to
take Jewish votes and Jewish issues for granted when non-Jewish pols will not.
Just as many of us have gotten over our communal obsession with who is or is
not Jewish, some of us have reverted to our old insecurities. Though
candidates for president with some sort of Jewish link have proliferated this year,
only one of them, Lieberman, is really Jewish.
PRIDE SHOULDN'T EQUAL VOTES
Yet even as we are right to take pride in the acceptance of a Joe Lieberman,
his Jewish pride and Sabbath observance do not entitle him to a single Jewish
vote next year no more so than did Sam Katz's strong Jewish identity did
here in Philly.
Katz's candidacy was seen by some as the harbinger of a historic Jewish shift
to the right that included the strong Jewish votes for other Republican
mayoral candidates, such as New York's Rudy Giuliani. But though his views on some
issues, such as school choice, were a refreshing shift from Jewish liberalism,
he did not run as the standard-bearer of Jews in the GOP.
When the generally liberal Katz was asked if he saw himself as part of a
Jewish trend toward the Republican Party, he flatly denied it. While he was
resentful about the unwillingness of some local Jewish institutions to side with
him against his Democratic rival (notably the nonpartisan Jewish Exponent), Katz
rightly shunned the tag of the Jewish candidate.
The same ought to be true of Lieberman's bid for the presidency, which has
not aroused the same enthusiasm as his previous run for veep. Lieberman's
endless compromises to gain more support have alienated many moderates and
conservatives who used to be his biggest fans.
The obvious lesson here is that a Jewish presidential candidate who says he
would be prepared to meet with Louis Farrakhan and would accept Hamas if the
group suddenly gave up terrorism (and then would presumably pursue Israel's
destruction by peaceful means) is a lot less useful than a non-Jewish candidate
who would do neither of these things.
So repeat after me: The personal interests of individual Jewish candidates
have nothing to do with the interests of the Jewish community. Let those
politicos who want tribal solidarity look to contributions from Native American
casino owners. Jewish votes should be won on the issues.