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Jewish World Review Dec. 13, 2000 / 16 Kislev, 5761

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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The perils of partisanship

Seeking a Jewish agenda for dealing with the Bush administration -- IN THE IMMEDIATE AFTERMATH of the deadlocked presidential election, there were voices among American Jews who sought to plunge the community into the vicious battle between the Republicans and the Democrats for Florida’s electoral votes.

A small number of left-wing rabbis from New York to California headed to Florida to join Rev. Jesse Jackson’s rabble-rousing demonstrations. Some Jews in the Palm Beach area took the lead in crying foul over the infamous “butterfly” ballot.

Sen. Joe Lieberman’s presence on the Democratic ticket and his widespread acceptance and popularity by non-Jewish voters should have put to rest some of our communal paranoia about domestic anti-Semitism.

But the Democrat’s narrow loss in Florida was too bitter a pill for many to accept, and the fact that some Sunshine State Jews believed the ballot’s design had led them to mistakenly vote for right-wing fringe candidate Pat Buchanan pushed a few over the edge. There were even some folks willing to say aloud that they believed the election results were being cooked to deprive the Jews of their right to vote. The lack of even the slimmest of evidence to back up the accusation didn’t stop the rumor-mongering.

The abuse showered on GOP candidate George W. Bush by many in the Jewish community was intense and, frankly, way out of proportion to his admittedly slim record on Jewish issues. Throw in the unhappy association Jewish voters have with his father, former President George Bush, coupled with the prospect of Lieberman’s narrow loss to a Bush-led ticket, and a genuine sense of panic took hold of some Jewish Democrats.

This was also fueled by intemperate rhetoric about Holocaust survivors by Sen. Lieberman and others. Aren’t there enough unfortunate analogies to the Shoah being thrown around by non-Jews these days without adding our own inappropriate remarks to the pile?

In the end, the Jewish contribution to the Florida mishugas was limited, albeit one immortalized in a lyric heard on the “Saturday Night Live” television show, in which a character satirizing George W. Bush sang that he won because “the Jews were confused.”

Fortunately, the organized Jewish world took a pass on this one. Despite the blandishments of Jesse Jackson, no major Jewish organizations were willing to join his new black-Jewish “coalition.” The demagogic Jackson’s foray into “Hymietown” south failed.

After a campaign that was largely devoid of content, we have just lived through the most partisan month in modern American political history. And it is one where the winner may inevitably envy the loser. But although many of us seem to be more interested in nursing the grudges engendered by this election for the next four years, Jewish organizations and their leaders have a much more important problem: dealing with an administration that will undoubtedly be led by a candidate who got less than 20 percent of the Jewish vote nationwide.The question is: What will a George W. Bush presidency mean for the national Jewish communal agenda?

Given the current crisis in the Middle East, U.S. relations with Israel must be at the top of the Jewish agenda.

Despite all of the nice statements that his campaign put forward in the last year, Bush scares most Jews. Reason No. 1 was that he is his father’s son. Few American Jews have forgotten the elder Bush’s disdain for Israel. And the comeback of former Secretary of State James (“bleep the Jews”) Baker to the forefront of the Bush campaign this last month spooked even a few Jewish Republicans.

Reason No. 2 is the fact that both Bush and running mate Dick Cheney have strong oil-industry connections.

Nevertheless, there are some avid supporters of Israel in the Bush camp, such as Paul Wolfowitz, a former undersecretary of defense during the administration of Bush’s father and a possible Secretary of Defense in the new regime.

There is also some reason to hope that the presidential shrub might actually be a friend to Israel. Whatever his shortcomings, unlike Clinton, Bush is not personally invested in the diplomatic dead end created by the failed Oslo peace process.

Anyone expecting George W. Bush to move the U.S. Embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is inhaling controlled substances. Nor would Gore. But with elections in the offing for Israel next spring, it will be incumbent on American Jewish groups to hold George W. to his pledge that he will never interfere in Israeli politics the way Clinton did. In the run-up to the election, the temptation for Washington to pull out the stops to save Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s slim chances of re-election would have been too much to resist for Clinton or a President Gore.

The test will be whether George W. is ready keep his hands off Israel’s campaign (and order his ambassador in Israel to do the same), and then to welcome a new Israeli prime minister to Washington — even one from the Likud Party — and not put the screws to him to make further concessions to the Palestinians. If Bush can manage that, and I am not overly optimistic on this score, then the change in administrations in Washington will be a plus for Israel.

On the domestic front, there will obviously be strong differences between the generally liberal agenda of the Jewish organizational world and Bush. Rightly or wrongly, gun control and abortion rights are treated by many liberal groups as top Jewish issues, and they will undoubtedly drive opposition to Bush’s agenda. But given an evenly divided Congress, I doubt much will be moved either way on these issues that has much chance of passage.

One issue that will probably cause a fight will be the drive to pass a federal hate-crimes bill. Bush has opposed such legislation in Texas in the past — and paid for it with an unfair race-baiting campaign ad in retaliation from the NAACP.

Hate-crimes bills are popular with most politicians. After all, who is for hate? Such legislation makes it sound as if they are doing something even though the effect on crime is basically nil. And it is a popular issue among Jews for similarly emotional reasons. But these bills raises troubling issues about free speech, which is something Jewish groups should consider in an equally vigilant manner. On this one, Bush will be right to stick to his position, despite the beating he will take.

One topic where Jewish groups should look to find common ground with Bush is immigration rights. Bush’s pro-immigrant stands in Texas won him substantial Hispanic support. The campaign to restore cutbacks on the rights of legal immigrants enacted in the 1996 Welfare Reform Act continues to be a strong Jewish issue. Jewish organizations should capitalize on this opening, and push even harder for policies that would create more openness toward immigrants and more liberal quotas for newcomers to this country.

One the whole, despite the panic and grief among liberals, a new President Bush will not shake the foundation of American Jewish life. Nor will it threaten Israel. After all, if we could survive four years of Bush the elder and eight years of the scoundrel who followed him, we can survive anything.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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© 2000, Jonathan Tobin