Jews in America have, essentially since 1932, felt far at home with one Party and voted accordingly. Democrats could rely on a solid 75% plus of the Jewish vote and the Jewish community could comfortably feel that they had a home in a party which embraced positions and values with which they could identify. It looked for a time as if 2008 might be different and that the percentage of Jewish support for the Democratic presidential candidate might slip into the low 60s or worse. A considerable effort was invested in scare-tactics and smear campaigns against Barack Obama. Joe Lieberman was thrown into the mix. The McCain campaign had reason to be cautiously optimistic.
That McCain hope may now be receding as the latest turn in the Republican campaign seems to have one unifying theme when it comes to the Jewish community: a determination to put as many Jews as possible back in their place -- in the Democratic camp. The GOP have scored an amazing trifecta -- choose a Veep candidate who is a neophyte on Israel and foreign policy and has never stepped foot in the Holy Land, stoke the kind of cultural wars that make the Jewish community distinctly antsy, and then deploy old and crude anti-Semitic stereotypes when attacking Obama.
Sure, there is about a quarter of the Jewish vote that is now solidly Republican. These are people who are Republicans because they want lower taxes on the most wealthy, more religion in the public sphere and a hard-line foreign policy both as it relates to America and to Israel. That demographic will remain Republican. But the additional 10-15% of the Jewish vote that the GOP tried to put in play this November is now feeling not only alienated, but downright offended by the latest offerings of the McCain message machine. That new Palin-powered propaganda effort may play well in parts of the country, and it may be enough to get McCain elected, but it is likely to have the opposite effect on the floating Jewish voter -- which could matter (perhaps a lot) in Florida and elsewhere such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, or even Nevada
The Obama campaign had already made significant inroads in pushing back the slur tactics and in creating a comfort level amongst Jewish voters with Obama's personal life story, his message, and him visiting Israel again recently. Putting Senator Joe Biden on the ticket -- someone with a long and strong history of trusted relations and closeness to the Jewish community, and deep, unquestioned foreign policy experience -- likely strengthened that trend. But the more important development is likely to be the GOP's decision to tightly embrace a politics and style that creates a maximum discomfort amongst even those parts of the Jewish community that were beginning to be susceptible to McCain's appeal. Part of this is a deep seated, understandable, and very real tension between the world views of the Christian right and of the mainstream Jewish community.
Three moves in particular have the potential to create a backlash amongst Jewish voters and to drive the Jewish community to find its place with the Obama-Biden ticket in numbers that match historical levels of Democratic support.
First, McCain chose a candidate for Veep who has no history whatsoever of interest in, understanding of, or concern for Israel. The Israel issue does not move all or even most Jewish voters, but it matters to many. Sarah Palin has never been to Israel. The only place she has ever visited in the Middle East is Kuwait. Her website issues page lists nothing on foreign policy or Israel, as others have pointed out (here and here). Governor Palin did meet with AIPAC during the recent RNC convention in Minneapolis and they did give her the kosher stamp. But one can fairly assume that this had more to do with AIPAC's confidence in its own ability to sway the possible future V.P. than with any deep appreciation for Israel's predicament displayed by the candidate. Surely all the pro-Israel groups from right and left could agree that a politician who has never visited Israel, who doesn't know the issues affecting Israel, and has so little national security and foreign policy experience should not be a heartbeat away from the presidency.
Second, and as part of the Palin-fest, the Republicans have made a strategic decision to place cultural wars front and center in this election campaign. Former New York Mayor Ed Koch has called Sarah Palin and what she represents "scary", and one can understand why. Palin is about as right-wing as it gets when it comes to the ideological and value issues she promotes. She has the hard right, Christian conservative wing of the electorate highly enthused and mobilized. Jewish voters and Jewish values tend to sit uneasily with positions such as making abortion illegal (even in cases of rape and incest), teaching creationism in school and blurring the separation of religion and state, and banning books--all positions espoused by Governor Palin. As Salon.com pointed out, such theocratic tendencies are more normally associated with Muslim fundamentalists. This is bigger than Palin; this now a cultural values election as much as it is an economics or national security policy election -- it is a defining moment, especially when Supreme Court nominations enter the calculation.
But there is also a Jewish specific cause for concern in the Palin pick. Just three weeks ago, with Sarah in attendance, Palin's church hosted the Executive Director of Jews for Jesus, David Brickner -- a group much criticized by the ADL. As Ben Smith pointed out in Politico, Brickner "described terrorist attacks on Israelis as God's 'judgment of unbelief' of Jews who haven't embraced Christianity". Palin's Pastor at the Wasilla Bible Church, Larry Kroon, warns of God taking retribution on a sinning America. She trades on an anti-intellectualism and playing of small town vs big city or suburban America that is alienating to most Jews. Mayor Koch is right: this is "scary" stuff.
Third, and perhaps most bizarrely, the types of attacks used by leading Republicans against Senator Obama should be making Jewish voters feel distinctly uneasy -- they are taken straight from the vernacular of classical anti-Semitism. When Rudy Giuliani during his RNC keynote address put a big sneer on his face and used the word 'cosmopolitan' to attack Obama, I was rattled -- literally shocked. Words have coded meanings, and I don't think it would be Jewish paranoia to remind ourselves of the coded meaning of 'cosmopolitan' when used in that insulting, demeaning, and group-defining political fashion. We Jews are after all the quintessential, rootless cosmopolitans. 'Cosmopolitan', 'elites', 'urbane', 'liberal media' -- in trying to negatively define Barack Obama, the Republicans have chosen to use a convenient and familiar existing vocabulary for defining the 'other' -- the vocabulary of anti-Semitic stereotypes. At the very least this is deeply insensitive to Jewish opinion.
It is shameful that Republican Jewish circles have been silent in the wake of this ugliness. It would be even more shameful if it was allowed to succeed. Fortunately Jewish voters, in Florida and elsewhere, will have a big say in the matter.