Recently, I was talking with a conservative friend of mine about the drama in Gaza. I knew this individual to be thoughtful about world events and staunchly pro-Israel in outlook. It was sometime after our mutual condemnation of Hamas that our conversation took an unexpected and disturbing turn.
Seems my friend is frustrated with the Obama administration's tepid support of Benjamin Netanyahu's government and the Jewish voters who re-elected the U.S. president, a soft-on-Israel candidate. In blunt terms, he asked why he should be concerned about Israel when it is apparent (to him) that so many Jewish voters aren't.
For context, recall Mr. Netanyahu's Oval Office dressing down of an American president, persistent U.S. criticism of West Bank settlements, Secretary Kerry's continuing efforts to insert "moral equivalence" in Palestinian peace talks, and a similar enthusiasm to accommodate Hamas demands during recent ceasefire negotiations. Throw in Israel's monumental concern over Mr. Obama's stance on Iranian nuclear negotiations and you have a pretty strong case for legitimate Israeli distrust.
I've been thinking about my friend's observation as Americans digest world reaction to this latest Israeli-Palestinian skirmish. Actually, indigestion is a more appropriate term, as anti-Israeli sentiment (particularly in Europe) becomes more pronounced. It seems violent pro-Palestinian demonstrations and the trashing of Jewish shops is back in vogue in Paris. Indeed, taking batting practice on the Jewish state is again a favored pastime around the world.
Increasing disenchantment with Israel is also rising in more secular Jewish circles. A recent Pew Research study on American Jews reveals a weaker emotional attachment to Israel (and Zionism) and an increased willingness to criticize Israeli policies among reform and secular Jews. For this segment of the community, Israel is no longer the most vital issue. Some pundits have even argued that progressivism competes with Judaism (and trumps Zionism) as this group's religion of choice. I'll leave it to the social scientists to argue the merits of such matters. But it seems reasonable to conclude that secular Jews are not as intensively pro-Israel as others within the Jewish community.
Yet, such divisions on the Jewish left carry few consequences come Election Day. The last dozen or so presidential election cycles make the point. There has been a persistent GOP pattern of failure to grow the Jewish vote since 1964: Goldwater (10 percent), Nixon (17 percent), Nixon (35 percent), Ford (22 percent), Reagan (39 percent), Reagan (31 percent), Bush 41 (35 percent), Bush 41 (11 percent), Dole (16 percent), Bush 43 (19 percent), Bush 43 (24 percent), McCain (22 percent) and Romney (30 percent).
The political result is a "hall pass" for lefties: Denigrate Israel (particularly right wing Israeli governments) and reap strong Jewish support.
But it's the other side of the equation that remains more frustrating.
I refer to the perpetually strained relationship between the Republican right and the Jewish community. Putting aside a strong (but small) group of Orthodox activists who regularly support GOP candidates (including yours truly), the Christian right's stalwart support for all things Israeli is nevertheless viewed with great suspicion (and, often, open hostility) by the larger community.
The issue of abortion is at the center of this divide, but other social issues (guns, school prayer, gay marriage, right-to-die, affirmative action) play here as well. My many visits (over 24 years) to Maryland synagogues confirm this list of grievances.
Which brings us back to my friend's disdain for Mr. Obama's persistent Jewish support. Herewith, my respectful reminder to him and others of similar mindset.
Israel is a tiny island of western values surrounded by sworn enemies. Hamas to the south, Hezbollah to the north, and Iran to the east constitute a dream team of terror players intent on "liberating" Palestine from Israeli "occupation." Nevertheless, it survives and thrives as a model of pluralistic democracy in the perpetually troubled Middle East. America must support this loyal ally in its hour of need. And every hour is an hour of need for the Jewish state.
Alas, a political detente between social conservatives and the non-orthodox community is unlikely. Just too many disparate values at play. Yet, why should these matters supersede the issue of a critical democracy's existence?
The bottom line: Reflexive support for Democratic presidents goes back to the FDR era, when there were many isolationist, anti-Jewish Republicans. But this attitude has significantly changed, and it should be recognized. Today, support for the state of Israel is simply stronger among most Republicans than it is in the current administration. And the availability (or not) of Jewish votes on election day should not be germane to our special alliance with Israel. A hostile world dictates that the relationship be regularly nourished — unrequited love notwithstanding.
Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s column appears Sundays. The former Maryland governor and member of Congress is a partner at the law firm King & Spalding and the author of "Turn this Car Around" and "America: Hope for Change" — books about national politics. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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