Cutting the umbilical cord
Why shouldn't American Jews use their votes to punish Obama?
Short of interviewing a cross section of thousands of Jewish (and non-Jewish for that matter ) voters in Brooklyn and Queens, there is no way to reach a clear conclusion as to why the overwhelmingly Democrat, at least for the last 88 years, 9th District voted on Tuesday in a special election to send a Republican representative to Washington.
Special or midterm elections are odd creatures, blurry snapshots of undercurrents and public temperament. So much can be read into them, but so much changes before national elections. Was Bob Turner's surprise victory a demonstration of exasperation with the dismal economic figures, or a personal humiliation of Democratic candidate David Weprin by Catholic and Orthodox Jewish constituents for his support earlier this year in the State Assembly of same-sex marriages? Or was it, as some have suggested, a carefully orchestrated warning by the pro-Israel lobby to the Obama administration that can be translated as, "Ease up on Bibi or we'll hit you where it hurts"?
Not having had the chance to interview any voters myself, I turned to the massed ranks of reporters and pundits weighing in on the matter over the last couple of days, but the conflicting data and analyses got me nowhere, until I chanced upon a report by the venerable Shlomo Shamir, this paper's New York correspondent. In it were quoted two veteran hacks of the Jewish-American establishment, Anti-Defamation League chief Abe Foxman and Malcolm Hoenlein, chief of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Both were trying to play down the Jewish and Israeli aspect of the political upset, insisting that there were many other political factors. Foxman even said, "In no way can this be interpreted as the Jews taking revenge on Obama." Foxman and Hoenlein are protesting too much that it's not about Israel; which kind of makes me think that maybe it is.
Can Foxman honestly say that none of the good people of Howard Beach and Far Rockaway said to themselves, "How dare that shvartze say we have to give Yehuda v'Shomron to the Arabs. Just for that I'm going to break the habit of a lifetime and vote Republican. That will teach him"? Of course he can't.
And if indeed that was the foremost motive in the minds of thousands of Jewish voters, what of it? Would Foxman and Hoenlein deny the members of their community the right to exercise their democratic prerogative and send a message to their president through the ballot box? Of course they wouldn't.
But it's not just the grandees of the establishment who are so uncomfortable in acknowledging the possibility that a specific Jewish community, in this case, seemingly, Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox voters, exerted its electoral power to chastise the president of the United States on behalf of a foreign state. The fact that the national and even international media made such a fuss over this relatively inconsequential contest speaks volumes.
Why shouldn't American Jews be allowed to use their votes in such a way? It used to be said that the quality of a country could be determined by the way it treats its Jews, and the fact that almost the entire Jewish population lives today in westernized democracies seems to bear that out. It is certainly no coincidence that the largest and most successful Jewish community in history lives in the United States. Does that mean that, as part of Jews' gratitude to the American nation, they should see themselves as guests in the land they also built, and should know their place?
Jews on the left are probably also unhappy at the developments in New York. This may be the first real sign of a desire to cut the umbilical cord with the Democratic Party, which has seen an overwhelming majority of Jews vote for every Democrat candidate for the presidency since 1924 (with the exception of Jimmy Carter in 1980 who "only" got 45 percent of the Jewish vote - still more than Ronald Reagan, who received 39 ), or it may be a blip. It is certainly a significant challenge from a growing Orthodox community that feels a lot less beholden to the old 20th-century liberal ethos, and for which the administration's unswerving support for a right-wing Israel is a main consideration in the voting booth. But for those leftist Jews, this is also a unique opportunity.
Over the last three years the new "pro-Israel, pro-peace" lobby J Street has been constantly under attack for breaking the consensus of supporting whatever Israeli government is currently in power, no matter what its policies. Following the Republican victory in the 9th District, where the right wing allowed Israeli politics to intrude on the local scene, the left-wing lobby has full justification to continue pressuring the administration to make demands of Jerusalem.
Despite the shift to the right, a clear majority of American Jews still supports a two-state solution, an end to occupation of the West Bank and the dismantling of settlements. They have counterparts to these views within the "Zionist" parties of the Knesset and a legitimate, if debatable, claim to be acting in America and Israel's best interests.
If current trends are anything to go by, in 16 months there is a fair chance that in both Washington and Jerusalem there will be right-wing leaders and the peace process will be as moribund as ever. The Jewish center-left in both countries will have both a license and a duty to make its views heard loud and clear. The 9th District is now ample precedent.