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CLEVELAND - James Carville, the Democratic political consultant who became an icon of American culture after helping Bill Clinton win election in his famous "war room," has a standard response when asked about the voting of Jews in the United States. He tells how after being recruited to help Ehud Barak in his campaign for prime minister, he was asked in a television interview what advice he has for someone aspiring to high office in Israel. "I told him to focus on the Jewish vote," Carville says, and the audience - in this case, thousands of delegates at the General Assembly (GA) of United Jewish Communities - bursts into laughter.

Carville's joke about the Jewish vote, and the quip from his rival at the GA session, the conservative William Kristol ("Bush would have done better with the Jews in Israel than over here"), were almost the only references to the stormy election battle that just concluded.

The GA convention, held this week in Cleveland, Ohio - the state that ultimately decided the presidential race - concentrated mainly on American Jewish communities and their needs, as well as ways to assist Israel and Jews in distress throughout the world. But in the hallways outside the official discussions, the tone was different.

"Everyone who talks to me wants to know just one thing - what will happen during the coming four years with George Bush," says one Jewish activist, while others seated around an improvised table in the convention hall echoe her sentiments.

The convention delegates regard the discussions in the conference rooms about issues facing their communities as very important, but they are much more troubled by American post-election politics. And they are concerned about the post-Arafat era. After the question of "What will be with Bush?", the second hottest topic of hallway conversation was, "What will be after Arafat?"

The leaders of Jewish communities in the United States and Canada did not receive a satisfactory answer to either question.

Jewish-American voters were given special, almost exaggerated, attention in the recent elections. The Republicans set a goal of increasing the level of Jewish support for George W. Bush. The Democrats responded to this challenge and made an effort to keep the Jews in their camp. It was a battle in which much attention and resources were invested, and which focused more on prestige and the future than on practical electoral considerations.

In the end, though a considerable number of Jews live in the three key states - Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania - the Jews did not come close to being the king-makers. And political strategists from both parties knew this would be the case. So why did they insist on pursuing the Jewish vote?

Some will say that this was a matter of principle. Others will note that Jews are the largest donors in political campaigns and, therefore, their money is no less important than their vote. And some Democrats believe that the Republicans simply wanted to compel the Democrats to pour time and money into wooing the Jewish community, which was going to vote Democratic in any case.

The Jews lost

Both sides claim victory. The Republicans note that the level of Jewish support rose from 19 percent in 2000 to 25 percent in 2004 (some peg this support at 24 percent), showing a significant political shift in the Jewish community. This increase is negligible, say the Democrats, noting that Republican hopes of winning 40 percent of the Jewish vote were groundless from the beginning.

But one fact is clear: The Jews of the United States who voted en masse for John Kerry, assigning top priority to issues of social justice, the separation of church and state, and protecting civil rights, woke up on November 3 and discovered that they had lost on all levels.

"We come out of this campaign very nervous," says Hannah Rosenthal, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), one of the Jewish communities' strongest organizations. Rosenthal, a Democrat who served in Bill Clinton's administration, anticipates a gloomy future for the Jewish community during the coming four years, especially when it comes to social issues.

She becomes enraged when people talk about the "moral values" that decided the recent elections, and heatedly explains that the moral values of Judaism, as she knows them, call on people to help the weak and needy. "Turning the gay marriage issue into the definition of morality and values is narrow and divisive," Rosenthal says. "We need to look at the real values and say out loud that the budget cuts that Bush is planning for the poor and the needy are impossible," she adds.

This attitude has broad support among the Jewish activists at the big convention center in Cleveland, but it is certainly not the only approach. A considerable number of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox Jews voted for Bush and agree with the president on the question of "values." They are not worried by the fact that "morality" grabbed a central place on the election stage.

One such Bush supporter is Nathan Diament, the head of the Orthodox Union's Institute for Public Affairs, who appears to be very satisfied with the election results.

"We should be comfortable with the fact that religious values are taking center stage in the public arena," he says. "This is not a danger for the Jewish community." He dismisses the concerns of Jewish Democrats about mixing religion and values with politics, saying these fears are groundless.

"It is true that Jewish history was marked by religious persecution, but America is a different place," says Diament.

Rosenthal could not agree less with this statement. "It would be foolish if the Jewish community were to forget that its success and its security were achieved largely thanks to the strong separation of church and state. It is never good news for the Jews when a country tries to define itself as a Christian state instead of putting the emphasis on religious freedom and freedom from religion," she says.

Without Christmas trees and Hanukkah candles

The American Jewish community was traditionally the leading force in the battle for separation of church and state - a fight that included opposition to government vouchers for religious schools and a fight against placing Christmas trees (and Hanukkah menorahs) in public buildings. The basic assumption was that the closer religion gets to politics, the stronger the dominant Christian religion grows and the more difficult it becomes for those of minority religions, like the Jews.

But some Democratics are also speaking differently about religion and politics after the recent elections. While James Carville emphasized this week that "We will never be as anti-choice and anti-gay as the Republicans," many Democrats are talking about the need for a more open attitude toward religion in politics and about an open discussion of faith and "values."

In this context, the name of Senator Joe Lieberman is often mentioned. Lieberman was the Democratic candidate for vice president in 2000 and made a run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004.

William Kristol, the editor of conservative The Weekly Standard, suggested to Bush that he nominate Lieberman as his administration's new secretary of defense. Lieberman is a classic candidate for the post - a Democrat with hawkish positions on security issues, and a religious man who speaks openly about his faith. Bush-supporter Nathan Diament takes this idea one step further. He believes that since the elections were determined, to a large extent, on issues of morality, religion and values, this proves that the Democrats erred in selecting their candidate for president. If they had chosen Joe Lieberman instead of John Kerry, he contends, they would have had a better chance of winning because of Lieberman's ability to speak about religion and to connect with a religious audience.

Bush's second term will constitute a test for the Jewish community. While the community now encompasses a wider range of views, it is no less liberal than it was in the past. A central question the community must face is whether to fight against the penetration of religion into the political arena and work to fortify the wall separating church and state, or try to act within the new reality and make sure that even when religion mixes with politics, the rights of individuals and religious minorities will be preserved.

In a certain sense, the Jewish community must make a choice much like the one the Democratic party faced - whether to be "John Kerry" and forcefully keep religious issues out of the political discourse, or to be "Joe Lieberman" and speak openly about faith, in this case the Jewish faith.

Until these questions are settled, there is still another important matter on the community's agenda, a question hovering in the hallways of the GA convention: "What will happen now, after Arafat?" Steve Rabinowitz, a long-time Democratic strategist and public relations professional, notes that the word "pressure" appeared three times this week in New York Times reports about American demands of Israel. He believes that the second-term Bush administration will apply pressure on Israel for concessions, much more pressure than Kerry would have applied if he had been elected.

Malcolm Hoenlein begs to differ. "I see nothing that can lead to this conclusion," he says.

Hoenlein, executive vice-chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, believes that Bush's first-term policies toward Israel will continue thanks to the appointment of Condoleezza Rice as secretary of state and Steven Hadley as national security adviser. Moreover, he anticipates that "a few Arabists at the State Department" will be less influential in setting policy for the Middle East.