Jews bend over backward to stay neutral in U.S. vote
Jews know they must work both sides of Congress and enjoy good relations with whomever is in White House.
"During Bibi's last visit to the United States, Jewish leaders were continuously coming up to him and telling him how worried they are about Obama getting elected," said an aide to opposition leader, Benjamin Netanyahu. He refused though to go on record or name any of the concerned grandees.
Everyone knows the rules. The American Jewish leadership cannot allow itself to be seen taking any particular side in a political contest. They have to be capable of working both sides of Congress and enjoy good relations with whatever administration is sitting in the White House.
When the head of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Malcolm Hoenlein, slipped up in a Jerusalem press conference, and expressed concern about the atmosphere around Obama's campaign, he was roundly criticized by other Jewish American leaders and tried to deny he had ever said such a thing.
Sigh of relief
A similar logic applies to Jewish leaders in other western democracies. London emerged this week from a mayoral elections in which the local Jewish community studiously tried to stay above the fray. Their true loyalties have not been hard to divine. As Shabbat came in last Friday in London, and the win of the Conservative Party candidate, Boris Johnson, was officially announced, it's easy to imagine the collective sigh of relief being heaved in Hendon and Golders Green. After eight years of almost open warfare with the Jewish establishment, Ken Livingstone was leaving office.
Nevertheless, despite repeated condemnations by major Jewish organizations of Livingstone's statements and positions, his counter-accusations that the Board of Deputies were running a "McCarthyite" witch hunt against him and the fact that his challenger, Johnson, certainly went out his way to court Jewish voters and present a pro-Israel agenda, in the elections, no significant Jewish figure of authority suggested openly that the community as a whole had a duty to punish Livingstone. It can, of course, be argued that there is no analogy between the American presidential campaign and the mayoral contest in London; while Obama has been assiduously courting the Jewish community, repeating his constant, if nuanced, support for Israel and distancing himself from supporters with anti-Semitic leanings, Livingstone was quite the opposite, welcoming an Islamic cleric who called for suicide bombings and failing to apologize for his own utterances that could easily be construed as being anti-Jewish.
But then, of course, American politics and local electioneering in Britain are different, words that could easily condemn a campaign in the U.S. go down quite well in some of the boroughs of East London. The Jewish policy though stays the same, also in other countries. While Angela Merkel, Silvio Berlusconi and Nicolas Sarkozy were inarguably more open to the Jewish community and pro-Israel then there opponents, the official policy of not taking sides remained.
There are of course multiple reasons for this artificial neutrality. The Jews are never cut from one political cloth; many of Obama's closest advisors and backers are Jewish, and even Livingstone had a Jewish deputy in the London Assembly. The potential damage of the endorsement of one particular candidate by a Jewish community, in internal unity, in relations with other communities and in the ability to work with the government if the opposite candidate is elected is huge. But to escape all suspicion of political partisanship, Jewish leaders, normally loquacious on the main of issues of state, head for the opposite extreme when an election is on, gritting their teeth and sitting on their hands until the votes are counted.
But what is presented as wise statesmanship and clever political maneuvering is basically the modern version of the Jewish fear of anti-Semitism, a minority's feeling of insecurity. The Jewish communities of North America and Western Europe like to present themselves as well-integrated, successful parts of the general society, proud defenders of Israel with no dual-loyalty complex. But they still draw the line at taking open political stances. Instead they continue to prefer the use of time-hallowed practices such as back channels, discreet lobbying and the connections of wealthy Jewish donors. Perhaps, decades ago, these quiet machinations could go on undetected, but in today's media environment, it all emerges sooner or later. Recent scandals on both sides of the Atlantic involving Jewish lobbyists, fund-raisers and power brokers at the highest levels of government should show the limitations of the traditional methods.
It's very fashionable to talk nowadays of "soft power," of how the Jewish people can use its collective political, financial, cultural and moral clout in the interests of the tribe. But such a scenario of the Elders of Zion, so beloved of the anti-Semites, is impossible. Just take for an example two of the world's richest Jews, Sheldon Adelson and George Soros, both using their money to finance radically different causes. Jews are a much too diverse, and disparate people to vote uniformly for the same candidates or parties and major national Jewish organizations can't endorse one side. But the other alternative of keeping mum during elections, and not voicing what should be legitimate concerns over a candidate's personality and policy, is simply evading responsibility.