The Jackson-Robertson Test

By Leonard Fein

Published March 31, 2006, issue of May 19, 2006.
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Imagine: 4,500 Jews in convention assembled, listening rapturously to a speech by Vice President Dick Cheney. Shooter Cheney — his man Lewis Libby was “Scooter,” so why not? — spoke for 35 minutes and was interrupted 48 times by the delegates’ applause. That’s once every 43.7 seconds.

And the 4,500 were at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee policy conference at their own expense, not as hired extras for a film project or anything like that. More: Not only were they unapologetic, they were not in the least embarrassed.

It’s really difficult to figure this out. Where do these people come from? What can they be thinking?

For those of us who regard Cheney as the American Attila, whose friends include none who can abide him, the response of the Aipac conference participants to the Cheney speech is both puzzling and instructive. Puzzling because whooping it up for Cheney seems so… well, let’s just say “alien” a thing to do. Yet instructive, too, and that’s what prompts this reflection.

The many reports in the past few years of a rising Jewish presence on the political right are correct. We’ve known, of course, about the neoconservatives for many years now, beginning with Irving Kristol and then Norman Podhoretz, at first lonely figures in American intellectual life but in time paters of a sizable familia.

They and theirs are still very far from the rule, but neither are they any longer the exception. Their children, real and metaphoric, are all over Washington — in government, in the think tanks, in journals of opinion and on the op-ed pages. And now we have confirmation that they are no longer talking only to one another — not even only to the administration but also to real people, the kind who pick up and come to Washington to defend Israel, according to their lights.

Viewed from some distance, it’s understandable. The Jewish right has been predicting its ascendance since 1968, and though the reality has lagged well behind the prediction, it finally has begun to conform. Why?

Israel explains only part of it. After all, there are many ways to express concern for Israel’s safety. There’s Americans for Peace Now and Brit Tzedek v’Shalom and the Israel Policy Forum, all of which reflect a very different understanding of just what being “pro-Israel” means.

But at the same Aipac convention, while listening to videotaped messages from Israel’s principal political leaders, the delegates reserved their most enthusiastic applause not for Ehud Olmert, surely not for Amir Peretz, but for Benjamin Netanyahu, whose party’s relative popularity in Israel is even lower than Cheney’s here in the United States. So these folks have picked a very particular way to stand with Israel, a way that suggests a mindset rather than a straightforward association.

The simplest explanation? They are Republicans. We have known that somewhere between 15% and 25% of all Jewish voters incline in that direction and, lo and behold, here they are. And whatever embarrassment might otherwise inhere in being that oxymoronic thing, a Jewish Republican, is here sanitized by being embedded in and thereby apparently excused by the pro-Israel context.

But hold on: At the very same time that the Jewish right is jogging along, cheering us on in Iraq and egging us on toward Iran, there’s also a new vigor on the other side of the road, on the Jewish left. (The right asks how we can feel at home in a progressive camp that so often is hostile to Israel. We ask how they can be comfortable with advocates of intelligent design, with budget-busting tax cuts for the rich, with a shameless expansion of executive power. A simple test: Who’d you rather hang out with: Jesse Jackson or Pat Robertson?)

Ask any of the grant makers who support Jewish social justice work — the Progressive Jewish Alliance in Los Angeles and San Francisco, the Jewish Organizing Initiative in Boston, Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps in New York and Washington, the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs in Chicago, the Jewish Funds for Justice, headquartered in New York, the New Israel Fund, headquartered in Washington — and you’ll learn that the left, too, is on the rise.

Or, perhaps better yet, ask Amy Sales and Leonard Saxe, authors of the very recently released “Particularism in the University: Realities and Opportunities for Jewish Life on Campus,” a study sponsored by the Avi Chai Foundation. Based on a survey of more than 2,000 Jewish students on 20 campuses, the authors report that two-thirds of Jewish college students regard themselves as politically liberal; roughly 20% are “middle of the road,” and 15% are politically conservative. (It turns out, by the way, that political orientation is not related to feelings about Israel.)

It would be too much to propose that we are therefore engaged in a battle for the soul of the Jewish people or anything quite as grand as that. No, we are simply playing out our values and our interests, and these will inevitably give rise to differing interpretations.

The prideful wonder remains that for all the outward change in Jewish circumstance these past 60 years or so, most Jews continue, even if unaware, to take the words of Isaiah seriously. Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the widow and orphan, dispensing justice in the gates of the city: These are still core Jewish values and, for a significant number of Jews — young as well as old — they offer political and even professional direction.

Not for all, never for all. But a fair reading suggests that if the right is now very visibly mobilizing its thousands, the left, against most predictions and much less ostentatiously, continues to organize its tens of thousands.

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