When Emotion Trumps Reason

By Bethamie Horowitz

Published October 29, 2004, issue of October 29, 2004.
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Over and over again this year, I’ve heard people say that although they’ve voted solidly Democratic in the past, they now lean Republican because of their concerns about Israel and the Middle East.

I located a few warm bodies willing to explain the feelings that have compelled them to switch. My exploratory interviews found that the shift among Jewish voters has nothing to do with domestic issues; very few Jews believe that President Bush is good for America.

But the switchers are flooded by an overwhelming sense that the world as we know it is under siege by the forces of darkness. So while there’s not much love lost on Bush — one informant said he doubts that Bush has got “the basic level of intelligence needed to be president” — when it comes to foreign policy, the switchers find themselves deeply unnerved by what one person called “Islamo-fascism.”

Their dread-filled view of the world boiled down to the following logic: Israel is facing an intractable enemy, in the form of Yasser Arafat. As became apparent on September 11, 2001, America is confronting a similar danger. Today’s world operates according to a different calculus, and there is no reasoning with terrorists.

The switchers feel that Bush gets this — while spineless, weak-kneed Europe and its friends at the United Nations call for reason but crumble in the face of a real threat. The switchers fear that Europe, the U.N. and the far left would readily compromise about Israel.

In contrast, they believe that Bush gets right from wrong about Israel. While he might not get everything right, he gets the basics right. The logic is that in tough times such as these, we need a leader who will not cave in.

Senator John Kerry, the switchers believe, simply hasn’t shown enough of his cards to be a reliable friend of Israel. He’s less believable because of the bad company he keeps with the far left-wingers among Democrats. Discourse, they say, doesn’t speak to the world — only power does. And who could forget Neville Chamberlain, the symbol of the foolish, naive belief that evil can ever be appeased?

The switchers see Israel as imperiled, and they are deeply insecure about the safety of Israel and about the prospects of a world facing an apocalypse. This is a world view born of the Holocaust and the longer history of Jewish suffering at the hands of ever-rising enemies. These primal memories are inscribed in our hearts, creating an almost hard-wired propensity to burst forth at the first hint of danger: Fight now, or it will happen again.

A number of months ago, at a meeting of liberal American and Israeli Jews, one American shared her anxiety about the very survival of Israel being truly at risk. The Israelis responded that Israel is not mortally imperiled and can fight its battles without requiring a Bush in the White House, that really, Israel does not need American Jews to do anything. American Jews should be thinking about America.

The situation today is that American Jews as a group are caught between confidence and insecurity. Many of us feel completely secure in an America where we play an integral part, casting our votes for a more just, tolerant society in an increasingly international but also more ominous world. We are part of America, so we vote for a broad agenda of concerns that matter to us and reflect our ideas about what America should be: a democratic society that really works for its citizens. We see Israel as a capable, independent nation grappling with its security, a cause that would be better served by an America that is seen as a strong and deliberative leader, with robust and effective alliances in the world.

But others get unnerved and feel particularly insecure in the aftermath of the twin disasters of 2001: the demise of the Oslo peace process and the September 11 terrorist attacks. So a clammy vigilance has descended like a thick cloud, and for this group, the need to protect Israel — and by extension, to fight against the Islamic extremists — is the single issue that trumps all else. To many of us it seems shortsighted, but as my father once advised, you can’t argue with people who have numbers tattooed on their arms.

With emotions driving the way Jews vote, there seems to be little room for a judicious consideration of which candidate, in fact, would best serve the interests of American Jewry and of Israel. So we peer at each other across a divide that seems hard to believe. The divisiveness among Jews is intense and passionate. Our touchstones are completely different, and we each wonder what would compel the other to respond differently.

Our situation reminds me of the story of The Three Little Pigs. We’ve built a house of brick in America, one that is much more stalwart than our former houses of straw or wood. In the storybook, The Big Bad Wolf couldn’t blow down the brick house. And now there’s a wolf — and the question: Just how big and how bad is he? And will he get into the chimney and get us?

Bethamie Horowitz, a social psychologist, is research director for the Mandel Foundation.

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