Maybe it’s the weakness of the candidate field. Maybe it’s old habits dying hard, or unfamiliar threats flaring up. Whatever the cause, there seems to be a sharp increase in talk among Jews, some in the most unaccustomed circles, who plan to cast their votes this year on the basis of Israel’s security needs.
The evidence is anecdotal and impressionistic, but the echoes are insistent. It can be heard in organizational boardrooms and shul lobbies, over dinner tables and on the editorial pages of even the most liberal of local Jewish weeklies. Repeatedly we hear that American Jews want a president who gets the Iranian threat, who’s not afraid of war. Israel, they say, has no margin of error.
The shift in tone, if genuine, is sudden. The American Jewish Committee found last November, in its latest survey of American Jewish opinion, that barely 6% planned to vote according to Israeli security issues. Most were voting on health and the economy. The only real question was which Democrat to support.
But that was November. A few things have changed since then. One is the National Intelligence Estimate, released December 3, which suggested Iran’s nuclear threat is not as pressing as we’ve been told. Jerusalem strongly disagrees. Israel now worries that the report will tempt America and the world to back away and leave it to face the threat alone. We are confused, torn.
Then came the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan, throwing the giant nuclear-armed Muslim nation into turmoil. Now the threat of an Islamic bomb in radical hands is not theoretical but real. Everyone’s nervous, Jews very much so. We want decisive answers.
Unfortunately, we’ve been in this movie before. Five short years ago, some prominent Jewish personalities supported President Bush’s Iraq War plans because they wanted to help Israel. Instead, the war proved a calamity. America and Israel ended up in as deep a hole as ever. To top it off, the belief has spread like wildfire that Israel and its American Jewish allies bamboozled America into the quagmire.
In fact, that war had little to do with Jewish opinion. The president and his administration were hell-bent on war. The American public backed the president. Most Jews opposed him. Jewish voices for war were a relative handful of conservatives and hawks.
This time, if our radar is accurate, Jewish sentiment is far more hawkish. We’re scared — liberals and conservatives alike, doves as well as hawks, Orthodox and Reform. We’re afraid of Iran. We’re afraid of Pakistan. We’re scared of European passivity. We want to know that the next administration will do what’s needed to keep Israel safe.
Around us, most of our fellow Americans yearn for change, after eight years of George Bush’s misadventures. That probably means a Democrat in the White House next fall, though nothing is certain. The Republicans are mostly promising more of the same. Few Americans, and fewer Jewish Americans, welcome that.
Awkwardly for Israel’s friends, all the Democratic candidates, partially excepting Hillary Clinton, argue strongly for multilateral diplomacy to contain Iran. They favor war, if at all, as a very last resort. In our current state of anxiety, that might sound just a bit like indecision or worse. Talk to Iran? What comes next — talking to Hamas?
The Republicans sound tougher. With the sole exception of Ron Paul, they all insist that Iran must be stopped from going nuclear, regardless of cost. And so, suddenly, Jews who gushed last fall about Hillary and Obama are sheepishly talking up John McCain and even the Bible-thumping Mike Huckabee.
Not that Jewish voters will decide the election. Conventional wisdom says there aren’t enough. On the other hand, about 4 million Jews vote. If just 15% switch loyalties, that’s 600,000 votes — enough to tip Florida, Arizona, Missouri and a few other states. It’s happened before.
So that is the way the choice looks at this moment — a plunge into the gentle unknown, or more tough talk and tax cutting.
On the other hand, some might choose Plan C: Wait for a Democrat to take office, and then push hard for military action. It might work, despite what the public seems to want. And if it turns into another mess, nobody will notice, will they?