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A Muse for Philip Roth

Most of the speculation about how American Jews will vote in November has been about the Bush-Kerry contest, without much consideration as to the issues that are motivating American Jews one way or another.

With only a month until the elections, the findings from two new studies — the Annual Survey of American Jewish Opinion, conducted in August for the American Jewish Committee, and the Pew co-sponsored National Survey of Religion and Politics, conducted once in four years — offer us a chance to consider what really matters to American Jews. What issues are brewing for them in this election year?

On the domestic front, the latest studies show American Jews continuing their traditional disproportionate support of liberal causes: social and economic justice for the poor and disadvantaged, as well as the separation of church and state. Compared with Americans of other religious affiliations, as seen from the Pew study, Jews were more likely to be committed to government spending for the needy and to oppose large tax cuts. Likewise, Jews were more likely to support the idea that that the government should tax the wealthy and even the middle class in order to pay for needed government services and support.

What American Jews want to see in America is what they’ve wanted traditionally: fairness, tolerance of difference and nothing that smacks of official state religion. This is a continuation of a pattern that has characterized American Jewry for at least 50 years.

While this may be news to some, given the right-leaning public face that our organizational leaders have put forward, the real story here is the perception of increased threat and danger. The AJCommittee study shows this in the steady rise —to 84% in 2004 from 69% in 2000 — in the proportion of American Jews who believe that the “goal of the Arabs is the destruction of Israel, rather than the return of the occupied territories.” Similarly, a growing number of American Jews perceive antisemitism to be on the rise around the world — more than three-fifths (61%) in 2004, up from fewer than half (47%) in 2001.

Perhaps in light of this climate of threat, AJCommittee added to the study for the first time a question about the Holocaust, revealing high consensus about the need to keep the memory of that era alive: The vast majority of American Jews (87%) disagreed with the statement: “It is time to put the memory of the Nazi extermination of the Jews behind us.”

One wonders how much the hold of the Holocaust contributes to our acute perception of threat. At the same time, it seems reasonable to assume that our communal memory is intensified by the current threatening climate.

The heightened sense of foreboding and fear may offer an explanation to a finding from the Pew study in which Jews, more than Americans of other religious backgrounds, named foreign policy concern as the most important problem facing America today (45% of the Jews, compared with 30% of Americans overall). Jews feel related to both the antisemitism they see around the world and the specter of Israel under siege, and they dearly want these problems to be addressed.

Thus there’s an increased interest in finding means to “solve” the Israeli-Palestinian hostilities by relating to Palestinian concerns. American Jewish support for a Palestinian state has grown slightly, to 57% in 2004 from 49% in 2002. Moreover, a growing proportion of American Jews has rallied to the idea that Israel should be willing to dismantle at least some of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank as part of a permanent settlement with the Palestinians (69% in 2004, 61% in 2001).

Yet more than a majority (63%) continues to believe that American Jews should support the elected government of Israel, irrespective of the nature of the policy. So American Jewry is fearful of increasing danger in the world on the one hand, and also more supportive of the need to addressing the lack of peace between Israel and Palestinians.

How does this fear operate? I imagine that it works something like this: We feel an increased sense of threat and foreboding, a kind of post-traumatic stress from the Holocaust, the memory of which remains a cornerstone of American Jewish awareness, lurking in the shadows as “When will it happen again?” Jews managed to tamp this fear further down with each receding year after 1945 as they became more comfortable in America. The fear went into really deep storage during the rosy Oslo period, before everything went awry. But things changed when no matter what Barak offered him, Arafat would not accept.

The killing began — the intifada, 9/11, the suicide bombers, Daniel Pearl. It made Jews nuts to think that war involving Muslim extremists could happen in America.

Out of these crazy fears a gifted writer — perhaps, say, a Philip Roth — could even make a novel.

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

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