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Waiting for the Democrats

Many of the movers and shakers who make it their business to speak truth to power in the name of the Jewish community are jittery these days. They’ve been watching the Democrats in Washington get ready to take over the reins of Congress, and trying to figure out what it will mean for the interests and values that they and their community hold dear. They sense that there’s a lot at stake in the months ahead, and they’re not sure what the new Democratic majority has in mind.

That alone should tell you quite a bit about the way things are today. When Jews are afraid of Democrats, something has changed.

Of course, many things have changed. The Democrats, out of power and leaderless for years, return to power chastened and convinced they need to do things differently. Just how differently, no one knows, but the buzzword on everyone’s lips is economic populism. Since the 1970s, they have allowed themselves to be defined as the party of the outsider, the downtrodden, the oppressed and vulnerable minorities. That has allowed the Republicans to present themselves as the voice of the majority, which is a good way to win elections.

The Democrats seem to be aiming now to push their minority-rights agenda toward the background and emphasize their old New Deal-labor platform of economic egalitarianism, promising a better deal for society’s have-nots.

This is a double-whammy for the Jewish community’s traditional leadership. For one thing, they’ve carved out a political space for themselves in the past generation on a platform of defending Jews as a minority. For another, they’ve built a well-oiled machine that’s mostly dependent — though they don’t like to discuss it — on the donations of society’s haves. Naturally they’re nervous.

Then there’s the matter of Israel. There’s no real difference between Democratic and Republican elected officials on questions of Israeli security, but their grass-roots constituencies are a different story. Public opinion surveys show that self-identified Democrats are markedly less sympathetic to Israel than self-identified Republicans. The Democrats have some noisy constituencies on the left that identify openly with the Palestinians. Most party leaders don’t pay much attention to those groups, but some do. Jewish activists have noticed this.

Many Jewish activists, for their part, have responded by rallying behind President Bush. They call him the greatest friend Israel has ever had, a title that’s passed to nearly every president on entering the White House. What they really mean, though, is that he’s the strongest proponent in memory of a strong-arm approach to extremism in the Muslim world. That’s won him strong, vocal support from some very visible elements in the Jewish community, while most of the rest of the country tears its hair out. Democratic leaders don’t like to talk about this, but they have noticed.

The Democrats won’t abandon Israel. That’s inconceivable in a party led by the likes of Chuck Schumer and Rahm Emanuel. But they might be just a little bit less receptive to Israel’s main advocates here. Of course those advocates are worried.

There’s a gentler, almost banal factor that’s been at play, leading the Democrats and the Jewish communal advocates apart. The job of the advocates has been to get into the halls of power and make their case. Those halls of power have been occupied by Republicans — indeed, a special breed of Republicans who have made life difficult for pleaders who tried to remain friends with Democrats. So there hasn’t been much communication in a while. The best-known Jewish agencies have narrowed their action agendas in the past few years to items they could hope to achieve — lots of Middle East and counter-terrorism stuff, not so much social gospel.

One could read that as a hijacking of the Jewish communal agenda by the rich and conservative. And indeed, there’s something odd in Jewish advocacy agencies and representative bodies acting nervous at the triumph of a party that won the votes of nearly seven out of every eight Jews.

But one could also remember that the big agencies have, for the most part, just been doing their jobs as they understood them, in a time of great fear and uncertainty. Now things are changing, and we all have an opportunity to rethink our roles. We can remember that Jews live in the world — indeed, we’re commanded to protect it — and that there’s an opportunity now to get serious about saving the planet from the environmental catastrophe threatening it. We can look at the Democrats’ economic agenda as an opportunity to make society right and to give back, as the saying goes. That could go a long way toward repairing the social fabric and reducing the hate we so fear. In short, we can start thinking about our values as well as our interests.

As for our representative bodies, they might start by taking time off to do some deep thinking about what it means to represent.

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