1988: A Difficult Year for America's Jews

Remarks to the American Jewish Committee Luncheon Forum, Minneapolis 12/1/88

In September, 1988, I wrote in the Minneapolis Star and Tribune concerning questions which have arisen regarding the relationship between American Jews and the State of Israel:

This year American Jews confront public issues at home and abroad which threaten to permanently change at least two of this community's long-standing general presumptions.

For the past generation American Jews have consistently supported the State of Israel abroad and the Democratic party at home. Both of these assumptions are now crumbling.

Israel for forty years has served as a central symbol in the religious thought of the Jews of this country. Ever since the victory by Israel over its enemies in the Six Day War in 1967, which many religious leaders considered a unique event in Jewish history, or an outright miracle, American Jews have been openly and unashamedly Israel-lovers. They have poured money into the coffers of the United Jewish Appeal through local Jewish charitable Federations. They have stood up publicly against those who preached any political alternative to full backing for Israeli government policies.

The pattern has been consistently one-sided. Jewish leadership has tried to counter every pro-Palestinian editorial in the newspaper with two or three pro-Israel opinion essays. In synagogues and community centers American Jews rarely fostered or even tolerated serious debate about the propriety of this or that Israeli policy or objective. Israeli politicians and spokesmen, who frequently visited these shores encouraged American Jews to maintain a starry-eyed, romantic vision of the Jewish State in the Middle East.

That image was blurred over the past year by the Arab uprising on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. In this country, we were confronted daily with media scenes of young Arabs throwing stones at gun and tear-gas wielding Israeli soldiers. Israel itself appeared to be torn internally between ultra-nationalists and liberal leftists, unable to resolve a deteriorating situation.

Disillusioned with Israel as an idealized symbol, American Jews began to take a more mature view of their relationship with the modern State. The cold reality of world politics ultimately has impinged on a people's vision.

I also observed that doubts had arisen about the continued support of American Jews for liberal causes and candidates:

By and large over the past fifty years Jews have traditionally identified with the platforms and policies of the Democratic party. Three million poor Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe came to this country between 1881 and 1921. They and their children believed that the Democrats upheld the values of the working class, of a liberal society that would afford them opportunity. They voted solidly and consistently for Democratic candidates.

Today's Jewish leadership has little patience for the past. The grand and great-grandchildren of immigrants are largely alienated from their roots. Organized Jewish life today is not dominated by labor and union organizers, as in past generations, but instead by upwardly mobile middle class business people and professionals.

On the East coast, in the nation's the largest Jewish communities, Democratic party leaders such as Jesse Jackson represent all that makes our country's Jews insecure and uncomfortable. Jackson and his supporters stand for the rights of the poor, the immigrants, the working class, at a time when American Jews have become alienated to these values. Jackson-Democrats seek to represent the rights of oppressed peoples throughout the world, at a time when American Jews have begun to realize that the Israel-Palestinian conflict is much more complex than they had ever imagined.

I posed these questions about two of the most stable norms of the community:

!First, to what degree will American Jews continue to support Israel as a romanticized national symbol now that the full complexities of the Middle East equation have been unfurled before us?

!Second, how many Jewish voters will follow in the traditions of their immigrant labor roots and support the Democratic party now that they have to consider preserving and fostering the progress of their current social and economic status?

We have the answer to the second question. George Bush received no more than thirty percent of the Jewish vote despite his strong showing among the general voters.

Bush supporters argued that he was a better friend of Israel, that the Republican party had a stronger pro-Israel plank in its platform and that Jackson's prominence within the Democratic party posed a threat to Jews. "Vote Republican: Your future depends on it," was a Bush-slogan aimed at Jewish voters right before the election.

The strategy did not work. Director of research for the American Jewish Committee, Dr. David Singer remarked that Jews have " a deep commitment to political liberalism, for better or for worse." Jews are loyal to liberalism, not necessarily to the Democratic party, Singer argued.

The national affairs director of the American Jewish Congress, Martin Hochbaum said Jews are still strongly attached to the Democratic party. He said, "Jews believe the Democratic party cares about Jews more than the Republican party.

The AJCongress polled 3,881 Jews in 12 major cities as they left the voting booths. 55 percent said they thought Democrats care more about the Jews than Republicans. 5 percent thought the Republicans cared more and 40 said both cared equally, according to a report in the Jewish Week, November 18, 1988.

Bush did attract ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic Jewish voters garnering between 70 and 85 percent of their approval in areas like Williamsburg, and Borough Park in Brooklyn. In liberal Long Island communities like Great Neck, Dukakis amassed over 70 percent of the Jewish vote.

NBC polled Jewish voters to see what affect the "Jackson Factor" had on their choices. The network found that for 62 percent of the voters it had no bearing. An AJCongress poll showed that for 41 percent of Jews who voted for Dukakis, Jackson was a concern. 56 percent said that the relationship between the Republican party and the Christian right was a bigger issue for them. 70 percent of the Jews who voted for Bush said Jackson was a concern in their decision.

While the Jewish allegiance to the values of the Democratic party remains strong, American Jews continue to question their relation to Israel on account of the dual challenges to the status quo from both outsiders and insiders. The facts that have changed the equation are stunning:

!The Palestinian cause has never had so much international credibility and sympathy as it does now. American Jews have much less certainty about the validity of Israeli claims over those of the Palestinians.

!Naked attempts by the Orthodox in Israel to seize power in the current coalition talks have made many American Jews uneasy.

!The realization that at long last Jews may be split officially along "denominational" lines into three camps by action of the Israeli Kenesset has further disturbed the status quo of world Jewry and unleashed an all-out effort by some American Jewish leaders to realign the power structures in Jewish philanthropic and communal affairs in the country.

The second issue then remains open and will not be easily settled. We can be certain that American Jews will continue to support Israel. The urgent question remains, what shape and what intensity will that backing be.


Tzvee Zahavy in 1988 was a professor of Classical and Near Eastern Studies and director of the Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.

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