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The loudest debate going on in the American Jewish world the past couple of months seems to revolve, believe it or not, around a series of ads in Jewish weekly newspapers.
The ad fracas has to do with the renewed attempt of the Republican Party to make inroads among Jewish voters on the basis of its support for Israel, and what it contends is the less than exemplary record of its Democratic foes. To that end, the Republican Jewish Coalition - a Jewish GOP support group - has been placing full-page ads in Jewish publications around the country skewering the Democrats and painting its own party as the good guys on Israel.
The reaction from large segments of a Jewish community in which the overwhelming majority of members are reliable supporters of the Democrats has been emotional and angry. They are appalled at the idea that Republicans would have the hutzpa to ask for their votes. The point isn't so much that they reject the content of the ads, but that they consider the entire exercise to be illegitimate.
Many seem to be echoing the line from the classic Broadway musical Fiorello, in which the victory of a Republican congressional candidate in a Democratic district is greeted with dismay. Like that victory of future New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, many Jews think the GOP ads "just ain't democratic." Of course, perspective on the merit of the ads is obviously dependent on political affiliation.
The Republicans have a fair point when they note that anti-Israel leftists, such as those affiliated with the MoveOn.org group, have real pull within the Democratic Party these days.
By comparison, anti-Israel figures on the Right, like the odious Pat Buchanan, are bereft of influence in the current GOP. Moreover, the decline of the hawkish "Scoop Jackson" wing of the Democratic Party was finalized this past summer with the rejection of Sen. Joseph Lieberman by Connecticut Democrats.
NEVERTHELESS, the Democrats are also right to point out that attempts to tar their party as anti-Israel are not true. Support for Israel is a bipartisan affair, and Democratic Party leaders, as well as the overwhelming majority of their caucus in both the House and the Senate, are genuine backers.
What Jewish Democrats do need to do is confront the strain of anti-Zionism growing on the Left and in the anti-war movement and ensure that it is kept out of the mainstream of their party. That task will be even more important if, as seems likely, the Democrats prevail in next month's congressional elections.
But Democrats are seeking to delegitimize the entire Republican campaign with their claim that GOP attempts to use Israel as a wedge issue will undermine the bipartisan consensus on the issue. Some go even further and assert that by identifying support for Israel with the Bush administration the ads may have the effect of making it less attractive for Democrats and liberals to sympathize with an Israel that is linked with a president and a party they hate.
What Democrats seem to want is for the entire issue to be taken off the table. That would give them a tactical advantage, but behind it lies the dubious notion that holding either party accountable for its performance on Middle East issues is itself somehow not kosher.
Flash back to 1992, when Democrats made hay over the contemptible policies and behavior of the administration of the first president Bush and his secretary of state James Baker. Then, there was no question that Israel was an issue - and one that would cost the Republicans votes.
TAKING ISRAEL off the table today is no more legitimate a stance than a call for keeping church-state separation off the agenda would be on the part of Republicans. And if anyone thinks that having a conservative president support Israel will turn off liberals, maybe the problem is more with the liberals than the president.
No matter which party American Jews support, what we should strive for is accountability from it. And the only way to hold political parties accountable is to make them pay for mistakes, or reward them for good behavior at the ballot box. By contrast, if a key issue is taken out of the discussion, the parties will inevitably stop prioritizing it.
If there is a bipartisan consensus in support of Israel in America it is because the two major parties have spent the past 30 years or so actually competing for Jewish votes on this basis. The moment we tell them to stop will be the time when those who would break the consensus will have a leg-up.
As was the case in Britain, where both Labor and the Conservatives have abandoned Israel, there are other constituencies all too eager to step in and give politicians a reason to switch sides.
So let the parties debate which is the most ardent supporter of Israel. It may be messy, but it beats the alternative.
The writer is executive editor of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia.
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