By JONATHAN S. TOBIN
Israelis are transfixed this week by the trauma of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's stroke and the resulting change in their country's leadership.
They'd be right in assuming that the questions of who is heading Israel's government and whether the new centrist Kadima party can still prevail without its iconic leader is similarly viewed with obsessive interest by the rest of the world.
Sharon's illness and the round-the-clock watch at the hospital has been front-page news in the United States. And, despite the general decline in Israeli issues among American Jewry in the last generation, it is something that Jews here care about as well.
But Israelis would be wrong if they assumed that the uncertainty over their political future is the top priority for their American cousins. While it is not off their radar screens, domestic politics and social issues and not Israel, are, for the most part, the real priority for many national Jewish organizations.
While Sharon lay ill at Hadassah Hospital, many American Jews were far more interested in an Italian-American from New Jersey rather than anyone in Israel. The nomination of Judge Samuel Alito to the United States Supreme Court has resulted in a mobilization of a wide cross-section of Jewish groups who oppose him and the Bush administration. That they do so speaks volumes about American Jewish politics and priorities.
The 2006 congressional elections are still 11 months away, but the Republican and Democratic war drums are beating loud and clear and Jewish partisans are already calling for blood.
Looming above the Republicans' heads is the specter of a lobbying scandal that centers around former GOP powerbroker Jack Abramoff. Abramoff, who appears to have used money raised (or extorted, depending on your point of view) from Native American casinos and other scams to buy off a host of our nation's public servants could do great damage to the Republicans.
That Abramoff is well-known as a Jewish contributor to various Orthodox causes is not an issue. What is an issue is that only 12 years since it won control of Capitol Hill, the Grand Old Party has shown us that it can be just as corrupt and arrogant as the Democrats they turned out of office in 1994, after they had ruled the roost for almost 60 years.
That has given Jewish liberals hope that their despised Republican foes can be beaten this year. And it is the reason why we are hearing - as we have never ceased hearing since the hyper-partisan 2004 presidential joust - more and more rhetoric in which political differences are framed as choices of absolute good and evil. Even worse, religious imagery is never far from the lips of those seeking to influence the vote.
A great deal of attention was garnered last month when the Republican Jewish Coalition challenged the Union of Reform Judaism over its policy statements opposing the war in Iraq and other Bush-administration policies. The Jewish GOP group claimed the Reform movement was not only wrong on the issue, but wrong to frame the debate as a religious one.
THE RJC can hardly claim neutrality, and you can bet that it won't be placing any full-page ads condemning an endorsement of the war by any synagogue or church group. But the questions they raised are good ones for both sides of the political aisle to ponder.
To be fair, the URJ statement pointed out that it wasn't claiming to speak for "all" Reform Jews, let alone for the community as a whole, though polls probably show they have more political support than their Republican foes.
But the tone of the Reform statement, as similar statements from other liberal religious leaders in the past year, shows a clear attempt to claim more than the moral high ground. Rather, such efforts to brand the war in Iraq as "immoral" bespeak a mindset that views its opponents as inherently illegitimate from a religious point of view.
THE REFORM movement also formally stated its opposition to the Alito nomination, a position that groups such as the National Council of Jewish Women and others have also embraced. The reason for this is his perceived opposition to abortion which has become, especially for Jewish women's groups, a paramount concern.
That point can't be discounted but the use of religious imagery in this debate is particularly interesting. If that seems familiar to observers of the American political scene, it is because that is exactly the offense that Conservative Christians have been accused of by their liberal critics.
In recent months, Jewish leaders - such as the URJ's Rabbi Eric Yoffie and the Anti-Defamation League's Abraham Foxman - tore into the religious Right for what they believe is an attempt to impose a religious agenda on American politics.
To the extent that they claim they are opposing the imposition of purely religious, and even denominational, preferences on our country's laws, they may have a point.
But they squander it by indulging in over-the-top rhetoric, whereby they have seemingly accused Conservative Christians of plotting to take over the country and establish a theocracy (as Foxman has), or compared the religious Right to the Nazis because of their stand on gay marriage (as Yoffie has).
Such comparisons are ludicrous. And they are also ill-timed when you consider that these attacks on the religious Right are being carried out at a time of rising international anti-Semitism and delegitimization of Israel. That such Jew-hatred is endorsed by liberal Protestant churches while opposed by most Conservative Christians is something that doesn't seem to factor into the partisan hysteria on the Left.
But there is a larger point to be made that seems to be as hard for the religious Left to understand as it has been for many on the Right. There are issues on which a moral imperative can be invoked. But claiming our faith mandates a specific stand on foreign policy or at what rate taxes are set isn't exactly kosher.
If the Torah can be invoked, as it has been by some liberals, to demand that there be no decreases in public entitlements (or to be more precise, whether the rate of increase in those entitlements can be curtailed), then what really sets them apart from their counterparts on the religious Right who speak in the same foolish fashion?
Only their own belief in their own good intentions. Otherwise, it is the same game of imposing religion on politics. What they deem wrong when it's done by their foes is just as wrong when they do it themselves.
So as compelling as the story from Israel might be this week, Jewish fears about the Christian Right and the liberal counter-attack against conservatives remains the key issue for American Jews. And in a week when the Alito confirmation hearings start, even the Sharon illness and the ascent of Ehud Olmert cannot eclipse this struggle.
The writer is executive editor
of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia.
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