More fear and loathing on the campaign trail

Illinois’s Ninth Congressional District race between two Jewish candidates should be one of the most closely watched contests this fall.

Nowhere are Republican efforts to transform support for Israel from a long-standing bipartisan national consensus into a divisive partisan wedge issue more on display than in Illinois’s Ninth Congressional District race.
Since both candidates are Jewish and pro-Israel, Republican challenger Joel Pollak can’t call the incumbent, Rep. Jan Schakowsky, a Democrat, an anti-Semite or an enemy of Israel, so he accuses her of cavorting with them.
Specious charges like that plus over-the-top rhetoric earned him rebukes from both Chicago newspapers, which emphatically endorsed Schakowsky for a seventh term.
Schakowsky, 66, represents Chicago’s North Side and northern suburbs, including Skokie and Evanston. She was born, raised and had her bat mitzva in the ninth district, which is about 10 percent Jewish and has a large number of Holocaust survivors. Pollak, 33, who is Orthodox, was born in South Africa, emigrated to the US in 1977 and became a citizen 10 years later.
He has been endorsed by the Tea Party movement and she by J Street, the pro- Israel/pro-peace lobby, and the Joint Action Committee for Political Affairs, a Chicago-based pro- Israel/pro-women’s rights group, and that tells much of what separates them.
Pollak’s penchant for name-calling led the Chicago Tribune to tell him to “dial down the disdain for people who disagree with him.”
And the Chicago Sun- Times chided him for his “right-wing scornful rhetoric” and called him an opportunist .
Undeterred, he has continued to attack his opponent as “the most extreme left-wing member of Congress,” “the #1 biggest spender in the House of Representatives,” the “worst in the House on economic growth and national security,” a “hypocrite” and an “ideologue” who “represents the worst of Washington.”
POLLAK BOASTS of endorsements by Tea Party groups; the notorious Islamophobic blogger Pamela Geller; Alan Dershowitz, his former Harvard professor; and Rep.
Paul Ryan, the GOP’s new economic voice who advocates draconian cuts in federal spending that would shred the social safety net, replace progressive income tax with flat tax, privatize social security, replace Medicare insurance with a voucher system and repeal the health care reform law.
Pollak and Schakowsky also differ on immigration, the minimum wage, climate change, gun control, abortion, the Iraq war and taxing the wealthy.
But instead of honing in on these issues, Pollak has chosen to focus most of his energy on attacking Schakowsky as weak on her support for Israel although the American Israel Public Affairs Committee has praised her “excellent record” and the Chicago Sun-Times said his attempts to portray her “overwhelmingly strong pro- Israel voting record” as anything less are “nonsense.”
His strategy may be understandable in light of a conservative agenda that seems out of step with much of the district that has been sending liberals to Congress since before either candidate was born.
Pollak’s tactics are founded less on facts than on a Republican strategy of turning support for Israel into an emotionally charged partisan wedge issue.
Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren has called this Jew-vs.-Jew strategy harmful to his country’s interest in building broad bipartisan support. A non- Jewish politico following the race said that Pollak risks opening rifts in the Jewish community that “create opportunities for non-Jews to be more anti- Israel.”
One big reason Republicans are trying to “out- Israel” Democrats is because they have so few other issues appealing to Jewish voters and they carry the baggage of the radicals of the religious right and the Tea Party.
Even in this year of recession, frustration and antiincumbent anger, the latest American Jewish Committee poll of Jewish voters shows that despite some decline, they still prefer the Democrats by a margin of three-to-one.
In recent election cycles, GOP outreach groups, particularly by the Republican Jewish Coalition, have spent millions on fear and smear campaigns to paint Democrats as soft on Israel, if not outright dangerous.
Their bitter anti-Obama campaign in 2008 backfired, actually enhancing support for the Democratic presidential nominee in places like Florida.
Pollak accuses Schakowsky of supporting anti-Israel groups, cozying up to Israel’s foes and people like President Barack Obama, who Pollak told me “has not behaved” as a friend of Israel but instead has “made it acceptable to hate Israel.”
Pollak has been scornful of Schakowsky’s support from J Street. When I asked him about his support for the peace process, he questioned Palestinian leaders’ commitment to peace, saying it is “not a priority” for them.
He sounds to the right of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and more like his Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who says he’s in favor of peace, but not for the foreseeable future and not before the Palestinians meet his standards of good behavior.
This should be one of the most closely watched races this fall, a test of whether divisive GOP tactics on the Israel issue can sway Jewish voters – and whether those voters will be turned off by a raging Tea Party movement, as most analysts predict.