The American Jewish Dilemma

No sooner did turbulence subside within the American Jewish community over Israeli videos and billboard ads that seemed to denigrate the quality of Jewish life in the United States than a new problem erupted.

This time, however, Israel could not be blamed.  The new fracas was entirely the fault of Republican presidential candidates speaking at the Republican Jewish Coalition Forum in Washington.  One after another, they affirmed their strong support for Israel and chastised the Obama administration for its incessant criticism of the Jewish state.

Newt Gingrich was the prime culprit.  He sharply criticized Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's "outrageous" recent demand that Israel "get to the damn table" and make peace with the Palestinian Authority -- as if President Mahmoud Abbas, like his predecessors, had not persistently fled from negotiations, even with the assurance of Israeli concessions.

Gingrich indicated that if elected president, he would immediately relocate the American Embassy from Tel Aviv, where it has been ever since Israel achieved independence, to Jerusalem, which the United States still does not recognize as the capital of the Jewish state.  In a follow-up interview on the Jewish Channel, he noted (correctly), to widespread outrage, that the Palestinians are an "invented" Arab people with no history of statehood in "Palestine."

Nor was Gingrich alone in strongly defending Israel and lambasting the Obama administration.  Mitt Romney affirmed Israel's existence as a Jewish state and the "unshakable" American bonds with it.  He sharply criticized the president for repeatedly chastising Israel, demanding indefensible borders, insulting Prime Minister Netanyahu, and ignoring incessant threats from Iran and Hamas.

All this might be considered mere campaign boilerplate from aspiring nominees currying favor with a tiny but strategically located voting bloc.  Yet American Jewish voters confront a potential dilemma of major proportions: do they vote next November for a conservative Republican nominee who promises strong support and protection for Israel?  Or do they vote for the Democratic incumbent whose criticism of Israel and genuflection to Muslim sensibilities they ignore because they favor his domestic agenda?  Do they, that is, vote as Jews or as liberals?

If history is any guide, the answer is obvious.  The last time Jews gave even a plurality of their votes to a Republican presidential candidate was in 1920, when Warren Harding narrowly edged out Socialist Eugene V. Debs as the preferred candidate in a three-party race.  The closest Jews have come since to supporting a Republican was in 1980, when Ronald Reagan came within six percentage points of Jimmy Carter.

For American Jews, liberalism, Judaism, and the Democratic Party have long been intertwined.  Waves of Jewish immigrants after the turn of the last century translated ancient Israelite prophecy into labor-union activism and socialism.  For their children, who came of voting age during the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt was the new prophet, and the Democratic Party became the repository for Jewish liberal yearnings.  Eager to assimilate, Jews wanted desperately to be recognized as Americans -- not as Jews.

The implicit reward was evident: once American Jews identified politically with the majority party, and for as long as they refrained from pressing a Jewish agenda, their loyalty to the United States could not be questioned.  But with the rise of Nazi Germany, their fateful bargain had disastrous consequences.  President Roosevelt would not alienate Congress, or incur isolationist (often anti-Semitic) criticism, by evading restrictive immigration quotas to rescue European Jews from annihilation.  State Department officials persistently and efficiently turned desperate Jews away.

Jewish community leaders turned the other cheek.  The conspicuous exception was the predominantly Orthodox "Rabbis March" in Washington (1943), organized by Hillel Kook of the right-wing Bergson Group.  President Roosevelt heeded the advice from mainstream Jewish leaders not to meet with them.

Even awareness of the Holocaust made no discernible impact on American policy.  The Roosevelt administration mobilized military power to defeat Germany but would not bomb the railroad tracks leading to Auschwitz.  With 90 percent of Jews supporting FDR in 1940 and 1944, the president was virtually immune to criticism from within the Jewish community.

There was a singular moment of liberal and Jewish convergence during the presidency of Harry S. Truman.  Committed to preserving Roosevelt's New Deal agenda, Truman called for a relaxation of immigration quotas to enable more Jewish refugees to enter the United States.  Over State Department opposition, he favored the partition of Palestine to assure a Jewish state.  Although he bridled at Zionist pressure, when Israel was born, he resisted administration naysayers and immediately recognized it.

With President Obama widely -- and accurately -- perceived as hostile to Israel, American Jewish voters are likely to confront a painful dilemma in 2012.  At a time when the very legitimacy of the Jewish State is challenged throughout the world, and its security is endangered by Hamas and Hezb'allah terrorists on its borders who are amply supplied with weapons from a nuclear Iran, will Jews vote for the (Republican) candidate who is the stronger supporter of Israel?

Or will they remain committed to their bedrock liberal principle of tikkun olam ("repairing the world"), thereby elevating their domestic social agenda over the safety of the Jewish State they profess to embrace?

Jerold S. Auerbach, professor emeritus of history at Wellesley College, blogs at

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