By Maurice Chammah
When the third Presidential debate concluded a few weeks ago, many people shrugged off the massive focus on Israel, considering the long minutes of talking points to be a last minute pander to evangelical and Jewish voters on an emotionally charged issue. This is old news, we all said, Romney’s last-ditch wedge issue, right?
And yet, over the past few weeks I’ve come to see that underneath this seemingly placid surface is a creeping sense of unease. This is the last time the pro-Israel community, both Christian and Jewish, can sit back and enjoy the constant buzz of politicians speaking the words they are so used to hearing.
I started to notice this while reporting on Christians United for Israel (better known as CUFI), seeing the way they carefully avoided endorsing one candidate officially. At an event called Standing with Israel, in Waxahachie, Texas, members of a local church had set up a voting booth, encouraging the hundred or so church members who attended to register, but refraining from telling them who to vote for. That night, however, they heard frequent comparisons of Obama to Jimmy Carter (and of Carter to Bin Laden and Ahmedinejad). The speaker, a retired U.S. colonel, told us that the murder of the U.S. ambassador to Libya was akin to the Iran hostage crisis, and similarly exposed the weakness of a Democratic president.
Why didn’t they endorse Romney? My theory is that they don’t want to risk the good relationship they have with Jewish groups by coming off as too extreme in doubting Obama. American Jews, after all, still overwhelmingly support the President. “The majority of American Jews are still going to vote Democratic,” Lee Wunsch, President of the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston, told me recently. “Israel is not their first issue when they walk into the voting booth.”
But Wunsch worried about increasing partisanship and what it means for Israel support. “US support for Israel has been bipartisan for decades,” he said. ”I think what’s happening now is our society in general is getting very polarized. Unfortunately the polarization is leaking into the pro-Israel community.”
The question of Zionism and whether or not you support it has for a while now lost its obvious connections to religious affiliation. American Jews are more splintered than ever over whether and how to support Israel.
The Presidential election this year is the first since Peter Beinart’s book The Crisis of Zionism, which built on a critical stance towards the Israeli occupation of the West Bank launched several years ago by the lobbying group J Street, who proclaimed themselves “Pro-Israel and Pro-Peace” (read: critical) Zionists
Both Beinart and J Street have come into increasing conflict with more historically mainstream Jewish pro-Israel groups like the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee. On the Christian side, last month 15 Christian leaders asked Congress to reconsider aid to Israel. CUFI didn’t even need to comment. Several Jewish groups withdrew from a planned national interfaith conference and decried anti-Semitism. A group called Jewish Voice for Peace, on the other hand, openly supported the letter
Both the Romney and Obama campaigns constantly tried to one-up one another on support for Israel, because neither had anything to lose. CUFI has millions of members. A former AIPAC president hosted a dinner that raised over $1 million for Obama.
And most importantly, no Jew or Christian critical of Israel would abandon a vote for Obama if he abandoned the peace process in Israel’s favor. Romney, at the very least, could hope to attract a few Jewish voters in Florida.
But unlike the candidates, the more hard-line pro-Israel community, both Jewish and Christian, has a lot to lose if Israel erupts as a major source of contention, because the more partisan it becomes, the more they have to worry about Obama and Democrats in Congress sticking with them. The evidence of that came most openly with the awkward public disagreement at the Democratic National Convention over whether or not to reinsert the word “Jerusalem” into the party platform.
But it goes deeper. David Brog, the Jewish executive director of Christians United for Israel, recently published a dramatically titled article, “The Failure of the American Jewish Left.”
“For many years, the liberal base of the Democratic Party has been steadily turning against the Jewish state,” he wrote. “The Jerusalem flap at the Democratic convention was not a warning sign. It was the final bell.”
Along with Wunsch’s worries about partisanship, Brog’s paranoia suggests that while for the time being presidential candidates have nothing to lose by trumpeting their support for Israel, it may be the last time members of CUFI and old-school pro-Israel groups can sit around and enjoy the banter.
And more strikingly, self-identified pro-Palestine advocates, once completely outside of the mainstream political conversation, took notice of the Jerusalem issue at the DNC. Maybe next time, they’ll even feel like they can weigh in.
Maurice Chammah is a writer and musician in Austin, Texas who studied journalism in Egypt as a Fulbright student, 2011-2012. More about him at http://www.mauricechammah.com. He writes regularly for The Revealer.