Nov. 5, 2004
7 Days: Kiss my tush

By URIEL HEILMAN
COLUMBUS, Ohio

It's hard to remember the last time a presidential election so divided and stirred the passions of American Jewry. From Brooklyn to Berkeley, from Florida's Palm Beach County to the suburbs of Detroit, Jews found themselves in pitched battle during this year's campaign over the hot-button issues at the center of this election.

And for Jews, as for many Americans, things got personal-particularly when it came to how Israel-related issues influenced Jewish votes.

Friendships turned on a person's vote, synagogues became forums for political debate, social circles coalesced and dissolved around political sentiment.

At the gala dinner of one American Jewish organization this past spring, a lawyer working for the Kerry campaign who was seated at my table turned to me and hissed, "Can you believe they put us at the same table as him," nodding toward a representative of the Republican Jewish Coalition who was pulling out his chair across the way.

At a Shabbat luncheon last month at an Orthodox synagogue in New York, pleasantries disappeared when a table full of congregants learned there was a Kerry supporter among them. "How can you vote for Kerry?" the rabbi demanded of the Democrat, who appeared to be the only Kerry supporter at the table. If there were more, none dared speak up.

What happened to American Jews this election season? The same vitriol and vehemence that marked the electorate in general spread to the Jews, particularly because the president's positions on Israel presented a challenge for many tried-and-true Democrats.

Bush voters wanted to know how anyone could vote against a president who had done all that Bush had for Israel-supporting Israeli crackdowns against Palestinian terrorists, ostracizing Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, rejecting Palestinian refugees' right of return to Israel proper, affirming the permanence of some West Bank settlements.

Kerry voters wanted to know how anybody could vote for a president whose political positions and religious beliefs seemed to stand in contrast to everything American Jews traditionally believed in-separation of church and state, a progressive tax system, civil liberties.

Both sides appeared to be rife with astonishment about how any Jew could vote for the other guy.

Hillel Zaremba, a Conservative Jew from suburban Philadelphia, said he was caught in this predicament when he became vocal about his support for Bush this election. A lifelong Democrat, Zaremba decided to vote for Bush both because of the president's support for Israel and because of what he called the Democratic Party's pandering, vitriol and swing to the liberal fringe.

His decision, he said, cost him many friendships, particularly with fellow members of his Conservative synagogue.

"Do you have any idea of how it feels to be in a community where your viewpoint is constantly disparaged?" he said. "There are certain relationships that I had with people that I believe have dissipated or been strained by my support for Bush. I find that incredibly saddening." At a recent event of the Republican Jewish Coalition, he said, "speaker after speaker talked about the same thing-going to dinner parties and people showing them the door."

One Democratic website, Jewsforkerry.com, did swift business selling underwear with the slogan, "Bush, Kiss my Tush."

Likewise, in conservative-minded Jewish strongholds, such as in Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods, there was little sympathy or patience for those voting Democratic.

Now that the election finally is over, the rifts the long campaign exposed may not be so quick to heal. Already, pundits like The New Republic's Peter Beinart have theorized that there is a new divide in American electoral politics that has destroyed the notion of the Jewish vote. Now, the theory goes, the rift is between religious traditionalists on one side and modernists on the other, rather than between Jews and the rest of Christian America. In this new paradigm, Orthodox Jews are aligned with fundamentalist Christians, and modernist Jews are aligned with modernist (or moderate) Christians.

While it remains to be seen whether the Jewish vote will be a factor in future elections, one thing is certain: Israel supporters need not worry. With evangelical Christians supporting Israel in the Republican base, and Jewish groups supporting Israel in the Democratic base, the Jewish state will remain "in play" in American politics for the foreseeable future.