I graduated Yale Law School in 1976 the same standard issue liberal as most of my classmates. I even spent one summer working for the ACLU while almost all my classmates were being wined and dined by major law firms.
A more dramatic departure from the norm, however, was the year spent in Israel after law school. That was not only the beginning of a religious reorientation but a political one as well.
When I returned to America from that year in Israel, I was struck by how much nonsense was written about Israel by those who had long been my intellectual heroes. As I realized that former idols had feet of clay, at least with respect to Israel, I wondered whether they could still be reliable guides on other subjects about which I had less first hand knowledge.
I did not register as a Republican, G-d forbid. And to this day I cannot imagine myself comfortable in the company of oil company executives or rallying to the flat tax banner. I make sure to balance my reading of the neocon Commentary with the neoliberal New Republic. Still, my own liberal orthodoxy was a thing of the past.
Just as Israel sparked a reexamination of received verities for me, Israel’s situation today, beleaguered on all sides, might spark a similar reorientation of traditional thought patterns for American Jews.
American Jews are the most dependable Democratic constituency, regularly giving Democratic presidential candidates around 80% of their votes. Yet every Gallup poll over the last 15 years has shown Republicans and conservatives to be far more supportive of Israel than Democrats and liberals.
Two-thirds of Republicans describe themselves as more sympathetic to Israel than to the Palestinians, with only 8% more sympathetic to Palestinians. By contrast, among Democrats 54% are more or equally sympathetic to Palestinians, and only 45% (still the largest single group) are more sympathetic to Israel. Among self-described conservatives 59% are more sympathetic to Israel, while among liberals the same 59% are more or equally sympathetic to the Palestinians.
The most articulate defenders of Israel in America are almost exclusively towards the conservative side of the political spectrum: the Wall Street Journal editorial page, George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Norman Podhoretz, Cal Thomas, Michael Kelly, William Safire, William Kristol, and Jeff Jacoby. Martin Peretz of the New Republic is the liberal exception that proves the rule.
Does this mean that American Jews should automatically vote Republican or adopt the entire political philosophy of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page? Hardly.
On the other hand, they need not hold their noses when writing out campaign checks to conservative Republican senators and congressmen. Instead of beating their breasts over the Faustian bargain into which they imagine themselves to have entered, they should ask themselves why the conservatives tend to be so much more supportive. They might come to the conclusion that certain congeries of opinion are not accidental.
If, for instance, those who believed that Bill Clinton was a doing a good job are found to be dramatically less sympathetic to Israel than those who believe the opposite, should it not raise suspicions about the oft-made claim that Clinton was "Israel’s best friend ever?"
And if those who have the strongest emotional attachment to Israel consistently turn out to be highly skeptical of multilateralism and international organizations like the U.N. or to be proponents of a strong American defense, perhaps it is time for American Jews to ask whether that is only coincidental or the product of a coherent geopolitical philosophy. And if it is the latter, maybe the time has come for American Jews to reexamine their own views on these issues.
No need to be afraid of such heresies. Nothing is so exhilarating as a new idea.