It should not be difficult to ascertain why. Handouts degrade the recipient and create a dependency – today called an entitlement – that is not easy to terminate. We know as well that the greatest form of charity under Jewish law is finding a job for someone unemployed, or lending him money so he can start his own business. For the recipient, that is both dignified and effective in the long-term, but for some reason Jews feel better giving someone a fish than teaching him how to fish; perhaps the latter would cut into the market share of the Jewish-owned fish companies, if there were Jewish-owned fish companies. But current policies are demeaning and debilitating to the recipient, even if they satisfy the compassionate emotions of their advocates.
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Second, Jews have been enamored with the Democratic Party since the days of FDR, who nurtured the identity politics that Barack Obama has perfected – appealing to a variety of different groups rather than to Americans as a whole. FDR won a landslide second-term victory in 1936 even though the economy had worsened on his watch (higher unemployment, steep drop in earnings) because he blamed Herbert Hoover for everything (sound familiar?) and patched together a coalition of interest groups – farmers, labor unions, Jews and women – that would be sufficient for victory.
But it is not just that FDR created the modern welfare state; he also cultivated Jewish support. For the first time in U.S. history, an American president surrounded himself with Jews. An unprecedented 15 percent of Roosevelt’s executive appointments were Jews. That shattered the brick wall that the WASP establishment had erected around the levers of power, and forever endeared him to Jews.
Of course, none of that symbolism mattered when the Holocaust came, and FDR did little to help the Jews of Europe and much to thwart immigration, rescue and relief efforts. Indeed, FDR remained a hero to most Jews notwithstanding his pathetic record on Jewish issues – even famously refusing to meet a delegation of rabbis who came in 1943 to plead for assistance to the beleaguered European Jews being systematically exterminated by the Nazis.
That disconnect – between rhetoric and reality – has persisted until today.
Harry Truman was rightly lauded for recognizing the nascent state of Israel in 1948 – after much hesitation – but Thomas E. Dewey, the Republican governor of New York and Truman’s opponent in the 1948 presidential election, was on record even before as supportive of Jewish national rights. JFK openly threatened Israel over its Dimona reactor, LBJ pressured Israel not to open fire in 1967 despite the Arab provocations that led to the Six-Day War, and it is now crystal clear how Jimmy Carter felt about Jews and Israel.
(Others too: Former Israeli diplomat Naphtali Lavie wrote in his memoirs of the stridency and harshness with which then-Vice President Walter Mondale dealt with Israel before and during the Camp David summit, leading Israel’s then-Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan to comment: “Isn’t he supposed to be a friend of Israel? With friends like him, who needs enemies?” Similar backstage accounts elsewhere depict the current vice president, Joe Biden, as antagonistic to Israel during negotiations while he was a senator, despite the public smiles and laughter.)
Conversely, presidents as diverse as Nixon, Reagan and George W. Bush were immensely supportive of Israel, and at critical times. That their records were not “perfect” – whose is, and how would we even define perfect? – and that we can quibble about a policy decision here and there is a cogent reminder to the American-Jewish community that these men were, after all, presidents of the United States, not prime ministers of Israel.
At times, the interests of America and Israel will diverge; that is natural and understandable. But Nixon made historically important decisions (e.g., the re-supply of Israel’s armaments during the worst period of the Yom Kippur War, and over Kissinger’s strong objections) and Reagan and Bush II were preternaturally well-disposed to Jews and Israel.
Nevertheless, the curious love affair between Jews and Democrats that began with FDR has not ended. Today, it is trapped in a time warp. Jews contort themselves like pretzels to try to pretend that today’s Democratic party is the same as the party of yesteryear. But today’s Democrats head governments in which funds are handed down not to assist people short-term but to sew up their votes long-term; the inclusion in the party platform of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and God Himself was roundly booed at the party’s national convention; and polls show that support for Israel among Democrats is well below 50 percent and among Republicans well over 70 percent. Facts are stubborn things.
About the Author: Rabbi Steven Pruzansky is the spiritual leader of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun of Teaneck, New Jersey, and the author most recently of “Judges for Our Time: Contemporary Lessons from the Book of Shoftim” (Gefen Publishing House, Jerusalem, 2009). His writings and lectures can be found at www.Rabbipruzansky.com.
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