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What is it with American Jews? No one expects them to become Republicans or to rejoice that George W. Bush is in the White House. But why do so many of them revile him so?
I was in America last month, along with Ariel Sharon. That is, I wasn’t actually with Mr. Sharon, who was at President Bush’s Texas ranch. But while Israel’s prime minister was as usual getting the warmest possible reception from the president, the American Jews I talked to were as hostile to Mr. Bush as ever.
Most of them simply couldn’t abide the man. Indeed, they seemed less able to abide him now than they could when he was elected in 2000 or reelected in 2004.
“But why is that?” I said to one of them after another – all political liberals, many of them academics, all Jewishly knowledgeable and committed people. “You don’t have to love Bush in order to see what he’s done for Israel. He’s the first American president to adopt the Israeli position that meaningful negotiations with the Palestinians cannot be held as long as Palestinian terror persists. He’s the first president to agree with Israel that Palestinian democratization must be an integral part of the peace process and to prove he meant it by shunning Yasir Arafat. He’s the first president to side with Israel on the question of its future borders by stating that all areas of the West Bank in which Jewish settlers are heavily concentrated should be incorporated into Israel.
“And needless to say,” I went on, “Bush has also been the first president to order the military dismantling of an Arab dictatorship that was a strategic threat to Israel. The toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime, though this was not its primary intention, has contributed more to Israel’s security than any other presidential act since the Nixon administration’s arms airlift during the 1973 war.”
The fact is that, in regard to Israel, Mr. Bush has been the kind of president that one would once have considered an impossibility. Given America’s global interests, and its economic stake in the Arab Middle East, it has always been axiomatic that the best Jews could hope for from an American government was a balanced approach toward the Arab-Israeli conflict. The optimum was a president who, like Lyndon Johnson or Ronald Reagan, had enough sympathy for Israel to keep from tilting toward the Arabs rather than a president like Dwight Eisenhower or Jimmy Carter who didn’t. A president who was openly and unabashedly pro-Israel was quite simply unimaginable.
And yet, as I kept repeating to my Jewish interlocutors, this is exactly what George W. Bush has been.
“But he’s imposed a radical right-wing Christian agenda on America!” they retorted.
“He’s wrecked the economy to give tax breaks to the rich!”
“He’s out to destroy Social Security!”
“He has the worst record on the environment ever!”
“Let’s say for the sake of argument that you’re right about every one of those things,” I tried answering. “There’s still Israel. Doesn’t his stand on it mean anything to you?”
“I don’t believe it’s real!”
“He’s just backing Sharon – and I don’t trust Sharon either!”
“Just wait and see: When the disengagement from Gaza is over, he’ll show his true colors!”
There was no arguing with them. The president just can’t do anything right, not even when he backs Israel to the hilt.
Where does this animus come from? It’s clearly more than a matter of American Jews’ economically paradoxical Democratic predilections, as summed up by Milton Himmelfarb’s famous quip that Jews earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans. Jews didn’t vote for Nixon or Reagan either, but they never despised them.
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