Will the GOP Regret Polarizing the Israel Issue?



 The letters to the editor keep pouring in about the Republican Jewish Coalition ads that have been appearing in Jewish newspapers in the run-up to the November election.

Readers who disagree with their message call them misleading, libelous, obnoxious and plain inaccurate. And some readers blame the messenger and say by accepting the ads, newspaper are tacitly endorsing their message and their style of rhetoric.

In editorials in the New Jersey Jewish News, we have defended our decision to run the ads by standing up for a Jewish newspaper as a forum for a wide array of voices — the inoffensive and offensive alike, the voices you agree with and the ones you can barely stomach.

There are limits, of course. We check ads for libel and accuracy, and while the RJC ads skirt close to distorting the polls and news articles they cite (Is Cindy Sheehan really a "Democratic Party activist"? When Jimmy Carter tells an interviewer "I represent the vast majority of Democrats," was he talking about his Mideast views? Was he even accurate?), they remain within boundaries acceptable in these days of attack ads and heated political rhetoric.

But accepting the ads doesn't mean we approve the message, and we said so in another editorial that asked about the effect of the ads on a time-honored tradition of bipartisan support for Israel.

For more than 60 years, the goal of the pro-Israel leadership has been to ensure that Israel enjoys support across the political spectrum. Presidents come and go, and majorities shift from blue to red and back again. But Israel has enjoyed nearly unwavering support in the White House and on Capitol Hill because politicians from both parties appreciate that the alliance with democratic Israel transcends party differences.

The thrust of the RJC ads is that Israel is no longer a bipartisan issue, and that the pro-Israel feeling in this country is becoming a Republican monopoly. The claim is, if nothing else, misleading.

There is no doubt that in recent polling, Republicans are more likely than Democrats to express stronger support for Israel (although not twice as likely, as some of the RJC ads allege. The ads take the result of a single narrow poll question about the Lebanon war and translate it as "Support for Israel by Party.")

Yet while the decline of pro-Israel sentiment within a segment of the Democratic Party is worrisome for pro-Israel activists, it doesn't negate the fact that the vast majority of Democratic officeholders are firmly pro-Israel in their voting and campaigning.

As for the far-left — who are more likely to vote Democratic than Republican — they no more represent the mainstream of the Democrats than Pat Buchanan Israel-phobes represent the GOP.

The ads may attract Jews to the Republicans, but they also risk repelling Democrats from Israel. In these deeply partisan times, is it really wise advocacy to tie Israel's cause so inextricably to Bush's?

Who knows how many Dems who revile Bush for so many reasons that have nothing to do with Israel might see all those ads and say, "If Bush is for it, then I must be against it."

That's the risk of polarizing the Israel issue — if you make it a party trademark, the other party may naturally skew the other way. Ironically, it was the Republican Jews who argued this for years, when the Democrats were seen as the reliably pro-Israel party.

The question here is one of goals. If it helps Israel to thank a president for his support, then we should. If support for Israel is eroding within a major demographic, we should study the reasons why. The RJC's only goal, it seems, is to get more Jews to vote Republican.

Perhaps they will, but if Israel becomes a one-party issue as a result, it will be a Pyrrhic victory.

Andrew Silow-Carroll is editor in chief of the New Jersey Jewish News.



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