As a political conservative and a Jew, I have a new, if unlikely post-9/11 role model: Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. The hero of one of our most popular ballads, this mythical caribou is born with a famous disfigurement — a shiny nose — that initially causes humiliation and social ostracism. Then, due to global climate change, his “difference” becomes an invaluable asset to rescue the group’s mission. As someone who has also recently experienced a shift in sensibilities, I know the pride that Rudolph must have felt when the other reindeers suddenly treated him with strange new respect. But now is no time to enjoy being right — the tough part lies ahead.
Like Rudolph’s, the first act of my story is all ridicule. As a “Clinton hater,” I repeatedly had my sanity questioned, and then, for the sin of calling Joe Lieberman a good man with misguided politics, my tribal loyalty impugned. At home, my wife and I have had to counsel our crestfallen children when they returned from mock elections at their Jewish day school with Gore beating Bush 22-1. After the polarizing Florida counting debacle, I had seriously begun to fear that our libertarian conservatism would somehow handicap these kids’ marriage prospects, not to mention the social mobility of their parents. Then, one foggy eve, …well, you know the rest of the story.
Who would have thunk — just nine months ago — that my liberal Jewish friends would tell me they’ve discovered this insightful cable commentator who is a great defender of Israel… Alan Keyes? Don’t they know that Ambassador Keyes has already retired the liberal trophy for “anti-choice madman”? From the “mindshare” — not to mention affection — he is attracting among Jews, you would never know that his MSNBC show is drawing such a tiny audience, even by cable standards. And what about Tom DeLay, whom the Democrat hit squads, aided by a willing press (and his Texas demeanor) had demonized as a mean-spirited, heartless ghoul, a.k.a. “The Hammer”? Suddenly he’s an honorary Maccabee, the toast of liberal Jews at last month’s AIPAC convention. And those yarmulkes in synagogue with “Lieberman” stitched in Hebrew that were so popular after the Democratic convention? They’re now about as common as a Harold Stassen button at my Lincoln Club meetings.
As we reel from the horrors of this new world war, it would be cheeky and glib to trumpet this opinion shift as a “silver lining.” Still, I think it’s all right to acknowledge that, even from unspeakable evil, some good can flow. More importantly, now is the time for serious conservatives of all faiths to try to broaden this wedge into a fundamental change of the attitudes and political perceptions amongst the substantial Jewish political middle.
Specifically, how we move from the exceptionalism of the moment (low visibility requiring Rudolph’s shiny nose = let’s not bash conservatives who support Israel) to a permanent change of attitude (Rudolph is a really good reindeer = maybe we should hear out the conservatives on domestic issues).
Right now, there exists a window of opportunity of uncertain duration. During this time, I believe that savvy but sensitive conservative outreach could result in a historic shift in the way Jews perceive the religious right, how they approach flashpoint social issues — and in the way they view their role in American society. Here’s a start:
1. Re-Brand the Christian Right
It’s time to help American Jews get over their attitude problem toward this country’s majority religious culture. For more than a century, Jews have taken the European paradigm of oppression and recklessly applied it to American Christians. The end result of this flawed outlook is a Jewish population that simultaneously apes the lifestyle and aspirations of the baseline WASP culture while reviling its stray flaws and affectations.
Until now, in an exquisite parody of Talmudic logic, Jews have cited the religious right’s support of Israel precisely as proof that they were up to no good. “All these born agains want,” I’ve been told again and again, “is to convert the Jews and await the return of their Messiah to Jerusalem.” Sadly, it has taken what are truly “times that try men’s souls” for Jews to see who their friends are.
The summer soldiers and sunshine patriots have scattered, leaving only one group standing shoulder to shoulder with the Jews. These serious, passionate Christians have ignored the cranky, suspicious elements in the Jewish population and provided capital — political, fiscal, and spiritual — to assist the state of Israel in its fight for life. Rabbi Daniel Lapin and his Seattle-based Toward Tradition organization deserve credit for identifying the morality of this natural alliance more than a decade before America’s other Jewish leaders smelled the roses.
Meanwhile, call it the work of Satan, an act of God, or a fluke of bad public relations: right at the beginning of this 9/11 crisis, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson instantly marginalized themselves. Remarks not meant to be hateful resonated negatively with those who already had misgivings about their faith and their agenda. It’s as if Shaq and Kobe had fouled out in the first minute of a championship game — suddenly the dynamics are different. Whether or not their biases against evangelists with Southern accents is fair or unfair is no longer an issue; Jews can now hear the message without being distracted by messengers with whom they are almost congenitally uncomfortable.
Indeed, circumstances have also changed the message. The Christian right’s approach to Israel (while philosophically consistent) has morphed from end-of-days discussions into the realest of realpolitik. Even though Christian eschatology is in many ways quite similar to the Jewish understanding, most Jews today are uncomfortable with the topic. They have a much easier time hearing the new Christian message about Israel that emphasizes the pragmatic diplomatic and military steps that must be taken to defend the state.
To make critically important inroads between two groups who already share an astonishing consensus on values, the Christian Right requires a new face. This face cannot and should not be Jerry Falwell Part Deux or anyone else from the televangelistic culture. Rather, this new face should be the one that is already amongst all of us: the religious Christian family next door — the one with the same core issues Jewish families have, such as raising decent children in a polluted world, caring for elderly parents, keeping their church/synagogue going, staying healthy — and helping America win the war.
2. Invite the Jews Back Into the Melting Pot
The natural home of Jewish America is not as an apologetic member of the New Left, but rather as a proud component of a vibrant, harmonious and successful ethnic tapestry. Historically bright and hardworking, Jews instinctively understand that patrimonial elitism and a static socio-economic environment will always work directly against their best interests. This explains their enthusiastic participation in the urban immigrant coalition of the Democratic Party during the first half of the previous century. Back then, they perceived their opposition to be a WASP establishment that was obstructionist both to their economic longings and their religious, family-based values. Internationally, it was the Democratic Party prevailing over Republican isolationists to intervene in Europe against Hitler. For all these reasons, a loyalty was sealed which lasted literally beyond reason.