Political Hay

A Light Unto the Reindeers

SPECIAL REPORT: How to solidify American Jews’ newfound respect for conservatives.

By 6.24.02

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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.

Beginning in 1952 and accelerating during the Nixon presidency, the values projected by the two political parties went through a historic and well-chronicled polar shift. Now, it was the Republicans who were interventionist, and the Democrats who imposed top-down social controls. By the mid-seventies, the Democrats had long since ceased being either the party of economic opportunity or the protector of traditional values. Understandably, many ethnic components of the classic coalition migrated to the Republicans. The values of these ethnic Polish, Italian, and Irish hadn't changed -- but those of their party had. Quite conspicuously, the Jews remained on the Democratic ranch. While within the walls of their home they maintained a conservative lifestyle and inculcated a Jewish/Protestant work ethic to their children, these same Jews in the political arena aligned with those who chose to "pursue justice" not through the preservation of individual political and economic freedom, but rather through the expansion of the state's control of daily life.

Unfortunately, it took the shock of September for many American Jews to see the structural dissonance of their position. The wake-up call has been multifaceted: in the Middle East, on the campuses, in the Government -- Jews are coming to the bracing realization that the Left is not its friend. A world socialist brotherhood that once grudgingly tolerated a nationalist Golda Meir now lionizes beasts like Arafat. And from the thoughtful, pragmatic Eurocrats, we hear polite people with educated accents commit the first round of blood libels of the 21st century.

Quickly, the Jews are beginning to appreciate once again the uniqueness of America as a host nation. Because of this country's special people and special mission, we alone stand with Israel against the world. Evidence abounds -- witness the reader response on this site to the Mason-Felder clarion call -- that a growing number of Jews know that the time has come to integrate this amazing national response back into their own identities as Americans. It's as if the other groups are saying, "Jump in -- we've been holding your place in the melting pot."

The surest pathway to re-injecting Jews into the ethnic coalition is through the cultivation of gratitude. At every level -- home, school, community -- Jews need to internalize and then articulate for themselves the specialness of living in America. A minor but telling point: throughout the country, Jewish organizations have been holding waves of political rallies and prayer sessions in support of Israel. Often, they begin with the national anthems, American then Israeli. At these moments, I have seen too many people mumble through "O say can you see" as if it were a legal disclaimer, and then, for "HaTikvah" act like they're channeling Pavarotti. To be obtuse to the love and support of friends is no way to build one's own strength.

3. Re-Define the Underdog

Not least because of their own history of persecution, Jews are instinctively sympathetic to the unfortunate and the powerless. In political terms, their social agenda has always been to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. On humanitarian issues, identification with the Democratic Party has been an easy, if intellectually lazy choice. However, what white papers and bar charts from right-wing think tanks couldn't do to move Jewish attitudes toward the middle, the left has done by itself to itself: by time after ghastly time employing moral relativism as a defense of Palestinian terrorism, the mask of "humanitarianism" has been ripped off, and the movement's totalitarian (and thus, anti-Semitic) agenda exposed.

The "shattered faith" caused by this moral dissonance is far more than simply an occasion for the Republican National Committee to pick up some polling percent points. For the first time in maybe a century, Jews are attitudinally capable of seeing that there is a reductio ad absurdum end point of every social program, that point in the advanced stage of social planning where the intended consequences become inverted and deliver exactly the opposite intended outcome. Until now, the only real flash point of exposing this absurdity has been the issue of affirmative action -- because there the ox being gored has been both personal and visible.

Now that the most strident left-wing voices in this country have been marginalized and discredited, their arguments must be reframed issue-by-issue to define which is actually the true side of the little guy. Presented properly, Jews will gravitate toward a middle ground that rejects that state enforced misery where, as Andrew Sullivan recently put it, "[the] fusty puritanisms of the new left and the old right combine."

For example:

• A few generations ago, Jews' enthusiasm for civil service was due to its merit-based hiring policies, replacing the feudalism of the existing power structure. Today, when it takes several years and an average of $194,000 plus staff to terminate an incompetent teacher in New York state, who is the lord and who is the serf?

• Let's hear more testimony from people who've lost their jobs when the minimum wage has gone up. How has this humanitarian law impacted their family?

• Who takes care of the families on the margin who can't afford health insurance due to the government decreed raise in coverage, such as "drive by pregnancies"?

• The twelve-year-old girl impregnated by a 22-year-old man. Does giving her an anonymous abortion empower her to choose, or does it merely allow a lawbreaking pedophile to continue at large to victimize other young girls?

These arguments need to be absorbed through both the head and the heart. Recently, talk radio -- with its hours of airtime and one-on-one relationship with each listener -- has become a remarkably effective medium to change attitudes on social issues. Alas, I question whether Rush Limbaugh, the father of modern conservative talk radio, will be the most effective voice to our target group. Even though his moral and military arguments for the support of Israel are second to none, years of wickedly effective theatrics combusting with the left's ignorant, slanderous criticism of him have made Rush ideologically radioactive. Instead, I suspect the most effective persuasion on the airwaves right now is being broadcast by the next generation of talk show hosts: friendly, less threatening conservatives such as Michael Medved, Dennis Prager and Sean Hannity.

* * *

The benefits of Jewish re-entry into normative American society go both ways. America will be a stronger society if this small but powerful group once again starts pulling its oars in sync with Middle America. And, as Jews abandon the lonely far left and become more mainstream, they will paradoxically become better Jews, and more particularistic in their identity as ethnic Americans.

To accomplish this political-spiritual perestroika, I am not proposing "The Committee to Solidify the Jewish Majority." Nor am I pleading for the creation of a new lobbying or public relations arm. Rather, I am simply directing my words to all you Rudolphs out there -- you know who you are, and there are more of us than people realize. You know that real change can only occur one heart at a time. Each of you has your local Donners and Blitzens. Speak to them carefully, without bombast. Guide the sled.

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About the Author
Judd Magilnick lives in exile in Santa Monica, California.