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Frank Gruber

Meshuggah Means Crazy in Any Language

By Frank Gruber

Last weekend I had a visit from my Uncle Herman from Fort Worth, Texas, and with the presidential primary coming up there, we talked a lot about the election.

Between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, Uncle Herman is leaning toward Sen. Obama because he thinks the Illinois senator has the better chance to win in November, but what Uncle Herman most wanted to talk about were all his Jewish Texan friends who were telling him that Obama was bad for Israel and even anti-Semitic, if only by way of association (with Louis Farrakhan, by way of Sen. Obama's pastor).

Being Jewish I had already seen emails to this effect, and so this wasn't all news to me. At the time of the California primary these smears, however, didn't seem to attract much attention, and important Israel "hawks" like Martin Peretz of the New Republic and Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League had published debunkings, trying to assure Jewish Americans that there were no particular reasons from a Jewish perspective to oppose Obama.

But these debunkings haven't had much effect, and the emails have snowballed. And so it came to pass that in the Ohio debate last week Tim Russert pressed Sen. Obama about the endorsement he received from Mr. Farrakhan.

I won't rehash all that -- the semantics over "denounce" or "reject" have received enough play. But the whole thing angered me. It was ridiculous for Sen. Obama and Hillary Clinton to have to debate the issue not only because they are both "friends of the Jews" but also because they have both been victims of the right-wing Jewish smear machine.

Sen. Obama is getting it now, but Sen. Clinton got it in 2000 in her first campaign for the senate. Remember her scandalous kiss with Suha Arafat? Or her support for a Palestinian state? (Which, like the anti-fascism of the Americans who went to Spain to support the Republic in the Spanish Civil War, must have been "premature," in that now nearly everyone -- including the government in Israel and the Bush administration -- supports a two state solution.)

What's the point of all this? Certainly Sen. Clinton is not spreading these smears against Sen. Obama, however intense their rivalry has become. The smears are only understandable by looking at the tactics of right-wing Jewish Americans who have two purposes.

One purpose is to make Jewish Americans, nearly all of whom care about Israel's survival, accept the views of the right-wing, expansionist Jews in Israel (both the secular, Likud, variety and the ultra-religious) as the best means of securing Israel's future.

The other purpose is to increase the Republican vote among Jewish American because at the moment Republicans, due to their mindlessly indiscriminate and undiscerning reaction to terrorism and their evangelical Christian base of support, are closer ideologically to Likud and the religious right in Israel.

Jewish Americans vote overwhelmingly Democratic, despite their economic success. I like to think that this is because every year at Passover we are reminded that "we were strangers in the Land of Egypt."

The views of most Jewish Americans about Israel have always been closer to the politics of the founding Labor Party than they have been to those of Likud. Very few American Jews are even Orthodox, let alone ultra-Orthodox, and the adjective I most often hear applied to the Likudniks and ultra-Orthodox who continue to establish settlements deep in the Palestinian hinterland (and far beyond the wall Israel is building to protect itself from terrorists!) is meshuggah (i.e., crazy).

Note to the Jewish-American right wing: if you think that building settlements deep in Palestinian territory or in Gaza made Israel more secure, you are meshuggah, too.

The Jewish tie to the Democratic Party got going with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but even Al Smith, running in 1928, is estimated to have received 72 percent of the Jewish vote. Roosevelt received an estimated 90 percent in 1940 and 1944, a showing that Lyndon Johnson matched in his landslide victory in 1964.

The Jewish Democratic vote varies somewhat with the overall vote, but even against the popular Dwight Eisenhower or Ronald Reagan, or Richard Nixon in 1972 or George Bush in 1988, the Jewish Democratic vote was never less than 60 percent, with one exception -- Jimmy Carter received only an estimated 45 percent of the Jewish vote in 1980. (Nonetheless, in his landslide victory Republican Ronald Reagan received only 39 percent; John Anderson received 14 percent.)

In the relatively close elections since 1992 the Jewish vote has been overwhelmingly Democratic -- 80 percent in 1992, 78 percent in 1996, 79 percent in 2000, and 76 percent in 2004. There is no ethnic or racial group other than African-Americans that is more loyal to the Democratic Party than Jewish-Americans.

If you know any right-wing Jews, or if you read their writings in the usual neo-con places, you know that the Jews' loyalty to the Democrats bothers the right-wingers greatly. They think it is us Jewish Democrats who are meshuggah -- or at least naive. They have also been around the American right wing long enough to get used to the tactics the right has used to defame liberals since the "Who Lost China" days.

That's why they scream about non-issues, like Hillary Clinton's protocol kiss of Mrs. Arafat, or anything that Louis Farrakhan does.

The fascination with Farrakhan is telling. Farrakhan has little power; I would argue that he would be largely unknown outside Nation of Islam ("Black Muslim") circles except for the notoriety he has obtained from his anti-Semitic remarks. But his anti-Semitism fits a pattern much more useful to the right wing than that of, say, white evangelicals or, to make a useful parallel to Black Muslims, the Ku Klux Klan.

Think: how much more power do people like David Duke have among white evangelicals than Louis Farrakhan has among blacks?

Right-wing Jews agonize over and exacerbate the supposed crisis in relations between Jews and blacks, even though the pain black anti-Semitism has caused is a minor footnote to the pain caused by white anti-Semitism, because right-wingers know that Jewish support for social equality and civil rights has been a foundation for Jewish liberalism. If they can attack African-Americans in general -- and leaders such as Barack Obama -- because of the anti-Semitism of a few blacks, they hope to dislodge Jewish-Americans from their liberalism, as in "see what you get for helping those ungrateful blacks."

Looking at the situation more broadly, at a time in the history of the West, especially in the United States, when anti-Semitism must by any rational observer be considered at an all time low, right-wing Jews use the fear of anti-Semitism, just as the right-wing once used the fear of Communism and now uses the fear of "Islamo-fascist terrorism," literally to scare up votes from the fearful.

As a Jew I ask: given that Jews only represent a few percent of the voters in America, what makes our vote so worth fighting over?

There are two reasons, one tactical, and the other more philosophical.

The tactical reason is that although the number of Jewish voters is small overall, there are a lot of them in a few "swing" states, notably Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio. A shift of ten or twenty thousand Jewish votes in those states can mean the difference between winning or losing in the Electoral College.

The philosophical reason is that for many Americans, not being anti-Semitic has become a test of tolerance -- one that's easier to pass than not being, say, anti-black or anti-immigrant or anti-gay.

A combination of the Holocaust, which exploded from the casual anti-Semitism that was prevalent among Christians in Germany (and other countries) before the rise of Hitler, and the fabulous success of poor, immigrant Jews and their children in America, convinced the vast majority of right-thinking Americans that whatever anti-Semitism they grew up with was both reprehensible and irrational.

Among evangelical Christians, you can add a newfound love for Jews based in part on views about Biblical prophecy.

Thus, a lot of Americans who are not Jewish care about anti-Semitism, and they look to the Jewish community in America to tell them what anti-Semitism is and who is anti-Semitic. Tim Russert was not grilling Barack Obama during the debate last week about Louis Farrakhan because of the Jewish vote itself, but because Americans in general do not want to vote for anyone associated with anti-Semitism.

I suggest that the meaning that a charge of anti-Semitism has beyond the Jewish community makes making such a charge a serious matter, and Jews have a responsibility not to make such charges cavalierly.

But crying wolf is the essence of right-wing politics and right-wing Jews are no exception. I suspect we haven't heard the last of it.

When Uncle Herman was here, however, I did predict to him, and I'll hold to this prediction, that when all is said and done, Barack Obama will get the highest Jewish vote of any Democrat in decades.

Meeting notice: The Planning Commission has two important items on its agenda for Wednesday evening's meeting. One is to review recommendations for proposed land use designations for the Land Use and Circulation Elements of the general plan. The other is to review and send on to the City Council the proposed Housing Element of the general plan.
When and where: City Hall, City Council Chambers, Weds., Mar. 5, 7:00 p.m.

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The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of
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