Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Be Kind to the Florida Jews

Contrary to popular belief, the Jewish vote is all but irrelevant to the election on the whole, but it's of endless fascination to Jews themselves. Following New York Magazine's lead, assuming that everyone wants to read about things Jewish even if these things are sort of, who cares, I present the following:

Both the Republican and Democrat sides of the population ('community' being a stretch) are convinced that the other side has been brainwashed into voting against its interests, into voting for some form or another of the next Hitler. It's either that Obama would invite Iranian leaders in to serve as guest presidents, or that McCain would die in office, leaving Palin as some kind of Protestant pope. Which is to say, fears on both sides are of the paranoid sort one would expect from a group of people with a legitimately heightened sense of awareness.

Things are tougher, without a doubt, for Jews on the right, for those who stand apart from the Jewish tradition of voting Dem no matter what. Jews on the left see their counterparts as dupes, racists, or a combination thereof. Jews who lean Republican because of Jewish-specific concerns are, paradoxically, understood by other Jews to be traitors to the people. Real Jews are universalists. We're a funny minority group in that respect. For some Jews, coreligionists who take Israel or 'the Jews' into account are an embarrassment, to be dismissed as insular and--worse--of another time. Plus, since Jews are well-represented in liberal geographic and professional enclaves, right-wing Jews face social pressure from the 'mainstream' as well.

And no one has it worse than Floridian Jewish voters, who are blamed for handing the election to Bush, and whose imagined ineptitude-slash-conservatism will be blamed--again, unfairly--for Obama's loss if McCain wins this election. 'The Great Schlep,' a project Sarah Silverman's promoting, is no less than a cutesy attempt at disenfranchising older Jewish voters in that state. In keeping with other efforts during this campaign to portray anyone Jewish not voting for Obama as a racist square, Silverman asks young, hip (in their own minds, at least) Jews to go down to Florida to demand that their grandparents vote for Obama. Since Silverman's a comedian, we're not supposed to take her seriously enough to criticize, but we're still supposed to get the message and think less of those Jews who have the audacity to vote as anything other than undifferentiated, enlightened, guilt-ridden white folk. That, and the facebook group for the cause boasts nearly 8,000 members, which is a whole lot of people when you consider that there are something like 9,000 Jews in the world.

While Sarah Silverman is today referred to as a "white comedian," when Bubbe was Silverman's age, there's a good chance she wasn't considered white. Even if you grew up feeling white as white can be, with all the privileges that entails, your grandparents (unless your family has the Bristol generation gap going on) did not. Their views, like those of groups we today think of as 'of color' or 'minority,' are informed by having experienced honest-to-goodness prejudice. To self-righteously reach out to older Jewish voters in Florida with a preemptive set of "talking points" to prepare yourself for when the voter in question starts up on the schvartzes is, well, the height of self-righteous idiocy. Silverman is basically asking her elders to own up to their (dubious, and relatively recent) privilege, all the while fully ignoring her own.

Attacks on American Jewish right-wingers--'The Great Schlep' and beyond--tend to talk past these voters' genuine concerns. A quick glance at the reading material of conservative (small-c) Jews will reveal plenty of arguments as well-thought-out as those coming from the left, and far less racism than one finds in Silverman's tongue-in-cheek plea. When Jews on the left tell their right-wing counterparts to stop being racists, they get nowhere, because racism is not what's turning Jews away from the left. Nor is traditionalism, since traditionally, Jews are on the left. So what is going on?

From the anti-Rothschild socialist polemicists of 1840s France to anti-Israel activists worldwide today, the worst anti-Semitism has often come from the left. As Emily Yoffe points out, while she found plenty of conservative critics of Ahmadinejad's recent UN speech, "I looked for a liberal commentator who might mention how chilling it is that a leader of a country seeking to become a nuclear power would so boldly speak of his desires for the elimination of a sovereign state and a people, but couldn’t find one." Bigotry on the right tends to be of the more open, 'we don't like your kind' variant, whereas on the left, it disguises itself as support for the underdog. It's easy to see which would be more difficult to challenge.

The above only explains why a Jew, as a Jew, might vote Republican. One must also remember that 'Nana and Bubbe' are not merely clichés but also human beings, American citizens, and perhaps concerned about issues that have nothing particular to do with being Jewish or elderly. If Gran is anti-abortion or pro-gun, let her vote on that basis.

So why, after making such a fine case for letting Jews vote Republican, after being turned off to no end by the Jewish left, will I be voting for Obama? Leaving aside the reasons that have nothing particular to do with my being Jewish, I'll focus on those that do:

For one, the Republican party is the party of Christianity, and the Democratic party that of secularism. There are certainly exceptions, but atheists and non-Christians will feel a bit ill at ease on the right, as will evangelical Christians on the left. To what extent a Palin presidency would be a Christian theocracy can't yet be known, but the threat is there in a way it is not with Obama. The danger for Jews-as-Jews is not that abortion rights or gay rights are under attack, but that they're under attack in the name of Christianity. So it's partly that Jews are often secular and liberal making Jews vote Dem, but it's also that even socially conservative Jews fear a state that uses Christianity for the basis of its laws.

Relatedly, many Jews who move from left to right (see: neoconservatism) are far more familiar with the nasty elements on the left than with those on the right. After spending time almost exclusively with other liberals, these contrarian Jews grow tired of self-righteous monologues about the Palestinians; they will not have the chance to hear anyone's feelings about 'damn ferners.' This gives a false sense of the appeal of the right. Republican rhetoric praising 'small-town America' as real America is off-putting to secular and observant Jews alike, given our disproportionate presence in cities and suburbs. The Upper West Side may not be representative, but that's no reason to consider it foreign. Anti-cosmopolitanism and anti-Semitism are close cousins indeed.

Finally, and this is key: the Democratic party is not 'the left.' It's to the left of the Republican party, but it does not speak for every keffiyeh-wrapped hipster radical. Whether from political pressure or the bottom of their hearts (and in politics, this is always an unknown), Obama and Biden both support Israel. The choice is not between McCain and Alphonse Toussenel. We can vote Democratic without affixing our stamp of approval on all manner of conspiracy theories. Or so I'm willing to assume.


Anonymous said...

This is offensive.

"The worst anti-semitism often comes from the left."

No. Nazism was THE WORST. Period. Nothing else is comparable. Period.

Anti-semitism comes from both sides, for different reasons, mostly irrational.

Let's be clear. The left is critical over Zionism, the state of Israel, and purports to care about the well-being of the Palestians. The right rather than assigning blame for a 2000-year old state-sponsored murder and harbors irrational fears about some shadowy New World Order that somehow mas more power than Dick Cheney's "shadow government."

Anonymous said...

"From the anti-Rothschild socialist polemicists of 1840s France to anti-Israel activists worldwide today, the worst anti-Semitism has often come from the left."

This isn't offensive. It's just Phoebe.

Of course ignoring the Nazis and all the other anti-semitic violence on the right is a bit, let's say, odd.

And of course, conflating the centuries of anti-semitic violence from the right with the post-'67 anti-Israel feeling on the left is a bit odd.

But since Phoebe is a comedian, we're not supposed to take her seriously enough to criticize.

I think the best way to understand stuff like this is to assume that Phoebe is trying the channel all the ignorance of Nana and Bubbe into her own voice and basically do performance art.

Or perhaps she is preparing a comedy routine where the Dreyfusards are all on the right and the anti-Dreyfusards are all on the left.


Also, BREAKING: Ehud Olmert declares himself an anti-semite!

Anonymous said...

Note here the argument that Nazism is significantly a movement of the left--not well made recently by Jonah Goldberg, but not without power.

Speaking to Phoebe's point directly: I think she underestimates the power of philosemitism within the evangelical Protestant tradition. It is, I think, the only notable philosemitic Christian tradition--and obviously not hegemonic even within evangelical Protestantism. Speaking as a Jew, I think the philosemitism of evangelical Protestantism is a more trustworthy base of support than secularism or liberalism--which do, I fear, have strong inner compulsions to eradicate all particularities of affection and community, most especially including Judaism. This means that evangelical Protestant morality is a better basis of American policy than secularism--including for Jews.

Now, I know Phoebe weighs the facts differently from the way I do. And indeed, all such judgments should be provisional in the long run. But this is my chain of thought. And I guess I would argue that Phoebe should consider more strongly that not all Christianities are alike, and that American Christianity is as exceptional as the country writ large.

All this independent from whether she should vote for McCain or Obama--a question on which I presume Phoebe, as I, will vote as an American--a category which does not exclude voting as a Jew, but which indicates a consideration of other identities and interests.

Anonymous said...

The philo-Semitism of evangelical Christians, though useful in the short term for the preservation of Israel, does not have the ultimate goal of saving Jews as Jews. Far from it.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

To the (inevitable) offended:

"[T]he worst anti-Semitism has often come from the left." That's "often," not always. I don't see how anyone could disagree with that, or how out of respect for the seriousness of the Holocaust, one would feel they had to reject my statement.

While I don't 100% agree with the Jonah Goldberg thesis (does anyone?), I would not say Nazism is necessarily more right than left. For the articulate version of this argument, see Zeev Sternhell (enemy of Israeli extreme-rightwingers, as we know especially well this week), "Neither Left Nor Right.' But the idea is, Nazis weren't kidding when they said they wanted national socialism. This meant something inspired in part by socialism. Populism was born on the left; it's not entirely clear whether one should categorize the Nazi variant as a populism gone to the right, or a populism of neither-nor.

But, back to the alleged offense: Then (19th C) as now, the left overall might be better for the Jews, but that which is worst from the Jews might well still come from elements of the left. The two are not mutually exclusive.

Anonymous said...

" I would not say Nazism is necessarily more right than left."

Indeed. One simple way to verify this is by seeing how the left-wing parties voted en masse for the Enabling Act while the right-wing parties voted en masse against it.

Also, the folks who tried to kill Sternhell are not necessarily more right than left.

It's fun when we decide to use words in a different manner than their commonly accepted meanings, no?

Anonymous said...

The Republican Party tried to privatize Social Security in 2005 based on a Cato Institute plan that modeled itself after Leninism. Does that mean the modern Republican Party is "inspired" in part by Bolshevism and the left?

Well, sure, but...


At the end of the day, Hitler's party sat on the right side of the aisle just as Stalin's party sat on the left side of the aisle.

Those two figures are nice synecdoches for denoting the particulars of the excesses to be expected from the two wings.

Racism, including anti-semitism, has been more of a thing for the right than the left for centuries now, for the entire modern era.

Withywindle said...

A Dissertation Topic: "Assimilationism and Anti-Semitism: Complementary Discourses in French Literature, 1789-1914."

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

That would be a tough one to narrow down. Plus, recent historiography is all about how French Jews did not, in fact, assimilate. It's pretty convincing.

Withywindle said...

Ah, but the discourse does not need to match the historical reality, grasshopper; the distance between ideal and fact becomes your subject matter. [See, Chivalry, Medieval Literature of; Lack of in Medieval Reality.]

"The Reconstruction of Jewish Identity in the Novels of the Third Republic: Ideologies of Assimilationism and Anti-Semitism in Zola, Proust, and Celine."