Ajcommittee Debate Examines How Far Jews Should Defend Narrow Interests

Are America’s Jews merely a group, with an obligation to defend its interests, or a religious civilization, with a responsibility to heal the world?

Neoconservative Milton Himmelfarb and liberal Leonard Fein squared off over that question during a breakfast plenary session last week on “The New Jewish Politics” at the American Jewish Committee’s 82nd annual meeting, which ended here Sunday.

The Himmelfarb-Fein debate was one of a number of sessions devoted to the domestic Jewish agenda in a convention dominated by discussion of the Middle East.

According to Himmelfarb, former director of AJCommittee’s information and research services, Jewish voters need to recognize themselves as the special-interest group they are, and cast their votes accordingly. In particular, liberals need to demand a greater stand against anti-Semitism from the Democratic Party.

“It is not enough to be non-anti-Semitic today,” said Himmelfarb, a leading intellectual exponent of the Jewish neoconservative movement. In 1988, the liberals and the Democratic Party have “conspicuously refused to be anti-anti-Semitic. Any failure by Jews to react strongly and swiftly to this, to pretend that it is okay to be liberal and support liberals, even if they are not anti-anti-Semitic, is blind, self-deluding and pretty near suicidal for the American Jewish community,” he said.

Himmelfarb conceded that Jews remain an anomaly by “consistently voting to the left of their pocketbooks,” or, as he explained it during an earlier election year, “while the Jews have the incomes of Episcopalians, they vote like Hispanics.”

HAVE JEWS SHIFTED RIGHTWARD?

But noting the rightward shift taken by Jews in other countries, especially Great Britain and France, Himmelfarb said he was confident that increasing Jewish conservatism will be “the wave of the future.”

Fein discounted the neoconservative’s conclusions, maintaining that American Jews remain “as dramatically more liberal than the general population as they have been for the last 60 years.”

The author of the recently published book “Where Are We?” said that while roughly two thirds of the Jewish population “are prepared to vote for the Republican nominee for president,” a rightward turn “is nowhere reflected in the mass of data that measure such things.”

The persistent liberalism of American Jews, said Fein, is “rooted in the perception that while one is permitted to be rich, one is not permitted — not in this oh-so-fractured planet — to be comfortable.”

Fein urged Jews not to vote just on the basis of narrow interests. He decried the proliferation of political action committees supporting candidates solely on their voting records on Israel and the “degree to which the energies and attentions of Jewish agencies and organizations are so invested in matters relating to Israel.”

“For every ounce of protection we thereby gain for Israel” by supporting such pro-Israel but otherwise objectionable right-wing ideologues as Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell and Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), “we will lose a pound of protection for pluralism,” said Fein. That, he said, subverts Jewish interests, Jewish values and “”our ability to help, defend and protect the State of Israel.”

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