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Jew, Republican, Weirdo

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The elusive species

There's a very rare species that lurks within the five boroughs of New York City. While the creature is practically extinct in Manhattan (with the notable exception of a leper-like colony on the Upper West Side), it flourishes in several self-contained ecosystems within the city's outer boroughs where it lives openly and reproduces profusely. Such special environments are located in certain crowded sections of Brooklyn and Queens, where males dress in white and black cover the heads with large black velvet skullcaps, while their female counterparts opt for kerchiefs, wigs or both and wear thick dark stockings from the age of three.

Scientifically designated as Homo Judaicus Republicus, this upright creature is colloquially known as a Republican Jew. It represents a tiny fraction of the city's voting population, where the ratio of Democrats to Republicans is 5:1. Broadly assuming that a) the same ratio holds among Jews, and that b) half the city's 8+ million citizens are eligible to vote, and also that c) the city contains about one million Jews, then the species population should be around 100,000, or 1.2% of the city's total population. I'm one of those lepers on the Upper West Side, which are led by the now (unfairly) denigrated Neocon crowd.

To the casual observer, my membership in this species would be considered particularly strange considering my birth in Beatnikville USA, (Greenwich Village), followed by childhood on the (relatively prosperous but still embarrassed-being-rich leftist) Upper West Side, and current residence in the (historically Bolshevik) Lower East Side. Daily, my eyes feast on an icon of 20the century American-style socialism, the Forward building, dominating the downtown view outside my bedroom window. This was once the headquarters of the socialist Jewish Daily Forward, a Yiddish (now weekly English) newspaper. Recently transformed into luxury lofts, four enormous round relief busts remain proudly embedded in its fa├žade like huge coins. Two of the profiles are those of Marx and Engels.

It would be understandable then if a glance at my profile were to result in me being tarred as a prototypical violently secular, extreme lefty Jew, which was what my fellow lepers were in the distant past; I never was. On the other hand, it would be difficult to label me conservative, neo or otherwise. Growing up in Manhattan generates several variations on Republicanhood. Throw Jewishness into the mix, and you get even more mongrels. So what being a Jewish Republican means is debated endlessly, and if ifs not it ought to be.

Shmendriks on campus

My adult political odyssey began in college in the early to mid 1980s. My campus wasn't particularly political, but every now and then, many of my fellow students would attempt to engage in activities in a manner they felt college students maybe should. That usually meant acting and talking lefty. Someone, it could have been the head of the food co-op, took it upon herself to gather a gaggle of grizzled males and proto hipsterettes for a few protests where participants were encouraged to foam at the mouth and raise angry fists at the evildoing United States and fascist dictator President Reagan.

These sad attempts at proletarian solidarity were simultaneously amusing, bizarre and slightly irritating. Perhaps I wouldn't have minded these displays if these supposedly high-minded protesters were at least as concerned with the true evil of Communism and the suffering of its victims. Reagan was obviously evil, but Mao, well, he was kind of cool. Lenin was a visionary, no dount about it; it was Stalin that screwed things up. Pol Pot, well sure, maybe he was sort of a meanie, but a meanie that was a product of US policy. The moderate among them blithely equated this country and the Soviet Union as flip sides of the same coin.

At an anti apartheid rally I chatted briefly with an exchange student from West Germany. The chick was pretty cute but had legs that she declined to shave, refusing to surrender to bourgeois sensibilities. I asked if capitalism was so horrible, then why not move to East Germany? She replied something like: "I vant to change my own society from vithin", which is to say that she had no intention whatsoever of relinquishing the free education and handsome government stipends she had been enjoying for seven years by then.

This mass of spoiled but unshowered childishness was a collection of hungry souls in search of some new sixties-style cause, a vessel into which they could spill their explosive sexual frustration. So why go to all this trouble, I wondered, stapling cardboard signs, screaming on campus, yelling anti-apartheid slogans when no one really listened? The college really was largely apolitical. To this day I think that any of the protestors would have dropped their signs on the spot, if only they had a date. Lets face it: there was only one, single reason that Abby Hoffman and Jerry Rubin organized all those Vietnam antiwar rallies: to get laid. The chicks dug guys with Afros, slogans and megaphones.

Now whether this ragtag band of protestors supported the (child molesting and incestuous) Sandanista Daniel Ortega, or Yasir Arafat (another obscenity), ultimately didn't matter in my daily routine. There were however other policies dear to their collective hearts that did happen to affect me personally. Take affirmative action in particular: many students with SAT scores inferior to mine were admitted to college ahead of me because they were either black or Hispanic. I was sort of poor, yet they got to enjoy government stipends for which I could never be eligible only because I was white.

After graduating (not sure how I pulled that one off) I returned to a city torn by raging crack wars and exploding crime rates. My coalescing views on law and order (for it), affirmative action (against it) and communism (hated it) translated into one word Republican. Of course there were and are many other issues, but these three were pretty basic and effectively reflected my worldview.

And it wasn't easy being a Jewish Republican. My eventual (correctly liberal suburban Jewish) in-laws lost their appetite upon hearing that their daughter was dating a republican, and visibly recoiled when they finally met me. They probably would have felt more comfortable with, say, a Barack Obama type, or maybe a younger Clint Eastwood, so long as it was agreed that any grandchildren wouldn't be baptized.

Republican (?)

I was being pigeonholed once again. Jewish liberals have two interchangeable caricatures in their collective minds of what republicans are. One is essentially a rifle-toting, megachurch attending Christian fundamentalist pyromaniac with a specialty in abortion clinics. This republican prototype is a semi-retarded redneck, confederate flag sticker emblazoned on pickup bumper (the retard knows how to drive) and/or tattooed on right buttock. The father of this model republican is a former serial lyncher if not a Ku Klux Klan wizard.

The alternate version is a New England blueblood country club member ensconced in a mansion on the Rhode Island coast. Both (to quote Yitzhak Shamir when discussing Poles) suckle Jew hate in their mother's milk. So when the in-laws met me that day, they didn't really know what to do with me, and were sure their daughter had gone completely insane.

But while they may have been trying to fit my slightly rotund peg in a republican hole through the past 15 years, I wasn't exactly sure myself what sort of republican I was becoming. True, many of my views remained typically republican: strict criminal sentencing, more police, still no to affirmative action. And I supported the war in Iraq, for better or worse.

On the other hand, other views I now hold would hardly endear me to republicans. For example, I'm agnostic at best and not anti-abortion. I'm for stricter zoning laws. I think that suburban sprawl is a national disaster, playing a role in the destruction of many cities. I far prefer mass transit to cars. Many so-called cities in the center of the country are anything but; how can a loose cluster of self-contained collections of subdivisions and office parks interconnected by interstates be described as a city? Forget Los Angeles, always described as 'a gaggle of suburbs in search of a city'. Go no further westward than Dallas, Houston, Phoenix and Vegas, and even Atlanta.

Sprawl would be impossible without cars. I'd substantially raise taxes on gasoline to pay for a massive overhaul of our economy for a post oil world, which would involve direct money to rebuilding our rail system, recreating a light rail that gets people places and investing in other transport technologies that were invented after the 19th century. Automobiles control our lives, and the massive superhighways we've built are thick, long scars on our beautiful landscape. And the ugly identical strip malls crisscross the country are a real blight on our lives.

New Jersey in particular is being destroyed in this way. I once worked for Merrill Lynch in central Jersey, and often had to drive (there was no other choice) between Somerset and Princeton. This beautiful historic corridor of rolling horse country is no more, and the change is heartbreaking. Its lovely hills have been paved over with office parks, more strip malls and McMansion subdivisions.

Which leads me to the final issue that makes me an increasingly strange republican: I'm sort of an environmentalist. Not a real activist, just a sympathizer. I watch helplessly as our national vistas are slowly destroyed. In 1993, Rush Limbaugh disingenuously remarked on his radio show that he didn't understand what all the fuss is about - he had gazed down out his airplane window at a landscape of endless forests on a cross-country flight. It's hard to believe that he couldn't distinguish between lush ancient old growth forests lost forever, and newer woods with little biodiversity. How can all the sequoias and redwoods that have been chopped down ever be replaced? They can't, and 98% have been felled, with some refugees surviving in national forests and parks. Meanwhile throughout North America, enormous ancient trees continue to be chopped down for...toilet paper.

To top off my credentials as a republican weirdo, I voted for Clinton in 1992 and Gore 2000. In the most recent election I did vote for Bush out of a sense of patriotism as well as gratitude for his support of Israel through its struggle with Islamic suicide terror. If it weren't for 9/11 he would have likely lost in 2004.

Nevertheless, I can't join the Democrats. Those spoiled kids protesting on campus a generation ago instinctively anti American, some refusing to shower or shave their legs are emblematic in some ways of the leftwing of the democratic party, inspiring today's MoveOn.org and ANSWER. On the other hand, I still hate cars, suburban subdivisions and aesthetic environmental destruction. What's a Manhattan Jewish (supposedly) republican to do?
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Uzi Silber writes the 'Jew's Muse' column in Ha'aretz. His work also appears in The Forward, Jerusalem Post, and The New York Times.

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Mr. Silber writes of a serious issue that I believ... by Juda S. Engelmayer on Tuesday, Jan 9, 2007 at 1:40:48 PM