This past Thursday, what remains of the Republican presidential field made a visit to a gathering of the Republican Jewish Coalition. By the end of the evening, it was hard to tell if the six assembled candidates -- Rep. Ron Paul was absent, having been "disinvited" -- were running for POTUS (President of the United States) or PMOI (Prime Minister of Israel). One after the other, the six sought to portray him/herself as the best, the strongest, the most stalwartly unflinching friend of Israel in the room, if not on the planet. Each in turn gave their tum-lev yisrael (Israeli bona fides) and sought to outdo each other in the actions they promised to take on their first day in the White House.
All that was missing were the stereotypical Israeli shorts, sandals and raful hat.
Senator Rick Santorum received a solid round of applause when he informed the crowd that he and his wife " . . . have been to Israel where we purchased one of those tiles that says 'pray for the peace of Jerusalem' and we have that in our kitchen right above our sink . . ."
Not to be outdone, Governor Rick Perry shared that he and his wife had repeatedly been to the "Holy Land," especially, ". . . the Western Wall, that most sacred symbol of . . . where Jewish pilgrims gather to pray today."
Then came Rep. Michele Bachmann's turn: "The day after I graduated from high school, I got on a plane and went to Israel where I worked on a kibbutz . . ."
Former Speaker Newt Gingrich said that "Within two hours of taking the oath of office, I'll move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem." Not to be outdone on this particular issue, Rep. Bachmann added "I've already raised the money privately for moving the embassy, and I'll recognize any future annexation of settlements by Israel."
Governor Romney chastised the Obama Administration for "pushing an appeasement policy," pledged that as POTUS, he would make Israel his first foreign destination, and firmly pledged that "Iran's Ayatollahs will not be permitted to obtain nuclear weapons on my watch." To listen to Bachmann, Santorum and Gingrich, it would seem that they are more than willing to take America into a war with Iran. While this might make for a good applause line in front of a partisan conservative crowd, it is in reality nothing more than campaign rhetoric. For once a president takes the oath of office, co* (he or she) no longer has the luxury of demagogic independence; now co* must deal with Congress, the Joints Chiefs of Staff, the CIA, DIA, FBI and a thousand-and-one other governmental entities . . . and reality.
Comedy Central's Jon Stewart skewered the candidates for pandering to the Republican Jewish Coalition with his exceptional satiric sense:
Jon Stewart aside, there is far more going on here than mere parodic humor. For what these Republican candidates are attempting is nothing short of the hijacking of Israel as a positive political plank. Not only are the Republicans aiming for Jewish votes and dollars; they are also seeking the votes of evangelical Christians who make up large portions of Republican primary voters in South Carolina and caucus-goers in Iowa. They are also wagering that by making themselves out to be "the best friend Israel ever had," and painting President Obama and the Democrats as "blame Israel firsters," they can pick up crucial votes in general election swing states like Pennsylvania and Florida. And, by keeping Jewish voters' hearts and minds riveted on Israel, they hope to keep them from paying too much attention to GOP positions on a whole host of other crucial issues like women's rights, job creation, immigration, the environment, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, tax breaks for the rich and the separation of church and state.
In hijacking Israel, Republican strategists seem to have reached the cynical conclusion that for Jewish voters, Israel is the main -- if not the sole -- concern they have in determining who they will support for president; that somehow the so-called "pocket book issues" are of secondary or even tertiary importance.
Here in Jewish voter-rich South Florida that strategy has, to an extent, been working. By repeatedly portraying themselves as more Hawkish than Moshe Dayan -- as opposed to President Obama, whom they portray as more than ready to "throw Israel under the bus" -- the Republicans have indeed been making some inroads.
The other day, I was giving a lecture before a fairly large group of Jewish seniors. During the Q&A at the end of the lecture one elderly woman asked me "What do you think about President Obama when it comes to Israel?"
"What do you think?" I asked her.