Why Jewish Republicans Are Not Going ‘Alt-Right’
My colleague Peter Beinart has described the tiff that broke between the Anti-Defamation League and Ohio state treasurer Josh Mandel. The tiff revolved around an ADL research report titled “From Alt Right to Alt Lite: Naming the Hate,” which concerns the new right-wing hate groups that are gaining mainstream influence in the Trump era.
Beinart believes that this trend — of Republican Jews making common cause with the Alt Right — is going to become par for the course in the Trump era. But he’s wrong. Here’s why.
JEWISH REPUBLICANS AREN’T ABOUT TO JOIN THE ALT RIGHT
Beinart’s main point is that Jewish Republicans are about to move toward Breitbart-style politics and open flirtation with the Alt Right, but that’s highly unlikely, once you look at who the Jewish Republicans actually are.
Chasing the voters isn’t as urgent for Jewish Republicans as it is for nonJewish Republicans, because there are so few Jewish Republicans in electoral politics. Jewish Republicans are a sizeable, talented and influential group, but they rarely hold elected office. Their politicians pale in numbers and influence before two other subgroups: donors and pundits.
Among non-elected Jewish Republicans, a minority stands with Trump, notably megadonors Sheldon Adelson and Ronald Lauder. The most visible subgroup, the neoconservatives, are nearly unanimously anti-Trump.
What can we expect from the Jewish Republicans whose careers depend on voters? There’s no clear answer.
Jewish Republicans holding or seeking elected office are too few and too diverse to characterize neatly. But if there’s a common denominator that captures even a plurality, it’s “moderate.” A serious lurch to the right is probably a contradiction in terms.
It wasn’t always thus. In the 1950s and 60s, Jewish senator Jacob Javits gave his name to a whole wing of the GOP that didn’t blanch at the term “liberal.” In the mid-1980s, four of the eight Jews in the Senate were Republicans. Today, there are no more than a dozen or so Jewish Republicans nationwide holding state or federal elected office.
Elected Jewish Republicans are often loners. Frequently they’re eccentric or volatile types who last a term or three before returning home. Hard-line Jewish conservatives rarely last long, in part because their target voter base tends to be Christians who tend to want to vote for a Christian. Eric Cantor, the long-serving Virginia congressman, long the sole Capitol Hill Jewish Republican, lost his 2014 primary — while serving as House majority leader — to a primary challenger usually described as a Tea Party activist but actually a voice of the Christian Right.
THE ADL WASN’T ALWAYS ABOUT ISRAEL
Beinart argues that the ADL was “best known” until recently for tarring Israel critics as anti-Semites. But the ADL actually pioneered that equation in 1968, just after the Six-Day War — and dropped it by 1993.
Before 1967, mainstream Israel viewed its conflict with the Arabs as a clash between two peoples claiming the same land. By turning the conflict into a case of anti-Jewish bigotry, the ADL added a new moral dimension to counter the growing post-1967 acceptance of Palestinian claims. Painting Israel-bashing as anti-Semitic had the additional benefit of putting the Israel issue squarely on the ADL agenda.
The anti-Israel-as-anti-Semitic strategy started to unravel in the 1980s. It wobbled in the moral fallout from the 1982 Beirut massacre. It shattered amid the widening Likud-Labor policy rift over territory. By 1993, when Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat signed the Oslo peace accords, the ADL had largely abandoned that argument. The league even began playing a quiet role as mediator between mainstream pro-Israel leadership and newly vocal Jewish peace groups like Americans for Peace Now.
THIS ISN’T A NEW ADL Beinart says at the outset that the ADLMandel exchange “would have been unthinkable two years ago,” since it’s only in “President Trump’s era” that
“the group’s new national director, Jonathan Greenblatt, has thrown the organization into the fight against the nativism and bigotry rising on the American right.”
Unthinkable? Maybe that was true once, but for different reasons. In 1964, for example, when Random House published “Danger on the Right,” the 300-page exposé of nativists and bigots by ADL national director Ben Epstein and general counsel Arnold Forster, no Jewish Republicans defended the extremists.
In fact, the ADL had been infiltrating and exposing the extreme right nonstop since World War II. Following the turbulent 1960s it began targeting groups on the left as well. Many liberals never forgave it.
But dangers on the right have only metastasized, especially since the Reagan administration opened its doors to a clown car of extremists. ADL reports became explosive stuff, none more so than 1994’s “The Religious Right: Assault on Freedom and Tolerance in America.” The 170-page exposé sparked a furious counterattack led by Pat Robertson of the Christian Coalition.
The furor rattled the Jewish community. Dozens of prominent Jewish conservatives signed newspaper ads attacking the ADL. Young pundit Bill Kristol, in a 1994 Forward interview, called it “shortsighted and self-destructive for a Jewish organization like the ADL to unjustly and gratuitously alienate Christian conservatives.”
The battle ended in 1995, when journalists noticed a 1991 Robertson book, “The New World Order,” in which he painted conspiracies by shadowy “European bankers” with names like Rothschild and Warburg. Robertson was forced to apologize. The ADL notched a victory. On the other hand, Robertson is still around, and he’s not even the GOP’s far-right flank anymore. Anyone, liberal or conservative, who wants to engage politically with the Jewish community will get nowhere if they don’t learn how the community works. The Jewish community is, among many other things, a quasi-political entity that plays a recognized role in broader American society. How it plays that role depends largely on who bothers to learn the rules and show up. These days, conservatives are better at that than liberals, though that’s hardly the whole story. There’s an important lesson to be learned in the continued rise of elected Jewish Democrats and near-disappearance of elected Jewish Republicans that has yet to be explored.
Either way, whoever is up or down at any moment, we all have a stake in the system. We all suffer when it’s broken.
Jewish Republicans holding or seeking elected office are too few and too diverse to characterize neatly.