Jews, blacks and Senator Lott

Posted: Dec 17, 2002 12:00 AM
On a trip to Philadelphia recently, I happened to mention to an older Jewish lady that the Philadelphia Inquirer was just impossibly liberal. "Liberal?" she responded, "Oh, no. They're very anti-Israel." I did a double take. Well, yes, but those two things are not inconsistent. Where has she been? The answer is, she speaks for many of her generation. For Jews who came of age in the 1940s and '50s, whose formative experiences were the Holocaust and the birth of Israel, liberalism and the Democratic Party enjoy a halo effect. President Roosevelt appointed Jews to his Cabinet and courted them as voters. Liberals fought anti-Semitism in college admissions and employment. And President Truman, against the advice of the State Department, recognized the newly created state of Israel. Jewish loyalty to the Democratic Party has, alas, calcified and is badly out of date. While many Jews remain politically frozen somewhere in 1952, both parties have changed mightily. While Jewish parents assiduously teach their offspring that Democrats are their friends, the chief support for Israel in the U.S. Congress now comes from conservative Republicans. At the grass-roots level, too, conservatives are far more supportive of Israel than liberals. And without the passionate support of millions of Christians, it's hard to say whether Israel would enjoy the same status as one of America's closest friends. On other issues of importance to Jews, like equal opportunity in education, the Democratic Party has changed. Where once it championed nondiscriminatory policies beneficial to Jewish aspirations, it now backs discrimination on the basis of race and sex. Jews doggedly pull the lever for Democrats even as liberals have been getting progressively more tolerant of anti-Semitism in new places (like the black community). On college campuses today, supporters of Israel are embattled, as movements to divest from companies doing business in Israel spread throughout the country. The moral, for those who don't immediately see the parallel, is that Israel is just as morally reprehensible as the old apartheid government of South Africa. The Palestinian cause has turned many liberals into Israel's enemies, but many Jews are slow to notice. I cite this because it is relevant to the Trent Lott mess. I believe that black voters are very like Jews in this respect. They harbor an ancient loyalty to the Democrats that is based, more than anything else, on their suspicion that Republicans don't like or respect them. Most American blacks support school choice, which Democrats oppose, and a higher percentage of blacks than whites are pro-life, another issue that -- absent other considerations -- would make blacks lean Republican. But on the all-important matter of racial politics, blacks still believe that louts and secret racists people the Republican Party. Democrats and racial provocateurs like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson do their best to reinforce this stereotype at every opportunity. But just as Republicans have been carrying water for Israel unappreciated by many American Jews, Republicans have also been eager to make a difference for black Americans. Conservative think tanks offer up policy proposals to enhance civil society in black neighborhoods and to improve standards for schools. But most black Americans imagine that these groups spend their time clipping coupons and sipping sherry. Arguably, welfare reform and school choice have done more to improve the lives of inner city blacks than anything the Democrats have proposed in 20 years. Yet many blacks believe that these were policies aimed at them, instead of for them. It's been a long, uphill climb for Republicans to gain some credibility with black Americans. Trent Lott's brainless comments opened a trap door beneath them. A thousand mothers are saying, "I told you so," to their kids who believed the world had changed. This isn't just a tactical matter. This is painful because the Lott episode is convincing people of a falsehood. Republicans, like nearly all Americans, are completely anti-racist. In 2002, it shouldn't even be necessary to say this. The Republican Party can salvage the situation only by moving swiftly to remove Lott from the leadership. This crisis is a teachable moment. The country is watching to see what kind of party the Republicans have become. If the party quickly demotes Lott, those kids can turn to their moms and say, "See, I was right!"