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Jewish World Review Sept. 3, 2002 / 26 Elul, 5762

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Flexing our political muscle

This is no time for American Jews to pull their political punches | There were plenty of good reasons for voters in the Democratic primary for Georgia's 4th U.S. Congressional seat to reject Rep. Cynthia McKinney.

In five terms, McKinney worked hard to earn her reputation as one of the biggest idiots in Congress - a feat comparable to being named one of the top cross-country skiers in Scandinavia.

While Georgians knew her as the daughter of a local African-American political boss, McKinney will be forever remembered as the fool who accused President Bush of having prior knowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks, but kept silent in order for his friends to supposedly profit from the tragedy.

That absurd remark, after a decade of other silly remarks and stands, was apparently the last straw for Georgians, who turned out to support former Judge Denise Majette's successful primary challenge to the incumbent McKinney.

Majette, a political novice, won in a walk as the McKinney clan went down in an ugly defeat. Those in-the-know credit the upset to a lack of attention to local issues and a distaste on the part of McKinney's increasingly middle-class African-American constituents for her race-baiting politics.

All politics is local, we say, and turn the page on this episode.

But for many national political observers, the Georgia primary and the similar outcome a couple of months earlier in an Alabama congressional primary will go down in American political history as yet another example of Jews flexing their political muscles.

It was not exactly a secret that pro-Israel political-action committees jumped at the chance to back a strong challenger to one of the most anti-Israel members of the House. Though it was by no means the decisive factor in the primary, Jewish political contributions from around the country flowed into Majette's coffers and helped her campaign.

At the same time, contributions from Arab-Americans and their committees (including from some under investigation for aiding terror groups in the Middle East) went to McKinney. She also benefited from campaign appearances from fellow members of the Congressional Black Caucus, along with veteran racial hucksters Al Sharpton and Louis Farrakhan.

The upshot of all this outsider intervention was the impression around the country that Majette's victory was bought with Jewish money.

It wasn't true, but that didn't stop observers as far afield as the editorial page of The Los Angeles Times from lamenting on Aug. 22 that the Georgia race "became a proxy for the Middle East conflict." The editorial went on to label this phenomenon as a "cause for concern," and saw the interest of friends of Israel in McKinney's defeat as a "litmus test" that would "distort" congressional races in a manner more "worrisome" than national debates over abortion or gun control.

The willingness of some in the chattering classes to attempt to squelch the efforts of pro-Israel contributors to influence elections is not new. The idea that "Jewish money" might be "buying" Congress is a staple of American culture that goes back as far as the hayseed socialists known as the Populists, who galvanized the politics of the 1890s with their demands for "free silver" and an end to "Jewish bankers" ruining American farmers.

We've come a long way from those days, as Jews have transformed themselves from a marginal minority into a mainstream community that unapologetically speaks up for what it believes is right. But that hasn't stopped many in the American Jewish community from working hard to play down the idea that Jewish money derailed McKinney or her fellow Israel-basher, Alabaman Earl Hilliard.


The impulse to avoid fueling the anti-Semitic stereotypes is still strong. After all, it is only a decade since paleoconservative columnist and one-time presidential candidate Pat Buchanan labeled Congress as "Israeli-occupied territory."

Buchanan also alleged that it was only Israel's "amen corner" that actively supported the elder President Bush's desire to oust Iraq from Kuwait in the Persian Gulf war. He even added insult to injury by claiming that non-Jewish American soldiers would die at the behest of a Jewish community that supported the war solely because it would benefit Israel.

Buchanan failed in his attempt to derail American intervention against Iraq, as well as to silence American Jewish voices on the subject. But his statement did have a chilling effect on many Jews who feared that the idea of American boys "dying for Israel" would have an impact on their own lives.

Buchanan's statement is worth remembering this fall because, 12 years after America's first war with Iraq, we are almost certainly heading into yet another version of the same debate. The younger President Bush appears determined to pursue "regime change" in Baghdad, and that will mean, if not a repeat of the Gulf war, then a reasonable facsimile of some kind.

Thus, we will probably be subjected to the same sort of demagoguery that earned Buchanan his notoriety. Just as there will be those who use the demise of McKinney as proof of inordinate Jewish power over Congress, others (perhaps less overtly anti-Semitic than McKinney's father, Billy (who claimed "Jews have bought everybody - J-e-w-s") will similarly attempt to use Israel's supposed interest in the war as a club with which to beat its American supporters into silence.

These charges will be, of course, false. Israel will certainly be safer if a madman with weapons of mass destruction is thrown out of power in Iraq, but so will every other country, especially the United States. America's war on terrorism may have given many in this country a new appreciation for the struggles that Israel has undergone as it, too, fights Arab and Islamic terrorists who glory in the deaths of innocents. But if George W. Bush orders U.S. troops into battle against Iraq, it will serve American interests first and foremost.


As was the case in 1990, American Jews need not apologize for supporting the drive for war on Iraq, nor should they harbor any illusions that it will necessarily end Israel's troubles (as the first Gulf war most assuredly did not).

Given the pressing need to answer the continuing onslaught against Israel in the media, this is not the time for friends of Israel, Jew and non-Jew alike, to start pulling their political punches in an effort not to attract too much attention. Anti-Semitism is the result of the depravity of anti-Semites, not a function of anything Jews do or don't do.

There will always be those who will accuse Jews of wielding too much power in this country. But if supporters of Israel have prevailed here, it is only because the ideas they promote are supported by the overwhelming majority of non-Jewish Americans.

Fears about seeming too prominent in the demise of Saddam Hussein and Cynthia McKinney notwithstanding, if we wish democratic values to prevail here and in the Middle East, then we must never fear speaking out as boldly as necessary.

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JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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