The late, great Tip O’Neill once famously observed that all politics are local; but in our post 9-11 world, it seems some politics are less local than others. And what just happened in Alabama’s Seventh Congressional District is a case in point. Last month, in the district’s Democratic primary, incumbent Congressman Earl Hilliard was defeated by Artur Davis, a man he had soundly whipped two years earlier with 58 percent of the vote.
But what makes this election particularly significant – and deeply troubling for the Democratic Party – is the evidence it provides that Jewish-Americans, so long a part of the liberal coalition that shaped politics in America during the last century, may be rethinking their politics. Because all that shouting in the Alabama Seventh could be heard all the way in Jerusalem, Ramallah, Detroit, New York City and Washington, D.C.
On the surface, nothing looked amiss. Both Hilliard and the Harvard-educated Davis are established local attorneys, with long-standing liberal records, just about right for a Black Belt congressional seat created in a black-majority district in 1992. But there was one issue that separated the two men – American support for the state of Israel. Hilliard doesn’t much believe in it, while Davis does.
In 1997, Hilliard junketed to Libya, in spite of that country’s designation as a terrorist state. While the Treasury and the House Ethics Committee – mostly due to technicalities – later ruled the trip legal, Hilliard was sharply criticized by his colleagues in the House. Hilliard has openly cooperated with extremist Louis Farrakhan, and for this year’s campaign, decided to become the poster boy for a number of Arab-Americans and their lobbies, taking campaign donations with abandon. Hilliard’s campaign chest was empty after the 2000 election, but nobody doubts that his feelings for Arabs are genuine.
Probably mirroring a similar combination of conviction and necessity, his opponent Artur Davis, became an outspoken supporter of Israel, traveling to New York City and reportedly raising some $150,000, mostly from prominent Jewish Democrats. In the meantime, the Congressional Black Caucus, some of whose members are very close to Arab-American interests, began leaking that if “outside influences” (apparently, only Jewish-Americans are “outside” while Arab-American contributions went unmentioned) resulted in the defeat of Hilliard, the Black Caucus would block any future support of Israel. According to reports, only last-minute lobbying by Kweisi Mfume and other black leaders prevented an open breach.
I think there’s a huge warning flag here for the Democratic Party. For most of the last century, Jews and the Democratic Party were a match that seemed to be made in history. Coming from a Europe where political parties were based on race, language or religion, Jews were perpetual outsiders. Some arrived with sympathies already formed around the “out” parties of Europe – socialism and communism. Most just wanted to create lives for themselves and their families over here. But a majority would identify with the party that claimed to represent those who had also been on the fecal end of the European stick – workers, blacks, Irish, Italians and others who would eventually form the New Deal coalition that elected Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932.
Lately, as Jews and African Americans have split over such issues as affirmative action and foreign policy, the Democratic Party could always scare up Jewish loyalty by pointing to a supposedly anti-Semitic Christian Right.
But, oh what a year brings! According to polls, Sept. 11 and rising anti-Arab sentiment have left Israel with no better friend in this country than evangelical Americans. And it turns out that modern anti-Israel sentiment is more a function of left-wing identity politics – national liberation groups, European “socialists,” and the gut anti-Americanism of the usual academics who automatically proclaim, “My country wrong, even when right.” Right now, a petition is circulating around Harvard and MIT that calls for divestment from any investments which deal with Israel.
Many American Jews have been stunned by these reactions. Some look around and no longer recognize a wing of the Democratic Party as belonging to the same party of their parents and grandparents. From their perspective, many wonder not if they’ve left the Party, but if the Party has left them.
If something isn’t done by Democrats to reverse course, they risk losing this historically key constituency. And it’s not just Israel or affirmative action that has caused many Jews to worry. Some are afraid that their very humanity is being questioned by a left that seems increasingly unconcerned with the plight of the Jews and the state of Israel.
For the sake of my party, I hope it doesn’t happen.