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Divisive election? Been there, done that

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In an odd switch, Canadian Jews might be well placed to advise our American cousins on surviving a fractious campaign


As Americans consider whether to cast their ballots for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton or Republican contender Donald Trump, Canadians who endured what was been described as a divisive parliamentary campaign last October might remark at how civil our contest was compared to the one south of the border.

In Canada, much was made in the Jewish community about the fractious nature of the campaign, with the Liberals accusing the Conservatives of using Israel as a wedge issue and some Tories saying the Grits couldn’t be counted on when push came to shove. Yet how tame that debate was when compared to the campaign being experienced by our American cousins.

In the U.S. election, Trump continues to alienate voters with gratuitous insults of various minority groups, his call to block Muslim immigration, his pledge to build a wall to prevent Mexicans from entering America, his confrontation with the Muslim parents of a slain soldier, and his speak-before-thinking style. At the same time, Clinton faces accusations of corruption and dishonesty, while being investigated for illegally using an unauthorized computer server to conduct State Department business – including naming an Iranian scientist who was later killed by the Islamic regime – and being sued by the families of the four Americans killed in Benghazi, Libya, for negligence and defamation.

Americans could probably benefit from Canadian politics’ tradition of collegiality, although the last federal vote here also had its moments of division and accusation.

There was the case of York Centre Tory candidate Mark Adler, who was blasted for a campaign poster that wrongly claimed  he was the first child of Holocaust survivors to be elected to Parliament, and Liberal supporter Barry Sherman’s private fundraising event at his Toronto home that was picketed by Jews angry about the Liberals’ support for the Iran nuclear deal.

In the United States, there have been some manifestations of division in the Jewish community over the candidates as well. Just before the Republican convention, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, who converted Ivanka Trump to Judaism, agreed to deliver the invocation that started the convention. But he withdrew from the role after his congregation and others in the modern Orthodox movement objected.

According to the Forward, Rabbi Lookstein’s change of heart “came after an outpouring of anger among Lookstein’s former students at [the New York Orthodox day school] Ramaz, current congregants from [Manhattan’s] Kehilath Jeshurun and other modern Orthodox who do not support Donald Trump.”

One group of Orthodox Jews organized a petition opposing Rabbi Lookstein’s offer to deliver the opening prayer, calling it “a shandeh [disgrace] beyond the pale.”

It’s hard to imagine anything of that nature happening in Canada, where Jews are more likely to take pride in a rabbi delivering a prayer at the opening of a political convention of any of the major parties than to oppose it.

But it appears politics is more divided in the great republic than it is in Canada, and Jewish support for the Democrats is less in play than it has been recently for the leading Canadian political parties.

Nelson Wiseman, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto, notes that the Jewish vote in the United States has weighed heavily in the Democrats favour for decades.

“In the Jewish tradition, there is a focus on justice, issues of equality, equity, fairness and trying to repair things beyond the Jewish community itself,” he said.

Historically, Jews in the United States, as well as in Europe, could be found on the left side of the political spectrum. That did not change much in the United States as Jews attained a level of affluence that would have suggested greater support for the Republican party. Modifying an old political aphorism by Jewish community analyst and commentator Milton Himmelfarb, Wiseman said: “Jews live like Republicans, but vote like Puerto Ricans.”

Wiseman said the sort of issues that resonated in the Jewish community in Canada have little purchase in America. Questions about support for Israel, which proved to be a hot-button issue north of the border, are far down the list of issues on which American Jews vote, he said.

Furthermore, Trump’s message of making America great again reminds Jews of an era in American politics that was not so friendly to Jews, he said.

Jewish support for Republicans has been soft in the past and will likely diminish somewhat because of Trump’s blustery pronouncements, Wiseman added.

The data bear him out. Over the years, Jews overwhelmingly supported Democratic candidates, peaking at 90 per cent for Lyndon Johnson in 1964, matching votes for Franklin Roosevelt in 1940 and 1944.

In 2012, Democrat Barack Obama received 69 per cent of the Jewish vote, compared to 30 per cent for Republican Mitt Romney. Among all voters, Obama’s margin of victory was only three per cent.

In Canada, the difference between parties is not nearly as pronounced.

For generations, Jews generally supported the parties of the left, the Liberals and the NDP’s forerunner, the CCF. But two elections ago, the Tories succeeded in peeling away Jewish votes, in part due to their policies on the Middle East.

Former prime minister Stephen Harper cultivated his position as a vocal supporter of Israel, and that helped gain Jewish votes to such an extent that in 2011, about half of Jewish voters supported the Conservatives. An Ipsos Reid exit poll during the 2011 federal election estimated 52 per cent of Jewish voters supported the Conservatives, compared to 24 per cent for the Liberals.

The Liberals made a concerted effort to regain Jewish votes in 2015 through their own support for Israel, and they appear to have succeeded, Wiseman suggested.

Shimon Fogel, CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), said the most recent Canadian election campaign showed that Jews are far from monolithic when it comes to their political allegiances.

CIJA supports Jewish involvement in all major parties, but the last election did see some rather heated disagreements characterized by a lack of respect for backers of competing parties, he said.

He cited the protest in front of Sherman’s home, saying it was far from “constructive,” but there were also “those in the progressive camp who were shrill in their criticism of the Conservative party.”

“All speak to an absence of the kind of respect that has to colour our engagement in the political process,” he said.

The worst excesses were by minorities at “the margins” of the community, he added.

Looking at the campaign south of the border, Fogel said, “the current political landscape is unprecedented in terms of what’s going on.

“I don’t see how an independent would navigate it and come up with a coherent basis for a decision for their support, so I don’t know if we have too much to offer here in terms of advice to the Jews in the United States.”

Unlike the situation in Canada, “I don’t see Israel as a dominant point in the campaign. When I hear American Jews debating the presidential election, I don’t hear them talking about Israel-related issues, compared to social policy issues or values,” Fogel added.

AIPAC, the American Jewish community’s primary lobby group on Israel, has had success in promoting a consensus view between the parties on core issues affecting Israel, Fogel said.

Still, it’s possible that questions of security and immigration “could be important to some in the Jewish community.”

Clinton’s support for the nuclear deal might sway some voters, he suggested.

David Zam has spent time in both countries and writes about political issues. A native of Toronto, he now resides in Florida and has spent some time working for Republicans, campaigning door to door for a candidate in a state-level primary.

There are differences in the way Jews in both countries vote, owing to their history in both countries, he said.

Most American Jews can trace their ancestry to the great immigrant wave from 1880 to the 1920s, making them fifth- or sixth-generation Americans. Canadian Jews are, generally, more recent arrivals.

As a result, American Jews are more removed from the pogroms and anti-Semitism that motivated their ancestors to leave for America, while Canadian Jews have parents and grandparents who experienced those situations first-hand. That makes security and support for Israel higher on their list of priorities, he said.

Zam, who covered an AIPAC policy conference during the campaign, said all the candidates still in the race for both parties, except Democrat Bernie Sanders, attended, and the Republican contenders at the time – Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Trump – all received heavier applause than Clinton.

While Jews make up only a small proportion of the American electorate, their votes might play an important role in three swing states – Ohio, Florida and, to a lesser extent, Virginia, he said.

Trump’s Jewish son-in-law, is campaigning actively in those areas, he noted.

Gil Troy, a CJN columnist and professor of history at McGill University, believes there are major differences between Jewish voters in both democracies.

“The Jewish vote is most probably going to be lopsided for Hillary, but that doesn’t stop it from being deeply polarized,” said Troy, who authored a book on former Democratic president Bill Clinton. “The gap between Trumpistas and non-Trumpistas is so great that most Trump detractors, and in my experience especially the Jewish ones, see Trumpistas not just as wrong, but as morally flawed. So, yes, a community that is not very good at disagreeing civilly over Israel, over gays, over other issues, is not disagreeing civilly over Trump as well.”

“In this election, most American Jews – like most Americans – don’t feel they have the luxury to vote about anything else except ‘Yes Trump’ or ‘No Trump’. Those who object to Trump view his potential ascension as such a catastrophe that all other considerations pale besides them. Because you have two candidates who are professedly pro-Israel and fight about who is more pro-Israel than the other, there is no reason for American Jews to vote on the Israel issue.

“It is a deeply polarized electorate and especially post convention, we are seeing a lot of passion about the choice – both Clinton and Trump are still pretty unpopular – but Trump is justifiably stirring real fears, because he is an unguided conversational missile who could do great damage,” Troy stated.

Bernie Farber doesn’t disagree. A former chief executive officer of Canadian Jewish Congress and current CJN contributor, Farber ran unsuccessfully under the Liberal party banner in the 2011 Ontario provincial election. He called the U.S. campaign “unprecedented.”

“There is a significant difference between what happened in the Canadian election campaign and in the American campaign.

“In Canada, we had a divisive campaign, but it was more or less within the Canadian ambit… The leaders’ actions were, with exceptions, within the Canadian understanding of things, and people could accept or reject that, without the anger and acrimony that could occur. It was very Canadian with its impact and resolution.

“In the United States, it’s nothing like that,” he said, adding that the 2016 presidential campaign is the most divisive since Barry Goldwater carried the Republican banner in 1964.

“In the United States, the vast majority of American Jews are Democrats and voted in huge numbers for Obama and will do so for Hillary Clinton, not because they are Hillary Clinton fans,” said Farber, now executive director of the Mosaic Institute.

American Jews see the Democratic party as being more attuned to the values of ethnic diversity and anti-discrimination, “and Trump exemplifies what most Jews are against,” Farber said.

“American Jews’ fears are everybody’s fears – the fear of having a man with that level of knowledge of political systems who speaks whatever comes [to his mind], having a finger on the nuclear arsenal,” he added.

Despite his concerns over Trump as a candidate, Farber believes more political diversification in the Jewish community is generally a good thing. “In Canada, Jews are all over the place [when it comes to supporting parties], and that’s good for the community. In the United States, if the Republicans were more centrist, Jews would be more supportive,” he said.

Neil Flagg, a blogger and writer who worked for the Tories in the last election, cautions American Jews to be wary of anything reported in the media.

“My advice would be to ignore the media. They rely on emotions to turn us to particular candidates.”

Flagg said the media coverage tended to paint the Tories in a negative light, and the same thing is happening to Trump.

The coverage of the Mike Duffy Senate expenses scandal in Canada was one such instance, but in the end, Duffy was acquitted of corruption charges. “Not only did Harper not do anything wrong, neither did Duffy,” he said.

Flagg also cited the erroneous claim by Tory candidate Adler that he was the first child of a Holocaust survivor to be elected to Parliament. The media, he said, “twisted that to react emotionally to it. I thought that was despicable.”

“When it comes to the media, they prey on our emotions to divide and conquer, and twist it to one particular side, the Liberal side,” Flagg said.

The same can be seen in the United States, he continued. “There’s no balance.”

Like thousands of others born in Canada, Marc Dunec now lives and works in the United States. But unlike most of them, he’s tried his hand at politics, seeking the Democratic nomination for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in his home state of New Jersey. He was unsuccessful in his bid, losing to a Republican in the 2014 mid-terms, but he still keeps a close watch on political scene there, and as an officer of the Jewish Federation of Greater Metro West in New Jersey, he’s got an idea of where Jews stand on political issues in his community.

For U.S. lawmakers, support for Israel is not a partisan issue, he said. As a democracy that supports religious freedom and human rights, Israel receives the support of all parties, and of the vast majority of Americans who live in the middle of the political spectrum.

“The people I surround myself with don’t just vote on one issue, like Israel,” he said.

About 70 per cent of American Jews generally vote Democrat, he said, “and I expect it to be the same” this year.

Some Republicans will shift their support to Clinton “because Trump is not acting presidential, and Israel is not an issue for them,” he said.

The Iran deal, however, does concern many in the Jewish community and “even though the Democratic Party approved that deal. I’m hearing that those who oppose it will still vote Democratic because of the weak Republican candidate.”

Dunec said he has spoken to members of the Republican Jewish Coalition and some “have told me privately they will vote for Hillary Clinton, not because she is more pro-Israel than Trump. It’s because Donald Trump is a loose cannon.”

Interestingly, Dunec expects some of the same Jews who support Clinton will also vote for Republicans in the Senate and House.

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