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WEB EXCLUSIVE | JEFF JACOBY

Bush, Kerry, and the Jewish vote

WHEN they go to the polls in November, which of the two major parties will American Jews support? Consider:

At Party A's national convention, a prime speaking slot went to an infamous racial inciter, one with an ugly history of Jew-baiting. At Party B's convention, a leading speaker recalled with empathy the many pre-9/11 victims of terrorism, such as Leon Klinghoffer, whom the killers ''marked ... for murder solely because he was Jewish.''

Party A's presidential nominee said nothing about Israel in his convention acceptance speech. Party B's nominee, on the other hand, made a point of referring to ''our good friend Israel'' - and his campaign later distributed that portion of his remarks to its national e-mail list.

Increasingly, Party A is the political home of those who demonize Jews, such as the South Carolina senator who claimed that the war in Iraq was launched to ''take the Jewish vote.'' Conversely, Party B has driven out the anti-Semites in its midst, and is now where the most ardent philo-Semites in American politics are concentrated.

So which party will American Jews vote for in November?

If you know your political tides, the answer won't surprise you: Jews will almost certainly vote overwhelmingly for Party A - the Democratic Party - just as they have for more than half a century. They will do so notwithstanding the Democrats' willingness to indulge a race-baiting hustler like Al Sharpton. Notwithstanding John Kerry's uncertain trumpet in the war against radical Islamic terror. Notwithstanding the Bush administration's unprecedented support and friendship for Israel.

For countless American Jews, loyalty to the Democratic ticket is as automatic as breathing. The roots of that loyalty run deep. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, waves of Jewish immigrants from Europe, where the most anti-Semitic elements of society were often the most conservative, brought with them an intense aversion to right-wing politics - and an appreciation for the left, which they associated with emancipation and equality. Those attitudes were intensified during World War II, when the most lethal enemy in Jewish history was ultimately destroyed by an alliance led by a liberal Democrat named Franklin Roosevelt.

But America in 2004 is very different from the America of 50 or 100 years ago. American Jews owe it to themselves to base their political loyalty on something stronger than force of habit. Those who vote for Democrats (or against Republicans) because that's what their parents and grandparents did ought to take a closer look: When it comes to the issues they care about most, their loyalty may be misplaced.

Israel, for example.

Like millions of Americans, many Jewish voters are concerned about the safety and security of Israel. It is a concern they share with George W. Bush, who presides over what is widely considered to be the most pro-Israel administration in history. That stands in contrast not only to his father's record -- the first Bush administration had a very strained relationship with Israel -- but in some ways to Bill Clinton's as well. During the Clinton years, no foreign leader visited the White House more frequently than Yasser Arafat. The current administration regards Arafat as an untrustworthy liar, and has never invited him to the White House.

Bush likewise broke with the past by insisting that Palestinian democracy and tolerance, and a leadership ''not compromised by terror,'' are prerequisites to peace with Israel. Unlike John Kerry, who speaks of making the United Nations a ''full partner'' in US foreign policy, Bush is under no illusions about the UN's intense anti-Israel hostility. Nor has he had any difficulty recognizing the poisonous strain of anti-Semitism that runs beneath some of the most virulent denunciations of the Jewish state.

When the UN's self-styled ''conference against racism'' in Durban, South Africa, in 2001 turned into a grotesque anti-semitic debauch, Bush ordered the US delegation to walk out. When the prime minister of Malaysia opened an international summit by declaring that ''Jews rule the world by proxy,'' Bush personally rebuked him. In all this, he has come across not as a politician acting out of calculated expedience, but as a man acting on principle and conviction.

Bush got only 19 percent of the Jewish vote in 2000; he has known all along that most Jews would vote Democratic in 2004. Yet there is nothing anomalous about his ardent support for Israel or his firm stance against anti-Semitism. Unlike the Europe of Jewish memory, in the United States today it is the left that has increasingly set its face against Jewish interests. As poll after poll confirms, conservative Republicans are much more likely to self-identify as pro-Israel than liberal Democrats. It is no surprise that a man like Pat Buchanan has had to leave the Republican Party. Or that a man like Sharpton is at home among the Democrats.

Of course these are not the only issues that Jewish voters care about. For many voters, Jewish or otherwise, domestic matters - abortion, jobs, taxes, the environment - trump every other concern.

But those for whom these issues do weigh heavily have an obligation to look beyond party label. This isn't 1944. No one should be voting as if it is.

Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is jacoby@globe.com. 

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