I KNEW A WOMAN who once spoke to her Italian neighbor in an Italian accent and spoke to her maid in a black accent and spoke to all telephone operators by enunciating all her words and talking very slowly. When I told her that she was condescending, she dismissed the notion out of hand. Thank God she did not answer me in a Jewish accent.
I am reminded of this lady because the presidential candidates have come perilously close to doing the same thing -- talking down to their audiences. They speak before every special interest group they can find, talking down to them all, asking none of them to sacrifice or bite the bullet or consider the long-term implications of the promises that have been made to them.
This is particularly true of American Jews. They are being talked to in this campaign as if their sole concern was Israel and as if this concern overrode all other considerations. Thus, when all three presidential candidates spoke before B'nai B'rith, the subject at hand was always Israel and their comments were, at the very least, 100 percent supportive. Only President Carter managed to bring up the other issues that concern American Jews and B'nai B'rith, but these were mentioned only in passing.
This is not to say that American Jews are not concerned about Israel or that Israel is not their No. 1 concern. It is just that it is not their only concern and for a whole lot of Jews it is not a concern that overrides, say, their concern that Ronald Reagan, good friend of Israel though he be, might just appoint a Supreme Court that would be hard to live with.
The debate between the candidates is not taking place, after all, between men who hold widely differing views about Israel. In fact, the debate is held in the context of who loves Israel more. On that score, Ronald Reagan wins hands down. His view of Israel is strictly adulatory. It is our friend, our ally, of strategic importance, a fellow democracy and apparently can do no wrong.
As for the Palestine Liberation Organization, Reagan talks about it as if it were some sort of Middle East motorcycle gang and not a political-military organization with an ideology, a cause and growing political support both within the region and around the world. In the black and white world of Ronald Reagan, Israel is white and the PLO black. Would that it were that simple.
John Anderson is not much of an improvement. He, too, is singularly unimaginative when it comes to the Middle East, having devised his foreign policy to suit his domestic policy, which is, at the moment, to get elected. Even President Carter, who sometimes gives indications of understanding that there is, even in the Middle East, another side to the story, is threatening to be born again -- this time as my grandmother. She was what you might call soft on Israel.
The thing is that most of us are soft on Israel -- and with good reason. Israel really is a democracy and it really had been under siege most of its existence. It really does seek peace and, as if to prove it, really did give away (or return) the oil fields in the Sinai in the cause of peace. Even as an occupation power, it does its occupying in a relatively benign fashion. To love Israel is not a cause for shame.
But neither is it reason to lose all critical faculties. Israel sometimes does wrong. Israel sometimes does things it should not. Israel was created by colonial powers in a fit of colonial mentality. (The same is true, by the way, for Jordan.) And while there is no changing that and no sense apologizing for it, it does no good either, to believe that some feelings were not hurt along the way -- some peoples, namely Palestinians, dislocated.
None of the candidates, though, talk this way. They talk of an unreal Israel, a goody-goody Israel that does not, and has not, existed. The Israel that they mention is an insult to the intelligence of Americans and since they usually talk this way to American Jews, it is specifically an insult to the intelligence of American Jews.
The candidates, of course, are not entirely to blame. The leadership of many of the major Jewish organizations contribute mightily to limiting the agenda to Israel and for suggesting that any criticism of Israel, or any attempt to deal realistically and fairly with the Palestinians, is cause for outrage.
But whatever the cause, the result is that when it comes to American Jews, the debate is limited to Israel and then almost nothing is really said. Not only are American Jews insulted in this way, but, worse yet, the cause of peace suffers.You don't have to be Jewish to be concerned.