Shul Politics

Washington is a city of microcultures with major power. At first glance, its C-SPAN-ready inhabitants may all look alike, but over time you learn to distinguish the import of the small differences that Washingtonians allow themselves. If you see a gaggle of people smoking outside a formal dress event, for instance, you're likely looking at a group of Republicans. Men with close-clipped beards tend to be Democrats who work at nonprofits, or Arab diplomats, while a certain facial tautness is a common marker of membership in the Botoxed political donor class that lives in Georgetown. And then there are the kippahs (well, kippot, to use the Hebrew plural, or yarmulkes, to use the Yiddish).

Of all the rifts in Washington, the great kippah divide has stirred up the most controversy of late. That, of course, is not what anyone is calling the most recent round of controversy over the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which has been charged by academics, liberal journalists, and bloggers with having an undue influence on U.S. policies in the Middle East. At the heart of the dispute, though, sits a more familial conflict: an intra-Jewish community divide over religious practices, concern for Israel, and political affiliation during an era of resurgent liberalism and new Democratic Party strength.

It's a divide you can see in audiences all over the city. Go to a conservative Hudson Institute event, and you'll likely spot the occasional kippah in the audience. At the Democratic Leadership Council's (DLC) annual meeting, though, you're sure to see plenty. But at the yearly conference of the liberal Campaign for America's Future, you'll find lots of Jews, but zero kippahs. Political liberalism and secularism go hand in hand in America. Fewer than half of American Jews belong to synagogues, and, of those, Reform congregations draw the most. Attachment to Israel tracks closely with synagogue attendance, intensity of Jewish identity, and concern with anti-Semitism. No surprise, then, that the population of Jews most active on Israel issues is quite a bit more religious and conservative than average.

While the latest round of controversy over the "Israel lobby" was launched last year by an article from political scientists Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, this spring's new volley of criticism came from a mainly young, inside-the-Beltway group of Jews whose religious practices don't involve weekly attendance at any of the Washington synagogues where AIPAC staffers are still treated as the chosen of the chosen. Rather than being a sign of a resurgent anti-Semitism or anti-Israel sentiment, much less Jewish self-hatred, however, the new liberal critiques of AIPAC closely mirror recent efforts by the resurgent progressive movement, home to many Jews without kippahs, to force groups whose base is Democratic, but whose politics are deemed too conservative for the present era, to relitigate their hold on power.

During the last four years, Democratic Party liberals have repeatedly forced centrist Democrats and nonpartisan interest groups to freshly contend for the influence they'd wielded unchallenged for years. Many of these divides date back to the Howard Dean campaign, which was opposed within the Democratic Party by the DLC, The New Republic, and former vice-presidential candidate Joe Lieberman. Since then, Dean's opponents have all clashed with -- and ceded some power to -- the new progressive bloggers, media critics, and political activists. Dean has taken control of the party apparatus, The New Republic has brought on a cadre of more liberal writers, Lieberman left the party entirely to retain his seat after losing his Democratic primary race, and DLC leaders Evan Bayh and Tom Vilsack ultimately chose not to vie for the Democratic presidential nomination.

The controversy over AIPAC is symptomatic of the deep suspicion with which the newly muscular progressive movement which includes many liberal Jews, regards AIPAC's years-long effort to ingratiate itself with the Bush administration. But any interest group seeking Democratic ties that has also forged alliances with ultraconservative Christians -- and that recently featured a controversial right-wing pastor at its annual conference, as AIPAC has -- would find itself challenged in the new political environment. Indeed, liberal stalwarts NARAL Pro-Choice America and the Sierra Club caught hell from progressive bloggers in 2005 and '06 merely for backing moderate Republicans.

That doesn't mean that Democrats will turn away from Israel in the years ahead, any more than they would from environmentalism or a woman's right to choose. But it does mean that AIPAC will likely continue to face criticism from a political movement that's demanding a wholesale renegotiation of who holds power in America.