Israel Via Alabama

American Jews are famously driven by their values, not their interests, when it comes to politics. As a wag once put it, "Jews have the wealth and status of Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans." But most Jews today feel a deep and abiding interest in the security of Israel. More and more, that interest is driving their politics, sometimes to very unusual places.

Take Alabama's 7th Congressional District, a district that is 70 percent African-American and one of the poorest in the country. How did the Alabama "black belt" become embroiled in Middle East politics?

In 1997, Democratic Rep. Earl Hilliard—the first African-American elected to Congress from Alabama since Reconstruction—angered Israel's supporters when he traveled to Libya. This year, he angered them again when he voted against a House resolution that pledged support for Israel and condemned Palestinian suicide bombings.

Enter Artur Davis, a 34-year-old black Harvard University graduate and Birmingham lawyer who ran against Hilliard in 2000. He lost the Democratic primary then by 24 points. This time, Davis had his issue.

Earlier this year, Davis was a guest at a conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the leading pro-Israel lobby in the United States. "My opponent, Earl Hilliard, has not been a strong supporter of Israel," Davis told an interviewer during the conference. "I have been a very strong supporter of Israel. And if I am elected, Israel will have a friend."

Israel's supporters enabled Davis to do something he couldn't do last time: raise more money than the incumbent. In the 2000 race, Hilliard raised more than five times as much money as Davis. This year, as of June 5, Davis had outraised Hilliard $880,000 to $551,000, according to the Federal Election Commission. "We've gotten very strong support from the national Jewish community, and I am honored to have that support," Davis said at the AIPAC conference.

The money enabled Davis to run tough television ads attacking Hilliard's record. One ad said: "In exchange for your taxpayer dollars, this is the number of bills he's introduced on education: zero. Health care: zero. Economic development: zero. Civil rights: zero." Another ad focused on the congressman's record on the Middle East: "Earl Hilliard was writing a law that would force the U.S. to ... drop all sanctions against countries that support and finance international terror networks." The ad showed pictures of Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, and Muammar Gaddafi, superimposed on a map of the Middle East.

Hilliard's defense? Davis was trying to buy the race, with out-of-state money from places such as New York. "Are you for sale?" a Hilliard ad asked. "Artur Davis thinks so. The price? $270,000, from 290 people in businesses in New York." Appearing on-screen was a middle-aged white man, vaguely Jewish in appearance, lighting a cigar with money and laughing.

According to FEC reports, 82 percent of Davis's contributions from individuals in amounts larger than $200 did come from out-of-state, including 62 percent from New York. But 68 percent of Hilliard's individual contributions came from out-of-state as well, much of it from Arab-Americans, according to news reports.

Hilliard brought in outsiders to campaign for him, including a prominent New Yorker, the Rev. Al Sharpton. Sharpton, apparently referring to Davis, told a press conference: "Everybody that's our color is not our kind. Everybody that's our skinfolk is not our kinfolk."

On June 25, Davis beat Hilliard decisively in a runoff, 56 percent to 44 percent. With no Republican running in November, Davis has effectively been elected. The winner saw the outcome as a statement. "Racial and religious bigotry have no place in the 7th District," Davis told a victory rally. But the outcome was also a statement from American Jews: If you oppose Israel, we'll oppose you. That's a threat, and it paid off handsomely in Alabama.

It is rare for an incumbent, particularly a five-term incumbent, to be defeated for renomination in his own party. Every member of Congress took notice of what happened to Hilliard.

The Davis victory was the second triumph for Israel's supporters in as many days. The first came on June 24, when President Bush offered a vision for the Middle East that came very close to that of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. The president put pressure on the Palestinians to repudiate terrorism and embrace political reform as the price of U.S. support for a Palestinian state. Israelis and their supporters in the American Jewish community were delighted.

Partisan differences over the Middle East have become stronger and stronger. Last month, a Time magazine poll asked Americans, "Do you consider yourself a supporter of Israel?" The public was split: 43 percent said yes, 43 percent said no. Among Republicans, 53 percent called themselves supporters of Israel. The figure among Democrats: 40 percent.

Jews have continued to vote overwhelmingly Democratic in presidential elections. In 2000, 80 percent (about the same as Puerto Ricans) voted for Al Gore. And that wasn't simply because Gore's running mate was Jewish. In 1996, 80 percent of Jewish votes went to Bill Clinton as well. Now Bush is making a serious bid for Jewish support, and that is putting Jewish voters under stress. Their liberal values lie with the Democrats. But their interests, particularly on Israel, lie increasingly with the GOP.