Once again, Pennsylvania is playing host to one of the hottest elections of the season. And once again, a campaign targeted at the Jewish electorate is beginning to turn ugly.
There is much at stake in the race to fill the Senate seat being vacated by Sen. Arlen Specter. The Democrats are fighting to hold on to their majority while the Republicans view the midterm elections in November as an opportunity to take back the chamber.
Democrat Joe Sestak and Republican Pat Toomey are both eyeing the Jewish community as an important source of campaign funds and voter support. But beyond the usual courting that accompanies election campaigns, the Jewish community is becoming a major battleground.
Ironically, the warriors to date are not the candidates themselves, but rather, external groups seeking to use the race as a referendum on the Obama administration's policies on Israel.
On one side stands the newly formed Emergency Committee for Israel, a group of neoconservative Jews and evangelical Christians, led by William Kristol, which launched the first major salvo with a television ad targeting Sestak's record on Israel. This followed an effort by the locally based Jewish Americans for Sarah Palin, which made a similar case against Sestak in a Jewish Exponent ad that made waves.
On the other side stands J Street, the controversial political lobby that has responded to the anti-Sestak ad with its own TV buy, and now says it intends to bring in MoveOn.org to help boost its endorsed candidate.
Jews, particularly in states like Pennsylvania, have long exercised disproportionate influence, and candidates understand that they need to reach out to Jewish voters to earn that allegiance.
But we also know from past experience that campaigns that deliberately attempt to drive a wedge among Jews on issues such as Israel not only divide the community, but also often backfire against the candidate they were aiming to bolster.
There are legitimate questions being asked about both Sestak's and Toomey's congressional records when it comes to Israel. But the candidates, their advisers — and outside forces seeking to influence the race — must also understand that most Jews are not single-issue voters. Members of our community will examine the candidates' records and listen to what they have to say on the panoply of issues that affect us.
We look forward to a healthy debate on those issues. For its part, the Exponent will be out there asking the tough questions.
But we also implore all parties to think long and hard about misinterpreting the needs and wants of the Jewish electorate.
Do not make Pennsylvania the battleground for a proxy fight over U.S. policy in the Middle East. The issues are complex and painful enough without muddying them with an ugly display of electoral politics.