With congressional elections still seven months away and the next presidential race more than two years off, Jewish Republicans are scrambling to exploit what they say is a seismic shift in the Jewish political firmament.
Jewish voters, they say, are ripe for switching partisan allegiances thanks to soft support for Israel among the Democrats and the hawkishly pro-Israel positions staked out by top congressional Republicans.
But while most experts concede that the landscape of Jewish politics is in a state of flux not seen since the days of the Carter administration, few believe that will translate into wholesale changes the next time Jewish voters — still heavily Democratic — go to the polls.
“It’s more a dalliance than an alliance with the Republicans at this point,” said Jeffrey
Ballabon, a leading Jewish Republican activist. “And it will stay that way unless Republicans take advantage of this opportunity, while we have the attention of the Jewish community, to explain the organic connection between core Republican principles and their strong and unwavering support for Israel.”
Other analysts say, however, that while Jews have generally given President George W. Bush — who only got 19 percent of the Jewish vote in 2000 — high marks for his war on terrorism and have reacted positively to the hard-line pro-Israel rhetoric of many conservative Republicans, in the end a host of domestic issues will have an even greater impact on shaping Jewish voting behavior.
On issues ranging from abortion to prayer in schools, the GOP will continue to face an uphill fight in its pitch to Jewish voters.
“[House Majority Whip] Tom DeLay and his clones can sound as pro-Israel as they want,” said Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, a partisan group. “But when they run against pro-Israel Democrats — and at the same time proclaim the need for a ‘Christian America,’ Jewish voters are going to turn away from the Republicans in droves.”
But the Democrats also face big problems, other observers say, including growing confusion about exactly where the party stands on the Mideast mess.
“The Democrats appear to be adrift,” said a longtime Jewish activist here. “They have no idea what they want in the Middle East, except that they know they don’t want to look like Bush’s echoes. And that ends up making them look pro-Palestinian, or at least less pro-Israel than Bush does.”
The signs of shifting partisan sands are all over, although it’s hard to separate reality from spin by partisan groups like NJDC and its GOP counterpart, the Republican Jewish Coalition.
A recent Gallup Poll had some alarming numbers for the Democrats. Overall, the poll showed a drop in public sympathy for Israel as the Mideast crisis continues.
What really grabbed the attention of Jewish politicos was the finding that sympathy for Israel was significantly stronger among Republicans than Democrats. Among Republicans surveyed, 64 percent said they sympathized more with Israel, to 38 percent among Democrats.
Democrats, according to the poll, were far likelier than Republicans to express sympathy for neither side.
The poll showed a significantly higher rate of sympathy for Israel in the South, the most Republican section of the country.
Political scientists point to several factors behind the apparent shift. At the top of the list: the political coming of age of conservative Christians under the Republican umbrella.
That trend represents a “striking new dynamic in the Republican Party,” said Marshall Wittmann, a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute.
“The paradox is this: much of elite Jewish opinion was very concerned about the emergence of the religious right a decade ago. Now they’re pleasantly surprised about their influence in the party because they are so strongly pro-Israel,” he said. “That’s a big shocker for the Jewish political elite.”
Also, the isolationist wing of the party, once led by columnist and presidential candidate Pat Buchanan, who left the party in 2000, is all but extinct.
At the same time, Wittmann said, “the Democratic Party has moved more to the left. The difficulty for Jewish Democrats is that there aren’t many Scoop Jackson Democrats left. The only Democrat who can trace his legacy back to Jackson is Joe Lieberman.”
Many Democrats remain wedded to the Oslo peace process, Wittmann said. Most American Jews supported those negotiations, but with Yasir Arafat’s turn to violence, continuing support for that framework looks to many Jews like hostility to Israel.
The shift has been particularly noticeable in Congress.
On the Democratic side of the aisle, there are isolated pockets of resistance to the pro-Israel cause, and bigger segments where support is uncertain — such as the Congressional Black Caucus, which includes several outspokenly hostile members and a number of others whose support for Israel is shaky.
On the Republican side, in contrast, a number of high-profile lawmakers have staked out positions that differ little from those of the current hard-line Israeli government — or are even more hard line.
At last week’s policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, DeLay earned a big ovation when he suggested that Israel should hold on to every scrap of West Bank and Gaza land.
But DeLay, a Texas Republican, also illustrates the fly in the GOP ointment. The former exterminator is one of the most partisan conservative voices on Capitol Hill, an outspoken opponent of abortion and a leading supporter of controversial domestic proposals such as school vouchers and organized school prayer.
DeLay recently was excoriated by NJDC leaders for what they called “exclusionist” comments when the lawmaker told a Texas church audience that “Only Christianity offers a comprehensive worldview that covers all areas of life and thought, every aspect of creation. Only Christianity offers a way to live in response to the realities that we find in this world — only Christianity.”
But the paradox is that many of Israel’s new best friends in Congress are bitter opponents of most Jewish groups on a host of domestic issues. And while the Mideast issue is the overwhelming preoccupation of the Jewish community today, most observers expect that domestic issues will come back into focus by the next presidential election — or even this year’s congressional contests.
“Right now they have the bully pulpit, and they have a president who is running a war against terrorism, which most Jews support,” said a leading Jewish Democrat. “And we do face a real challenge in dealing with some liberal factions in the [Democratic] party where sympathy for the Palestinians is growing.
“But it’s not all sweetness and light for the Republicans. In the end, Jews just aren’t going to buy their domestic agenda, no matter how much their leaders sound like Bibi Netanyahu when they talk about the Middle East.”
In fact, many experts say, GOP leaders understand this reality.
“The Republican leadership is actually being very smart,” said Benjamin Ginsberg, a political scientist at Johns Hopkins University. “They’re not playing for the Jewish masses; they’re not playing for a few more votes in New York. It’s the activist core that matters.”
Jews, Ginsberg said, “have always been the brain, the wallet and the legs of the Democratic Party. If that core of activists can be even partially detached from the Democrats, it could have a huge impact.”
Even a 20 percent change in Jewish political giving, he said, could shake the political world to its core.
That, other observers say, is the real motivation for the sudden spurt of news stories trumpeting the GOP shift.
“They have a strong hand right now,” said a leading pro-Israel activist here, “and they’re playing it for all it’s worth by creating the impression that Jews are deserting the Democrats in large numbers. There’s no evidence that will happen, but the Democrats are vulnerable when it comes to the Jewish political elite.”
They’re also vulnerable when it comes to an energized, active and affluent Orthodox community, a group that is a primary target of GOP outreach. Jewish leaders are pleased that both parties are trying so hard to prove their pro-Israel bona fides, but several expressed concern that the surge of partisan fighting over Israel could have a negative impact on the pro-Israel movement.
“The genius of the pro-Israel movement over the decades has always been its bipartisan nature,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee. “Frankly, my big concern is not Republican-Democratic contentiousness over Israel but a liberal-conservative split. There is a perception, which has been encouraged by a spate of articles talking about a close identification between Israel and the conservative movement in the United States, that pro-Israel liberals are nowhere to be found. I don’t believe that is entirely true.”
But Harris conceded that could translate into a real partisan divide down the road.
“If self-identified liberals begin to believe that supporting Israel is a conservative cause, then almost by definition they’ll stay away,” he said.