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Election Stirring Passions Among Jewish Women

Election Stirring Passions Among Jewish Women

Women’s rights, economic justice are top concerns, but some question Obama’s commitment to Israel.

Just as she did four years ago at about this time, Blu Greenberg has found herself in animated debate with friends who are planning to vote for Barack Obama, as well as those supporting Obama’s Republican opponent.

“I find myself arguing on both sides,” said Greenberg, a prominent Orthodox feminist, who notes that most of her liberal, feminist friends favor the president’s re-election, while most of her Orthodox friends favor Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee.

A founder and past president of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance, Greenberg is just as convinced as she’s always been that the Democratic position on such domestic issues as health care, economic justice and women’s rights is closely aligned with her own values. But she questions the strength of Obama’s commitment to Israel’s security and needs further information on that score before she decides how to cast her vote.

Greenberg’s uncertainty is at odds with how the vast majority of Jewish women are likely to vote this year. Indeed, American women, in general, are poised to vote for Obama in far greater numbers than men, as poll after poll has shown, and there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that a majority of Jews will support the president. Observers say that, if anything, Jewish women — many of them in the vanguard of various liberal movements — will vote for the president in even greater numbers than either Jewish men or women in general.

That observation is borne out by several polls conducted in the past few months. The earliest, a poll conducted by the American Jewish Committee in March, during the Republican primaries, showed the president leading Romney among American Jews at the time by 61 percent to 28 percent. By gender, the poll showed 67 percent of Jewish women supporting Obama, as opposed to 55 percent of the male respondents.

The most recent survey, a tracking poll released this week by the Gallup organization, found that 70 percent of registered Jewish voters favored Obama, as opposed to 25 percent for Romney. Like the earlier AJC poll, the Gallup also found a gender gap in the Jewish community, reporting that the president was favored by 63 percent of the men surveyed and 77 percent of the women.

Steven M. Cohen, director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at New York University, told The Jewish Week that the percentage of Jewish women voting for Obama this November could reach as high as 80 percent. Cohen, who has also polled American Jews, said the president’s support among Jewish women is driven largely by their liberal views on economic issues.

Explaining that outlook, Ester Fuchs, a professor of political science at Columbia University, said Jewish women active in communal life are very often at the forefront of helping the needy, which aligns them with the kinds of policies advanced by Obama. “Jewish women have a better understanding than many about the role of government in supporting communal programs.”

But if Greenberg’s uncertainty places her in the minority of Jewish women, she’s surely not alone in having the concerns she does. Other women interviewed by The Jewish Week in the past few days include several who favor Romney and one who, like Greenberg, considers herself on the fence. With a majority of American Jews having made up their minds, just like the majority of Americans, those who are still struggling over their choice could play a decisive role in swing states like Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania — and it’s their votes that partisans in both camps are trying to win.

“How any female can vote for this pair is beyond me,” said Letty Cottin Pogrebin, an ardent supporter of Obama, in reference to Romney and his running mate, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan. “The issue has to matter to any woman who understands the importance of making her own decisions over her own body, including when to have children.”

A founder of Ms. Magazine and author of “Deborah, Golda, and Me: Being Female and Jewish in America,” Pogrebin cited several stances by the two candidates as evidence that Republicans really are conducting a “War on Women.” Those positions include Romney’s promise to defund Planned Parenthood, his opposition to the Roe v. Wade decision and Ryan’s sponsorship of a federal “personhood” bill, which would have defined a fertilized egg as a human being. They also include Ryan’s vote in favor of a measure that would have allowed hospitals to refuse to perform an emergency abortion, even if the woman’s life depended on it, for religious reasons.

But Greenberg and others, including several women who are pro-choice but favor Romney, don’t share Pogrebin’s views over what a President Romney could or might do in relation to abortion.

“The Republicans are making loud noises on this, but I don’t think anyone could roll back the rights,” Greenberg said, suggesting that abortion has become such an established right in this country that it could never disappear.

One pro-choice Republican, Washington attorney Elizabeth Ross, even believes that Romney is sympathetic to the pro-choice position despite his public stands. Ross noted reports that the candidate’s wife, Ann, is pro-choice, as well as the fact that one of his cousins died from a botched abortion in 1963, a decade before Roe v. Wade.

Such comments stun Pogrebin, who said that “Roe v. Wade at this point is nonexistent in a vast part of this country,” especially in those areas with no abortion clinics, and that many states have steadily chipped away at the right. “The fact is that women would die if [Republican] policies on reproductive rights were the law of the land. We’d be back to illegal abortion.”

Another argument advanced by women who are either undecided or supporters of the GOP is that the question of reproductive rights pales in comparison to concerns over Israel or over radical Islam.

“I’m in favor of abortion, but I don’t want the Taliban in my bed,” said Phyllis Chesler, an author and academic who considers herself a feminist. “These Islamist forces are far more dangerous to women — particularly Jewish women — than right-wing Christians are.”

Chesler, an observant Jew who has written about the dangers facing women, gays and dissidents in the Muslim world, also objects to what she calls the liberal “mindset,” one that she believes perceives the United States as evil, Third World countries as all innocent and Israel as the aggressor.

Some of Chesler’s comments echo those of the Romney campaign, which has called Democratic references to a “War on Women” a distraction from other, more important issues. But Clo Ewing, a spokeswoman for the Obama campaign, said Democrats regard the health of women as something more than a distraction. “The fact that some refer to women’s health as a distraction shows where they are on this issue,” she said.

Meanwhile, David A. Harris, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, told The Jewish Week that American Jews don’t have to choose between one candidate who represents their views on social issues and another candidate who represents their views on Israel.

“Part of our job in educating American Jews is to point out that it’s not an either-or proposition. You can vote for someone strong on social issues who’s also strong on Israel and national security.”

Discussing the campaign from a Jewish perspective, Naomi Mark, a Manhattan-based therapist and Orthodox feminist, said Jewish law requires not only a devotion to Israel, but also a commitment to creating a just society and to serving those who are poor and vulnerable. “These are very fundamental Jewish values,” she said, “and they’re all related.”

One Jewish day-school teacher, a woman who wanted to remain anonymous because she doesn’t want her students knowing her politics, said Israel is always a concern for her, no matter who’s running for office or serving as president. But she said every president has done things that have pleased or annoyed the pro-Israel community. She’s “mindful” of whether a politician is connected to Israel in his “kishkes,” she said, referring to a common expression in the Jewish community, “but I look at results.”

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