Stephen Weiner of Sunnyside, an alternate delegate to the Republican National Convention that convened here this week, said that more and more of his fellow congregants at the Young Israel of Sunnyside who voted against George W. Bush four years ago are planning to vote for him in November.
“They are concerned about terrorism in Israel and are supportive of Israel,” he explained. “They are also aware of a lot of anti-Semitism in Europe. And when they hear [Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry] say let’s get along better with Europe, they believe that the next logical step is for him to condemn Israel.
“This administration seems to be pro-Israel and I’m comfortable with that. As an observant Jew, I am also comfortable with the president’s position on [many] social issues.”
But Weiner may not be typical. For most Jews this election could highlight more starkly than ever the wide gap between single-issue pro-Israel voters, a vocal minority, and the majority of Jews for whom Israel is just one on a broad menu of issues.
This year’s GOP platform highlights those differences. It includes some of the most comprehensive pro-Israel language ever, but also tilts heavily to the religious right on a range of domestic issues.
John Green, a University of Akron political scientist, said that the platform “will be a good test for the Jewish vote: Bush is very good on Israel, but all tied up with religious conservatives.”
At events organized this week for Jews attending the convention, Bush spokesmen stressed the president’s support for Israel and his strong response to fighting global terrorism. And the Republican Jewish Coalition issued a statement saying that the Republican platform is “more comprehensive in its support for Israel’s security and the safety of the Jewish community” than the Democratic platform.
It is a “stark contrast,” the coalition declared, noting that the Democrat’s devoted just 233 words to the Middle East and “totally ignored the growing global crisis of anti-Semitism.”
The coalition’s statement made no mention of Bush’s domestic agenda, which many Republicans privately concede is more out of sync with the Jewish community. Many Jewish voters feel they are thus confronted with the question of whether to vote for Bush because of his record on Israel and his handling of the global terrorism, or Kerry because of his domestic agenda. He would, for instance, support a women’s right to chose, provide greater federal funding for stem cell research and permit states to decide whether to recognize same-sex marriage. Bush opposes those positions.
A poll released last month by Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research for the National Jewish Democratic Council found that only 15 percent of Jewish voters consider Israel as one of two issue areas that would be most important to them in deciding which presidential candidate to support. Terrorism and national security, as well as the economy and jobs, were at the top of the list. (Some interpret the poll results to indicate that many Democrats feel Kerry and Bush are equally strong on Israel, and thus the concern about Israel’s fate is less pressing.)
Many Republican Jews at the convention scoffed at the poll results, though. Judith Brachman, an alternate delegate from Columbus, Ohio, questioned how some of the issues could be separated. “It’s all interconnected,” she said.
The terrorist attack in Beersheva Tuesday that killed at least 16 and injured 90 demonstrated that fact. And a day before the convention, supporters of The Israel Project, a pro-Israel group, read the names of nearly 1,000 Jews killed in the four-year Palestinian intifada. They read the same names in July at the Democratic National Convention in Boston.
Rabbi Neal Turk of Miami Beach said he found that poll “disturbing” and attributed it to a belief among many Jews that “Israel is secure, which is a mistake.”
“I’d hate to think that anything good can come from [this week’s] terrorist attack, but people have to realize we have to support candidates who are very pro-Israel,” he said. “We should not be looking to swing the pendulum to a more equal approach in the Middle East,” Rabbi Turk said. “I would rather take a chance with a second term Bush than a first term Kerry and his talk of [James] Baker and Jimmy Carter as his special envoys to Israel, which is frightening.”
Kerry later retracted that comment and his supporters have pointed out that Bush has been far from a consistent supporter of Israel, at one point calling Israel’s security barrier a “wall” but later supporting it. He also cut a reported $290 million from the American loan guarantees to Israel to penalize it for settlement activities in the West Bank, including for building part of the security barrier in the West Bank. And the Kerry campaign has cited Kerry’s repeated promise “never to force Israel to make concessions” that compromise its security.
For George Shore, a Jewish alternate delegate from Philadelphia, this election comes down to one issue: Israel.
“The issue is purely support for Israel,” he said. “The Democratic convention made no mention of support for Israel, outside of [Vice Presidential nominee Sen. John] Edward’s token comment. And President [Jimmy] Carter did talk of it — but from a Palestinian standpoint.”
Shore said he believes the reason is that there are “so many left-wing Democrats who are pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel and so therefore they were afraid of bringing it up.”
“The Republican convention is not directed by Jews but by a significant number of Christian Zionists,” he continued, saying it was surprising that support for Israel is stronger among Republican conservatives than among liberal Democrats.
Jewish Americans traditionally vote Democratic by an 80-20 split, Shore noted, “and the Republican Jewish Coalition is trying to educate American Jews [about the reality today].”
George Kitke, a Manhattan lawyer who attended a Tuesday briefing for primarily Orthodox Jews, said that although he sees Jews slowly gravitating to the Republican Party, “it’s hard for Jews to look in the mirror and say I am not a Democrat because of what the Democrats have done for us over the years.”
“We’re not moving away from the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party is moving away from us,” he said, paraphrasing former President Ronald Reagan. “Although the Democrats have been outstandingly good for the Jews for the past 50 years, most Jews if they read the Democratic platform carefully would realize that they are aligning themselves with the wrong party. Take a look at the overall Republican platform and you will find that it is more in sync with genuine Jewish values.”
Although the Republican Party has traditionally reached out to Orthodox Jews because of their similar domestic agenda, Kitke said there was something different about this week’s Bush campaign briefing attended by more than 100 Jews at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel.
“There was a sense in the room that we were at home,” he said.
Among those conducting the briefing were Tevi Troy, a former Bush policy adviser, Timothy Goeglein, another Bush staffer, and Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback.
Before the briefing, Rabbi Turk of Miami Beach spoke glowingly about Bush.
“If I were to try to fashion a president to be pro-Israel, I wonder if I could make one as pro-Israel as Bush,” he said. “On certain social issues we find ourselves in agreement as well — on abortion, same sex marriage”
Ezra Friedman, a chasidic Jew who has his own public relations firm, said he would have thought that the speakers at the briefing would have felt comfortable talking about Bush’s social agenda because it coincides with that of many Orthodox Jews. The fact that they did not and kept stressing Bush’s support of Israel suggests that “the White House made a political decision … to stick to foreign affairs and the war on terror.”
“They feel that at the end of the day, people will make a decision based on personal security and which candidate will better protect the United States of America from another terror attack,” he said. “It will not come down to the economy and social issues.”
Rabbi Moshe Birnbaum, a Conservative rabbi from Long Island who attended a Republican Jewish Coalition reception Monday, said he was voting for Bush because of Bush’s “world view, the people he has around him and for his muscular foreign policy.”
Rabbi Birnbaum, who said he had voted in the past for Democrats George McGovern, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, as well as Republicans Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, said he disagreed with some of Bush’s domestic policies, such as granting amnesty to illegal immigrants and restricting government funding for stem cell research.
“Kerry scares me because of who he has around him and what a Democratic administration might do in terms of foreign affairs,” he added.