Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon got his share of applause when he praised President George W. Bush at the Anti-Defamation League’s East Side offices Monday morning.
He was also confronted by a questioner who called Bush “the worst president ever in the White House” because of his administration’s style of diplomacy.
It was one of many sessions around the city during convention week in which visiting Republican legislators got a collective earful from Jewish community leaders on a wide range of issues. And although the GOP has placed Israel at the forefront of their efforts to court the Jewish vote, communal organizations asserted their strong interest in domestic policy.
The American Jewish Committee led the pack, hosting four days of forums with members of the House and Senate and other key panelists to discuss matters of concern to Jews and Latinos as well as Indian-, Asian-and Turkish-Americans. The lineup included Smith and Sens. Arlen Specter and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, as well as Representatives Chris Shays of Connecticut, Devin Nunes of California and Jim Leach of Iowa, among others.
The availability of the legislators during a busy convention schedule suggests that, despite traditionally low Jewish support for the GOP, its leaders are sparing no effort to build ties and increase President George W. Bush’s share of the community’s vote in November.
“They are conscientiously making a serious push into the Jewish community to tell us ‘We want your votes, we understand who you are,’ ” said Rabbi Jacob Goldstein, a Brooklyn chasid who works in the administration of Gov. George Pataki.
The ADL invited Smith to a breakfast Monday primarily because of his work on drafting national hate crimes legislation. “He has taken a lead on a number of issues on the agenda of the Jewish community, including the fight against international anti-Semitism,” said Jess Hordes, director of the ADL’s Washington office.
At the gathering, Smith said historic persecution of his own Mormon ancestors in the United States had led him to study the Holocaust, and he had learned from his parents to be “friends to Judah’s tribe.”
Asked about faith-based initiatives and fears of church-state entanglement, Smith defended Bush’s plan to provide funding for social services provided by religious groups.
“I don’t think neutrality means hostility,” said Gordon, insisting there should be no difference between a government scholarship to a faith-based college like the Mormons’ Brigham Young University and one to a parochial elementary school. “As long as charitable organizations keep proselytizing out of human outreach, we ought to try to reach a lot more people.”
Orthodox leaders couldn’t agree more. That’s why a group of them welcomed Senator Santorum, a key supporter of charitable choice, along with colleagues Susan Collins of Maine and Norm Coleman of Minnesota in Borough Park, Brooklyn on Tuesday. They were to learn how community programs such Ohel Children’s Home and the Hatzoloh ambulance corps deal with a wide range of social problems.
“To the extent that the Jewish establishment takes a different position on this issue, we’re delighted that [the senators] are recognizing that there is a segment of the Jewish world that believes in religious education and the power of faith to make us better people,” said David Zwiebel of Agudath Israel of America, one of the leaders who welcomed the senators. Zwiebel added that the visit indicated that the Orthodox community was emerging politically as a “specific sub-segment of the larger Jewish community.” Added David Mandel of Ohel: “What they see here can’t be replicated in their own districts.”
A frequent topic of discussion at several convention week events was the emerging controversy over an FBI investigation into whether classified U.S. documents were given to the Israeli government through AIPAC.
Smith said the allegations “don’t add up” because of the traditionally close cooperation between the two countries on defense matters. “I have a lot of questions to ask when this comes to the appropriate hearing,” he said.
The number of Jewish delegates to the convention, according to various sources, was estimated in the double digits — perhaps 2 percent of 4,800 — which makes it tougher to find one than it is to locate a Republican who has seen “Fahrenheit 9/11.”
But Political Memos located a pair from the great state of Indiana among the revelers at a Republican Jewish Coalition gala Monday night at the Plaza.
Art and Judy Levine, of Fishers, Ind., were attending his third and her fourth convention as delegates. Judy, a Hamilton County Councilwoman, says she’s been a Republican for some 35 years, while Art — a native of Rochester, N.Y. — is a newcomer.
“The turning point was marrying my wife, and then learning the virtues of capitalism, and certainly 9-11 solidified it as much as any event,” said Art, formerly in the investment business and now a teacher.
The Levines said they had no real qualms with the ultra-conservative Republican party plank, although Art said he was “more agnostic on the abortion issue. I’m sympathetic to both sides.”
As for the Bush tax cuts decried by most Jewish organizations for their impact on the delivery of social service programs, Judy, a Conservative Jew and former leader of B’nai B’rith in Los Angeles, said “I don’t think we should use tax codes to direct social policy,” and said faith-based organizations could use limited funds more effectively than the government. Added Art: “The way to help the poor among us is to create more wealth.”
Sen. Coleman was the emcee of the RJC event and, in between introducing such luminaries as House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, he also defended the Bush tax cuts. “I was an urban mayor [of St. Paul], and the way to get money to deliver social services is to grow the economy, by cutting taxes,” Coleman told The Jewish Week. “I didn’t raise taxes in eight years and in the end grew 18,000 jobs.”
When asked how the GOP could increase its appeal to Jews Coleman, one of only three Jewish Republicans in Congress, said the party needed to emphasize the war on terrorism as well as “social issues, economic issues and compassionate conservatism.” The senator cited Bush’s No Child Left Behind program to improve public schools and an initiative to subsidize more AIDS medicine. Most of the speakers he introduced, though, focused on Israel.
When Coleman, a moderate, was asked about his level of agreement with the Republican plank, he said: “I don’t know, I haven’t read it.”
Several hundred people who attended an event sponsored by AIPAC and United Jewish Communities Sunday night at Chelsea Piers got a sneak preview of former mayor Rudy Giuliani’s keynote speech before the convention the following night.
Seeming to speak extemporaneously, but perhaps with his completed convention speech in mind, Giuliani used many of the same talking points that would later appear in his Madison Square Garden text.
They included the notion that Islamic terrorism didn’t begin on 9-11 but dated back to the 1972 Munich Olympics and the attack on the Achille Lauro in 1985, in which Leon Klinghoffer was killed because he was a Jew. Giuliani noted in both speeches that the perpetrators of those attacks were each released by European governments who were afraid to confront terrorism.
In addition to potentially helping Bush, the pro-Israel references in Giuliani’s nationally televised address are sure to bolster his support among Jews — who supported his prior campaigns in higher proportions than almost any other ethnic group — as he mulls his political future.
Was a cross-like design at the convention podium a fundamentalist appeal, or simply a stylish coincidence?
Mostly unseen on TV but visible in some photos, the design was blasted by the National Jewish Democratic Council as “a symbol of exclusivity” that suggests evangelicals are the GOP’s top constituency. Convention planners say it was a simple art deco design.
“The convention planners say it wasn’t [a cross],” said the ADL’s Abe Foxman. “I take their word that it wasn’t.”