The bitterly fought 2004 presidential race may be remembered as the first election in recent memory in which the Republican incumbent put the Democratic challenger on the defensive about his support for Israel, essentially turning Israel into a wedge issue for Jews.
Concern about Israel was heightened by the four-year Palestinian intifada that has killed more than 1,000 Israelis, the fear of another terrorist attack in the United States and apprehension about the war on terrorism launched after 9-11.
Many Jews equated that war with Israel’s war with the Palestinians and believed that Americans’ desire for security was no different from Israelis’ desire to live in peace, free of terrorist attacks like the one on Monday that killed three Israelis in Tel Aviv.
It is perhaps for that reason that former Mayor Ed Koch’s efforts on behalf of President George W. Bush was initially thought to have such resonance when he campaigned before Jews in such battleground states as Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio and told them: “I don’t agree with President Bush on a single domestic issue of importance, but all of that is trumped by his standing up to international terrorism.”
Mark Gilbert, 48, a money manager from Boca Raton, Fla., who worked on the Kerry campaign and is a member of the Democratic Party’s national Finance Committee, said this was the first Republican administration he could remember that “made Israel a partisan issue.”
As a result, he said, the scene in south Florida was one in which Republican and Democratic Jews were “fighting with each other. … Although [Jews] may have had differences in the past, they were always on the same page when it came to Israel. The Republicans made a divide [in this election].”
Israel appeared to be a defining issue for many Jews, despite a poll of Jews in July by the National Jewish Democratic Council that found that only 15 percent considered Israel the most important issue in deciding which candidate to choose.
Although both Bush and Sen. John Kerry courted the Jewish vote through their support for Israel, neither man articulated a clear position on how they hoped to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or discussed their vision for a future Israel.
“It never became part of a really in-depth political discussion by the people running for office,” said Stephen Cohen, a national scholar with the Israel Policy Forum. “They skirted around it and gave us platitudes.
“We don’t have any idea of what their real analysis is … and what the U.S. should be doing. The main thrust of Bush’s campaign was that he has not done anything on this issue in the last several years and because of that he can be trusted.”
Cohen said the reason that both Bush and Kerry said little about Israel is because “the moment something is said, it will be controversial.”
“Jews have detailed and varied views, and so somebody is not going to like what is said,” Cohen said. “So if you do nothing, you can maintain a high level of trust.”
Richard Murphy, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, said a lot of his Jewish friends told him they resented the way Israel was treated in this election.
“[Bush and Kerry] were both misguided,” he said. “At lot of Jews I know said they should stop the pandering. They didn’t like that they were perceived to be a monolithic community that would swing because of a candidate’s views on Israel.”
But David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, said the good news from this election was that both major political parties “made a vigorous effort to get the Jewish vote.”
“It is very much in play and it counts,” he said.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said the outreach to Jewish voters by both parties was something that had not happened in a long time.
“In the past there was a lackluster effort,” he said. “The Democrats took us for granted and the Republicans believed they could never get us.”
Foxman said Israel became the cutting-edge issue in the election because the Republicans knew from polls that their social agenda could not wean Jews from the Democratic Party but that the issue of Israel presented them “with an opening to the Jewish community.”
“For the first time, the Democrats had to defend themselves [on Israel],” Foxman said. “They had to prove that they were better. And that is very, very healthy.”
It is not surprising that Bush should go after the Jewish vote because of the drubbing his father took from the Jewish community in 1992, according to Jonathan Sarna, professor of Jewish history at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass.
George H.W. Bush had amassed a respectable 35 percent of the Jewish vote when he was elected in 1988, but garnered only 11 percent when he lost his re-election bid four years later.
“Strong support for Israel and fighting terrorists were part of the Republican strategy that saw them able to link Jews, Evangelicals and hawks into a kind of unified strategy that made sense to the Republicans” and their anti-terrorism strategy, Sarna said.
To help woo Jewish votes, the Bush campaign published a glossy booklet stressing not only Bush’s support for Israel but also his actions against anti-Semitism and for religious freedom. And they quoted Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as saying that Bush was the best president ever for Israel.
The Democrats pointed to Kerry’s 100 percent voting record from AIPAC. They also trotted out Kerry’s younger brother, Cameron, who converted to Judaism 21 years ago when he married a Jewish woman, Kathy Weinman, and later raised two Jewish daughters.
In an e-mail Friday, Cameron Kerry wrote to supporters that as “proud as I will be to see my brother John Kerry stand up on the Capitol steps to take the oath of office as president, it just may equal the pride of seeing each of my daughters stand up on the bima to read from the Torah as a bat mitzvah.”