Biden and the Jews: Strong ties and friendly disagreements

DENVER (JTA)—Before he announced his vice presidential pick on Saturday, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) said he wanted someone to spar with but who ultimately would be loyal enough to create a comfortable working relationship.

No one knew then that he had picked U.S. Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.), 65, but his ISO ad fit Biden’s relationship with the Jewish community perfectly.

The loquacious Biden, who has served in the U.S. Senate since 1973, has sparred frequently with the pro-Israel community and with Israelis, particularly on the issue of settlements. But he has a sterling voting record on pro-Israel issues, and has as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee helped shepherd through key pro-Israel legislation.

His straightforwardness is considered an asset, even among those supporters who have disagreed with him.

“He’s open minded, he votes his own conscience,” said Gary Erlbaum, a Philadelphia-based real estate developer who has backed Biden among other politicians, Democrats and Republicans alike. “I don’t always agree with him” but “he does not try to sugarcoat.”

Biden has been especially sharp in criticizing the U.S. and Israeli failure to support Mahmoud Abbas in 2003, when he was the Palestinian Authority prime minister attempting to establish a power base to challenge then-president Yasser Arafat. Abbas was eventually sidelined by Arafat, allowing the Palestinian leader to continue his policies of corruption and stasis until his death—and creating a vacuum ultimately filled in large part by Hamas terrorists.

Biden’s longstanding relationship with the Jewish community should reassure Jews who still feel anxious about Obama, who has deep ties to the Chicago Jewish community but who has been on the national stage barely four years, said Cameron Kerry.

“I’ve seen the enormous respect he commands in the pro-Israel community,” said Kerry, himself a convert to Judaism and a senior adviser to the 2004 presidential campaign of his brother, U.S. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).“He has a well-established record, he knows the issues, and he can talk the talk. He’s may be the best goyische surrogate I’ve seen in the Jewish community.”

Biden’s son married into a Jewish family, but his keen interest in the region dates back to his first visit as a U.S. senator, not long before the 1973 Yom Kippur. He met Israel’s then-prime minister, Golda Meir.

He came away from that meeting understanding that “there is this inextricable tie between culture, religion, ethnicity that most people don’t fully understand—that is unique and so strong with Jews worldwide,” Biden said in an interview with Shalom TV last year, when he launched his own presidential bid. “When I was a young senator, I used to say, ‘If I were a Jew I’d be a Zionist.’ I am a Zionist. You don’t have to be a Jew to be a Zionist.’”

Mark Gittenstein, who worked for Biden from 1976-1989, said no one matched his breadth of knowledge on Israel—not even his Jewish staffers. “He was much more knowledgeable about Israel and its problems than I was.”

Biden has a keen understanding of the Holocaust, partly because of his relationship with Tom Lantos, the late California Democratic congressman who was the only Holocaust survivor elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Biden hired Lantos as an adviser in the late 1970s, a leap into politics that led the Hungarian-born economist to consider a political career.

At a memorial service for Lantos in February, Biden cracked up the somber crowd recalling how Lantos marveled at his son-in-laws very Middle American names. “My daughters married Aryans,” Biden recalled Lantos as saying.

More substantively, his tutoring by Lantos led Biden to take the lead on genocide issues, and he is currently a champion on efforts to isolate Sudan over the massacre of hundreds of thousands of civilians in its restive Darfur province.
“Any country that engages in genocide forfeits their sovereignty,” he said to applause at a National Jewish Democratic Council presidential candidate forum last year.

Obama, who has been outspoken in opposing the Iraq war, had considered a number of centrist and conservative Democrats as running mates to balance his own dovishness. Picking Biden, also a war critic, allows Republicans to describe the Democratic ticket as much of a muchness.

Among Republican Jews, that means scoring both men for opposing some of the tougher anti-Iran measures embraced by the Republican presidential candidate, U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and some Democrats, including Obama’s chief primaries rival, U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.)

“With the selection of Senator Joe Biden as Senator Obama’s vice president, the Democrats’ ticket has now become an even greater gamble for the Jewish community,” the Republican Jewish Coalition said in a statement Saturday, hours after Obama made his announcement. “Biden has failed to recognize the serious threat that Iran poses to Israel and the US and its allies in the Middle East.”

In response, Ira Forman, the director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, said that focusing on recent differences over nuances regarding Iran policy missed the larger point of Biden’s long years of commitment to Israel.

“The RJC would criticize the Democratic pick for vice president if it was Ben Gurion,” Forman said. “There is no one you could possibly pick who knows the issues, who is committed to Israel’s security and knows Israeli leaders as much as Joe Biden.”