Shutdown may affect Jewish social services


Congress’ failure to authorize discretionary spending for the new fiscal year won’t only impact about 800,000 federal workers or the Americans looking to visit national parks. It may also affect local Jewish social service organizations that rely in part on federal funding. 

That, too, though, is uncertain.

“We don’t know what is going to happen,” Paul Castro, CEO of Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles (JFS), said just hours after the shutdown began. “We spent the morning trying to communicate with our funders to find out what they know.”

The funders Castro spoke with are the state and local government entities that JFS relies upon to provide some services such as meals and transportation programs for seniors. Castro said that if these entities requested funds from the federal government before Oct. 1 — the day the shutdown took effect — some of JFS’ at-risk programs could run for a few more weeks without interruption. Ultimately, though, JFS won’t know for at least a few days exactly how this will play out if Congress doesn’t reach an agreement quickly.

JFS’ annual budget is $30 million, and $5.55 million of that comes — directly and indirectly — from the federal government.

Jay Sanderson, president and CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, echoed Castro’s concerns. 

“With the shutdown, the cash flows of our most important social service agencies are at risk,” he said. “If this goes on for an extended period of time, it will definitely impact our social service agencies.”

As for Jewish Vocational Services, whose goal is to help people overcome barriers to employment, it issued a public statement that “programs and services remain fully operational with regularly scheduled hours.”

The last time Democrats and Republicans could not agree on a spending resolution to fund parts of the federal government was over the budget for the 1996 fiscal year, when President Bill Clinton and a Republican Congress clashed over spending levels, largely over Medicare, shutting down parts of the government for 26 days.

This time around, the issue preventing an agreement is again a major health care initiative, the Affordable Care Act (ACA), President Barack Obama’s signature piece of legislation that was passed in 2010.

Republicans in the House of Representatives are attempting to tie any new spending bill to a one-year delay for parts of the bill and a requirement that Congressional members and their staffers must purchase insurance on the ACA’s new health insurance exchanges, which opened on Oct. 1

Despite the shutdown, much of the federal government will continue to operate as normal, including programs like Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the military.

Even if Congress reaches an agreement in the coming days or weeks, Castro is concerned about a future potential conflict that could again pose funding problems for local Jewish agencies. Before Oct. 17, when the federal government is predicted to eclipse the “debt ceiling” (the level of debt Congress has authorized the government to accumulate), Democrats and Republicans will either have to raise the debt ceiling or risk many spending promises not being fulfilled.

“Even in resolution we know that is only going to be for a few weeks,” Castro said. 

Most G20 leaders agree Assad was behind chemical attack, Obama says


President Barack Obama said on Friday that most leaders of the G20 countries agree that Syrian President Bashar Assad is responsible for using poison gas against civilians as the U.S. leader tried to rally support at home and abroad for a military strike.

Obama said he planned to speak to the American public about Syria on Tuesday as Congress considers his request for limited military action in Syria.

Speaking to reporters at an international diplomatic summit, Obama said the leaders of the world's largest economies agreed that chemical weapons were used in Syria and that the international ban chemical weapons needs to be maintained.

However, he said there was disagreement about whether force could be used in Syria without going through the United Nations. The United States has been unable to win U.N. Security Council approval for military action against Syriabecause of the opposition of veto-wielding Russia.

“The majority of the room is comfortable with our conclusion that Assad, the Assad government, was responsible for their use,” he said at a news conference, adding that this is disputed by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

A number of countries believed that any military force needed to be decided at U.N. Security Council, a view he said he does not share.

“Given Security Council paralysis on this issue, if we are serious about upholding a ban on chemical weapons use then an international response is required, and that will not come through Security Council action,” he said.

Obama has been trying to rally support internationally and domestically for a limited military response to the chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians Aug. 21. (Reporting By Steve Holland, Roberta Rampton and Mark Felsenthal; Editing by Doina Chiacu)

Disappointing Chief Rabbinate vote has activists eyeing alternatives


In a city with a seemingly infinite number of kosher restaurants, Jerusalem restaurateurs have a tough time obtaining certification from the country’s Chief Rabbinate.

Proprietors of the city’s eateries have long complained of exorbitant fines, strict limits on what food they may buy and lax certification supervisors. But they had no choice: the rabbinate’s certification and an even stricter version are the only ones allowed by Israeli law.

So last year, a coalition of 20 Jerusalem restaurants began defying the law, declaring themselves kosher by virtue of public trust rather than a certificate from the rabbinate.

“Kosher certification was always communal, and then it became something institutional,” said Rabbi Uri Ayalon, CEO of the Jerusalemite Movement, which advocates for religious pluralism and helped bring the restaurants together. “It’s absurd that you can open a kosher restaurant and aren’t allowed to use the word kosher.”

The restaurant initiative is one of several that have sought to push back against the rabbinate’s monopoly over Jewish life in Israel. Faced with an institution they see as forcing an extreme reading of Jewish tradition on an unwilling populace, the groups have chosen to sidestep it altogether, providing alternative services to those of Israel’s entrenched religious establishment.

The imperative to circumvent the rabbinic bureaucracy has grown especially strong in the wake of last week’s Chief Rabbinate election, which saw the defeat of a popular reformist candidate and the victory of two sons of former chief rabbis, both haredi Orthodox.

The reformist, David Stav of the liberal Orthodox rabbinic group Tzohar, lost in the race for Ashkenazi chief rabbi to David Lau, the son of Yisrael Meir Lau, who held the post from 1993 to 2003. Yitzhak Yosef followed in the footsteps of his father, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, in winning the Sephardic chief rabbi post.

“Tzohar tried to fix the rabbinate from inside, to take control of it and fix it,” said Shmuel Shetach, the CEO of Ne’emanei Torah V’avoda, a Modern Orthodox group that supports rabbinate reform. “Even if Rabbi Stav was chosen, the system is too problematic. It’s not appropriate for modern times.”

Until now, there have been two major approaches to addressing the rabbinate’s problems: reform and abolition. Orthodox groups generally have opted for the former, arguing that the rabbinate must be maintained as an anchor of Jewish unity. Liberal Jewish groups tend to see the rabbinate as a bastion of haredi Orthodox domination that must be eliminated.

Both approaches have failed.

Stav lost despite an aggressive campaign with backing from key political figures. Calls for the rabbinate’s elimination have gotten even less traction due to the political clout of the haredi political parties and Israel’s reluctance to change the status quo.

Sidestepping measures offer a third way. Some activists are hoping to break the rabbinate’s monopoly on kosher certification. Others want to widen options for Jewish marriage and conversion. Still others hope to help Jewish women seeing a ritual divorce.

“The Israeli public wanted a connection to Judaism, and it got a slap in the face from the dealmakers who said ‘you don’t interest us,’ ” Stav said of his defeat. “But Judaism is stronger than the dealmakers.”

A precedent for the workaround strategies exists in the unlikeliest of places — the haredi community. Despite dominating the rabbinate, the community has its own privately administered kosher certification standard and runs its own network of private religious courts.

Liberal activists believe that if the haredi community can do it, so can they.

The Israeli Conservative movement has launched a modest kosher supervision program for wineries that adheres to Conservative Jewish law, which allows non-Jews to work without restrictions during the winemaking process. The program currently supervises two wineries and is in talks with another three.

It “offers an alternative where people know there is not discrimination against those who aren’t Jewish,” said Rabbi Andrew Sacks, the director of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly in Israel.

Activists also have started to look outside the rabbinate to help women who cannot remarry because their husbands are missing or refuse to give them a religious writ of divorce, or get.

Batya Kehana-Dror, the head of a group that advocates for these women, hopes the new chief rabbis will find Jewish legal solutions for these so-called chained women, or agunot. But if they don’t, Kehana-Dror plans to convene a private religious court of three rabbis who have proven themselves willing to be more creative with Jewish law.

“If the [chief rabbis] make a move toward finding a solution for agunot, it could be great news,” Kehana-Dror said. “When they don’t give us a solution, we’ll go to a private organization.”

Critics of the Chief Rabbinate achieved a groundbreaking victory last year when Israel’s Supreme Court mandated for the first time that non-Orthodox rabbis in rural communities receive state salaries should they meet certain criteria.

This year, the ruling was extended to Conservative and Reform rabbis in Israeli cities. The rabbis should begin receiving state paychecks later this year.

Shetach of the Modern Orthodox group Ne’emanei Torah V’avoda hopes to extend the precedent of those court decisions to all of Israel’s religious services, which in his vision would operate like the country’s medical system: The government would fund several overarching religious communities, and citizens could choose the one that best suits them, just as they choose among several publicly funded health care networks.

The plan would gradually limit the rabbinate’s powers rather than abolish the body — a goal Shetach sees as more realistic than fighting it head-on.

“Even among the Orthodox there’s an understanding emerging that the struggle against reform is superfluous,” Shetach told JTA. “There’s reform of budgeting for rabbis anyway, so we say to the Orthodox, ‘What will [fighting] bring you?’ ”

Final Israeli vote: Jewish Home gains a seat to give right wing a majority


The Jewish Home party gained one seat in the final results of Israeli voting, pushing the right-wing bloc to a majority in the 19th Knesset.

Israel's Central Elections Committee released the final tally on Thursday for the elections held two days earlier after counting 217,000 ballots collected at remote polling stations. Among others, the votes were cast by soldiers, hospital patients and government employees working overseas.

With the additional votes, Jewish Home finished with 12 seats, giving the right wing 61 seats in the 120-seat Knesset.

Also, the United Arab List-Ta'al party lost a seat and now has four, and Kadima crossed the required 2 percent threshold to gain two seats.

There were no other changes to the number of seats garnered by other parties. The Likud-Beiteinu list, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, had 31 seats to finish first, as expected. The new center-left party Yesh Atid was a surprising second at 19.

Other parties entering the parliament are Labor with 15 seats; Shas with 11 seats; United Torah Judaism with seven seats; Hatnua and Meretz, each with 6 seats; Hadash with four seats; and Balad with three seats.

Two-thirds, or 3.77 million, of Israel's 5,656,705 eligible voters turned out, according to the elections committee. The number of voters was the highest since 1999, though turnout was down significantly among Arab voters.

The elections committee must submit the results to President Shimon Peres by Jan. 30. Peres then will ask party leaders who they would recommend to form the next government before choosing the one most likely to be able to form a successful coalition government — it is expected to be Netanyahu. The chosen party leader has up to 42 days to present his government for a vote of confidence.

Economy more than anything drove Jewish vote, poll data shows


The economy was the strongest determinant for Jews who voted for Barack Obama, according to an analysis of polling data.

“Not only do Jews hold fairly liberal to progressive positions on economic justice issues, their views on such matters emerge as the principal decision-making fulcrum in their choice for president, as well as for senators and congressional representatives,” said a report by Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring published Wednesday.

The survey showed that 68 percent of respondents voted for President Obama and 32 percent for Mitt Romney, his Republican challenger, and that there were similar liberal-conservative splits on a range of issues, including the economy, abortion, gay rights, climate change and immigration.

However, a statistical analysis of the results showed that the predictive power of economic issues was the largest, according to Steven Cohen, a professor at New York University's Berman Jewish Policy Archive who analyzed the data with Samuel Abrams, a professor at Sarah Lawrence College.

“All of your predictions” about voting “could be done just by knowing economic justice alone,” Cohen told JTA.

Among other findings, by a 43 percent to 31 percent margin, respondents agreed that “Poor people have hard lives because government benefits don’t go far enough to help them live decently,” and by a 50 percent to 28 percent  margin, respondents wanted to preserve benefits under Medicare, the medical insurance program for those over 65 now facing Republican demands for cost reductions.

Cohen and Abrams ran a regression analysis on the data to determine the relationship between variables; the only other variable that came as close to views on the economy in predicting a voting outcome was views on climate change, Cohen said.

The analysis was drawn from research by YouGov, a company that targets respondents through market research.

Respondents self-identifying as Jewish numbered 2,067 and responded through email. The margin of error was 2 percentage points.

Workmen's Circle was established in 1900 as a Jewish labor rights group.

Does the Jewish vote still matter?


Does the Jewish vote still matter and if so, how? Exit polls indicate that 70 percent of Jews voted for President Obama, compared to roughly 39 percent of white voters overall. However, with California and New York, which have large Jewish populations, guaranteed to go Democratic, the Jewish vote may have mattered only in Florida. 

As usual, most attention on the Jewish community has been focused on whether Obama’s 70 percent Jewish support represents a serious decline from the either 78 percent or 74 percent (depending on the source) that he received from Jews in 2008. We spend so much effort on the beaten-to-death question of whether Jews will ever vote Republican that we miss something more important — the potential role Jewish voters can play in a society that is in profound demographic and political transformation.

The 2012 election may well turn out to be more historic than Barack Obama’s 2008 election. It revealed the flowering of the transformation of the American electorate, a trend that was obscured in 2008 by the hope and change that surrounded Obama’s first campaign, and that brought about a momentary appearance of consensus.  The rough, tough re-election campaign of 2012 clarified the lines of conflict in the electorate.

This is especially true in California, but also nationwide, where the Democratic surge was powered by a new electorate that includes growing cadres of both younger and minority voters. Sleeping giants awoke. Latinos increased their share of the overall vote to 10 percent and broke in huge numbers for Obama, giving him between 70 and 75 percent support. Young voters comprised a larger share of the vote than they did in 2008. Single women, who represented 20 percent of the vote in 2008, comprised 23 percent in 2012 and cast 67 percent of their votes for Obama, according to a study by the Women’s Voices Women Vote Action Fund. In California, these constituencies carried Proposition 30 to an historic upset victory and may have helped to give Democrats two-thirds dominance of the Legislature. Nationally, one swing state after another fell into the Democratic column.

At the same time, Mitt Romney increased — to 59 percent — the Republican share of the white vote over John McCain in 2008. A majority of whites were on one end, especially those who are older and those who live in the South, while communities of color, especially if younger, were on the other.

And then there are the Jews. The overall demographic transformation is so startling that there has been less attention on the Jewish vote this year than in 2008. Republicans have much bigger problems than not winning over Jews, starting with their staggering defeat among mobilized African-Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans as well as among single women. 

Yet Jews voted for Obama in numbers comparable to Latinos, echoing conservative legendary plaint that “Jews live like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans.” (Well, also like single women and also like Asian Americans — 73 percent.) Only the gigantic support of African-Americans surpassed all of these groups.

It’s less important that Jews frustrated Republicans than that Jews, an older, largely white demographic, represent a refusal to be predictably polarized along lines of race, age and class. This block of voters adds a more realistic perspective to the simple assumption that there are two Americas, one ascendant and the other on the decline, one nonwhite and the other white. 

The Jewish vote, whether or not it determines who wins states, offers an important reminder that whites are not a monolithic block of voters. After all, more whites voted for Obama than any single minority community. The 39 percent Obama support among whites, among the more than 70 percent of votes cast, represents roughly 27 percent of all votes. In his 2007 book, “Boomers and Immigrants: Forging a New Social Contract for the Future of America,” Dowell Myers argued that in order to maintain support for such programs as Social Security and Medicare, the aging boomers, who are disproportionately white, need to be in alliance with immigrants. Bridge building will be essential. Jewish voters never joined the parade of immigrant bashing, and opposed such anti-immigrant measures as California’s 1994 Proposition 187. Nor did Jews turn away, even in political hard times, from the social liberalism on abortion and gay rights that this year became politically popular for the first time.

One underappreciated role of the Jewish vote in American politics is in bridge building. Even in Los Angeles in the mid-1800s, when it was a rough-and-tumble frontier city filled with diverse groups, the small Jewish population was civically active and a positive contributor to local governance.

When American cities were torn apart by racial polarization in the 1960s, a small block of white voters, principally Jews, supported embattled black mayoral candidates in Gary, Ind., Cleveland, Newark, N.J., and Chicago. In Los Angeles, the relationship between African-Americans and Jews flowered into a full-fledged, coalition of equals, with Mayor Tom Bradley drawing from African-American and Jewish supporters. For many African-Americans and for many whites, the black-Jewish coalition became a path across which new friends and allies could be encountered and cooperation nurtured, and also a framework for working out intergroup conflict.

Organizations such as the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League have been working for decades with those in minority communities who fight for equality and justice. As communities of color push further into the center of state and national power, the bridge role played by the Jewish community will continue to matter.

The Jewish political role will not disappear in local, state and national politics. There has indeed been a noticeable decline of Jews in office in Sacramento, but Jews continue to hold many national offices, especially in the House and Senate, as well as in the states. In Los Angeles, high voter turnout among Jews means that city candidates will continue to consider the Jewish voice in local elections. It will still be important to have candidates and elected officials who are sympathetic to the interests and values of the Jewish community.

There is no question that the Jewish vote still matters. But the future for Jewish involvement may extend even beyond electoral strength to reconnecting with the bridge role that a state and nation of isolated communities may value.


Raphael J. Sonenshein is executive director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.

Fighting over every percentile: Arguing about the Jewish vote and exit polls


President Obama’s Jewish numbers are down, but by how much and why?

Get ready for four more years of tussling between the Jewish community’s Republicans and Democrats about the meaning of Obama’s dip from 78 percent Jewish support cited in 2008 exit polls to 69 percent this year in the national exit polls run by a media consortium.

Is it a result of Obama’s fractious relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu? Or is it a natural fall-off in an election that was closer across the board than it was four years ago? Does it reflect a significant shift in Jewish voting patterns toward the Republicans?

A separate national exit poll released Wednesday by Jim Gerstein, a pollster affiliated with the dovish Israel policy group J Street, had similar numbers: 70 percent of respondents said they voted for Obama, while 30 percent — the same figure as in the media consortium's Jewish sample — said they voted for Mitt Romney.

Matt Brooks, who directs the Republican Jewish Coalition, said the $6.5 million his group spent and the $1.5 million an affiliated political action committee spent wooing Jewish voters was “well worth it.”

“We’ve increased our share of the Jewish vote by almost 50 percent,” he said, noting that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the 2008 Republican nominee, got 22 percent in that year’s exit polls to Romney’s 30 percent this year.

Brooks said that his group’s hard-hitting ads, which attacked Obam on his handling of both Israel and the economy, helped move the needle. “There’s no question we got significant return on our investment,” he said.

Democrats insisted that the needle didn’t wiggle so much, saying the more reliable 2008 number for Obama's shae of the Jewish vote was 74 percent, a figure that is based on a subsequent review of data by The Solomon Project, a nonprofit group affiliated with the National Jewish Democratic Council.

“Right now 69 or 70 is the best number we have for this cycle, and 74 percent is the best number we have for four years ago,” said Steve Rabinowitz, a consultant to Jewish and Democratic groups, including the NJDC. “You can intentionally use a number you know has been corrected just for the purposes of comparison, or you can use the data.”

The 2008 numbers, like this year’s, are based on the 2 percent of respondents identifying as Jewish in the major exit poll run by a consortium of news agencies — altogether, between 400-500 Jews, out of a total of over 25,000 respondents. The Solomon Project review, by examining a range of exit polls taken in different states as well as the national consortium, used data garnered from close to a thousand Jewish voters, a number that reduces the margin of error from about 6 points to 3 points.

Whether the 2008 percentage was 74 or 78 — or some other number entirely given the margins of errror — both Republicans and Democrats agreed that Obama’s share of the Jewish vote had declined. Rabinowitz conceded that the Republican expenditure, which dwarfed spending on the Democratic side, might have had an impact.

“What yichus is there in the possibility of having picked up a handful of Jewish votes having spent so many millions of dollars?” Rabinowitz asked, using the Yiddish word connoting status.

Gerstein said his findings suggested that the Republican blitz of Jewish communities in swing states like Ohio and Florida had little effect; separate polls he ran in those states showed virtually the same results as his national poll of Jewish voters. Gerstein’s national poll of 800 Jewish voters has a margin of error of 3.5 percent; his separate polls of Jewish voters in Ohio and Florida canvassed 600 in each state, with a margin of error of 4 percentage points.

He also noted that there were similar drop-offs in Obama’s overall take — from 53 percent of the popular vote in 2008 to 49 percent this year — as well as among an array of sub groups, including whites, independents, Catholics, those with no religion, those under 30. The only uptick for the president in the media consortium’s exit polls was seen among Hispanic voters, likely turned off by Romney’s tough line on illegal immigration.

“You see a lot of things that are tracking between the Jewish constituency and other constituencies when you look at the shift in Obama’s vote between 2008 and now, “ he said.

The NJDC president, David Harris, attributed what shift there was to the economy.

“American Jews are first and foremost Americans, and like all Americans it’s a difficult time for them,” he said. “The Democratic vote performance has decreased somewhat.”

Gerstein said that the mistake Republicans continued to make was to presume that Israel was an issue that could move the Jewish vote.

“They’ve got to do something very different if they’re going to appeal to Jews,” he said. “The hard-line hawkish appeal to Israel isn’t working.”

He cited an ad run in September in Florida by an anti-Obama group called Secure America Now that featured footage from a press conference in which Netanyahu excoriated those who he said had failed to set red lines for Iran, which was seen as a jab at Obama. Gerstein said that of the 45 percent of his Florida respondents who saw the ad, 56 percent said they were not moved by it, 27 percent said it made them more determined to vote for Obama and only 16 percent said i made them more determined to vote for Romney.

Israel did not feature high among priorities in Gerstein’s polling, a finding that conformed with polling done over the years by the American Jewish Committee. Asked their top issue in voting, 53 percent of Gerstein’s respondents in his national poll cited the economy and 32 percent health care. Israel tied for third with abortion and terrorism at 10 percent.

Gerstein’s national poll showed Obama getting strong overall approval ratings of 67 percent of his respondents, with strong showings on domestic issues like entitlements — where he scored 65 percent — and majority approval of his handling of relations with Israel (53 percent) and the Iranian nuclear issue (58 percent.).

But the RJC's Brooks said he was confident Republicans would continue to accrue gains, saying that with the exception of Obama’s strong showing in 2008, his party has steadily increased its proportion of the Jewish vote since George H. W. Bush got 11 percent in 1992.

“Our investment is not in the outcome of a single election,” he said. “It’s ultimately about broadening the base of the Republican Party in the Jewish community.”

From Boca to Delray, Florida’s much-discussed Jewish voters finally have their say


At approximately 10 a.m. on Election Day, a black sedan pulled up to the polling station at the J.C. Mitchell Elementary School.

“He threw Israel under the bus,” said the car's driver, a chatty silver-haired man, as he helped an elderly woman from the back seat.

“You vote your way and I'll vote mine,” she replied, her eyes rolling as he set up her walker and oxygen tank and steered her toward the entrance. “I'm voting for the president.”

Little could better encapsulate the drama unfolding among Jewish voters here in South Florida as the final day dawned on what has been a bitter presidential campaign pitting the Democratic incumbent, Barack Obama, against Republican Mitt Romney.

As in past elections, the bulk of the Sunshine State's more than 600,000 Jews are expected to support the Democrat. But Republicans have shelled out millions to peel off some of that support — mainly by impugning the president's record on Israel — and on the eve of Election Day they were brimming with confidence.

“We're gonna win,” said Sid Dinnerstein, the Republican Party chairman in Palm Beach County, where as of late October, registered Democrats outnumbered Republicans by more than 100,000. “My Christian friends say to me, 'How could even 1 percent of Jewish people vote for this guy?' ”

For Obama and Romney, Florida is a big prize. According to a New York Times analysis, if Obama wins here, Romney has to sweep all the other battleground states to pass the 270-vote threshold necessary to win the Electoral College and the presidency.

In 2008, Obama won here by less than 3 percentage points, but he won support from approximately three-quarters of Florida Jewish voters, the bulk of whom reside in the state's three most populous counties — Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach. An American Jewish Committee survey in September found 69 percent of Jewish registered voters in Florida backing the president, with 25 percent for Romney and the rest undecided.

At the Bagel Tree cafe in Delray Beach, there was little evidence to suggest that the president had lost his strong support among the state's Jews.

“If Romney gets in, he will not be president, he will be king,” said Sandy Richter, who was sipping coffee with four friends, all of whom were supporting Obama. “He's a tyrant.”

Across the restaurant, a parallel group of five men finishing their lunch said that they, too, were supporting the president.

“I just don't like to lose any more of our freedoms,” Alvin Wolff said. “My family should be able to do with their body what they want to do with it. I should be able to marry anybody I want to marry. I should be able to pray or not pray when I want to.”

The Bagel Tree is located next to the large and overwhelmingly Jewish King's Point retirement community, the residents of which Dinnerstein called “the most hardcore liberal Jews, maybe in America.” Only one patron on Tuesday admitted to supporting Romney.

“I have eight great-grandchildren in Israel,” said the Romney backer, a woman who declined to give her name but identified herself as pro-choice on abortion and as a Medicare beneficiary. “Obama sat for 20 years in his church with that Rev. Wright. And I feel — I mean I know — he's an Arab lover.”

Such sentiments, however, were rare — or at least rarely voiced — among the Jewish Floridians who were interviewed. Still, for all the solid Jewish backing of the president, there was a palpable lack of enthusiasm for the candidate who electrified the country four years ago with his talk of hope and change.

Even many of the Obama backers agreed with Dinnerstein's prediction that the president would fall short of the level of Jewish support he enjoyed in 2008. In interviews Tuesday with more than a dozen Jewish voters, Obama was not infrequently described as the lesser of two evils.

“I voted against Romney,” Victor Barth said. “I don't think we had too much of a choice. I took the better of the two evils.”

Barth and his wife, Rhoda, cast their votes for Obama on Tuesday afternoon at Temple Emeth, a Conservative congregation in Delray Beach located barely a mile from a mammoth billboard showing an Iranian missile aimed squarely at Israel. The caption: “Friends don't let friends get nuked. Stop Obama.”

“Terrible,” Rhoda Barth said. “It is shameful. It should not be up there.”

“My biggest problem with both parties is the money they spent on this campaign could have floated a Third World country,” Victor Barth said. “It's a crime.”

Jewish Obama supporters tended to emphasize Obama's stands on social issues — notably abortion rights and gay rights — as well as his policies toward the poor while dismissing charges that the president has been insufficiently committed to the security of Israel. Romney's Jewish supporters talked mainly about the Republican's commitment to Israel and, secondarily, his ability to steer the economy out of the doldrums.

Debbi Klarberg, a Boca Raton resident who described herself as “very pro-Israel,” said she had some reservations about the president on that front — but not enough to change her vote.

“Basically his values represent who I am as a person,” she said. “I guess my beliefs are more in line with Democratic values.”

Orthodox Jews, however, appear more inclined to back Romney over the president, polling suggests. Orthodox voters are believed to have given a majority of their votes to the Republican nominees in the previous two presidential elections.

At a kosher restaurant Monday night in Boca Raton, three Orthodox patrons said they were supporting Romney, largely because of Israel.

“I'm voting for Romney, I'm not hiding it,” said a woman who declined to give her name. “The main thing is Romney is better for Israel than Obama is.”

Eytan Marcus, an Orthodox critical care physician who spent part of his childhood in Israel, said there was little difference substantively between Obama and his predecessors on support for the Jewish state. Rather it was Obama's subtle favoring of the Arab states that he feared had emboldened them politically.

“He's enabled the Arab nations,” Marcus said. “He didn't do anything for Israel, but he strengthened the Arabs. It tips the balance.”

Republicans have hammered the president on the issue of Israel in billboards, print advertisements, mailings and robocalls that seem to have disgusted and fatigued Jewish voters of all persuasions. Even cellphone numbers haven't been immune this year. And perhaps more pertinent, many voters claim to be ignoring the persuasion efforts.

“I had to take the phone off the hook, I had to turn off the answering machine weeks ago,” said one Jewish voter in Boca, who nevertheless expressed regret that it had cost her the thrill of having Barbra Streisand's voice on her machine. Streisand is one of several celebrities who recorded calls on behalf of Obama.

As the final day of voting rolled around — Floridians had more than a week to cast their ballots this year — there was a palpable sense of relief that the end was finally in sight. At the Bagel Tree, nearly everyone had cast their votes prior to the actual Election Day. There was one exception, though.

“I'm voting after cards,” Fran Reisfield said. “We're playing canasta first.”

A response to stiff-necked playwright David Mamet


This piece is a response to “A note to stiff-necked people” by David Mamet which first appeared on JewishJournal.com on Nov. 1.

David Mamet recently asked the following questions of “Jews planning to vote for Obama.”  Herewith, my responses.

Are you prepared to explain to your children not the principles upon which your vote is cast, but its probable effects upon them? 

Yes.   My children will be struggling with climate change for their entire lives, which is one major reason I am voting for Obama.  I live in New York, and I do not want to see a Hurricane Sandy every year.

Irrespective of your endorsement of liberal sentiments, of fairness and “more equal distribution,” will you explain to your children that top-down economic policies will increasingly limit their ability to find challenging and well-paid work, and that the diminution in employment and income will decrease their opportunity to marry and raise children?

I would explain that, if there were any evidence of it.  I’m not sure what “top-down economic policies” you are referring to.  The “trickle down economics” of the last Republican administrations have widened the wealth gap, caused middle-class wages and savings to fall, and led to the financial crisis by aggregating risk at the top.  Moreover, the Republican refusal to invest seriously in education means that China is going to kick my children’s collective butts in the coming century.  For these reasons, the best vote for my children is a vote for Obama.

Will you explain (as you have observed) that a large part of their incomes will be used to fund programs that they may find immoral, wasteful and/or indeed absurd? And that the bulk of their taxes go to no programs at all, but merely service the debt you entailed on them? 

I will.  The largest shares of the federal budget are the military (spending which Romney wants to increase), Medicare, and Social Security.  All the rest is window-dressing.  As for the debt, Romney’s absurd additional tax cuts for the wealthiest 1% — including you, Mr. Mamet – cannot be paid for and will increase the burden on my children.

Will you tell your children that a liberal government will increasingly marginalize, dismiss and weaken the support for and the safety of the Jewish state?

If I told them that, why would they believe me instead of the Israeli generals who said that the Obama administration is the most pro-Israel in American history?   Really, what’s causing the marginalization of the Jewish state is the right/far-right alliance in the Israeli government which is undermining Israeli democratic ideals.  I will tell my children how I lived in Israel for three years, and how I continue to care about the state now – which is why I support the majority of Israelis who want peace, not more confrontation.

Will you tell them that, in a state-run economy, hard work may still be applauded, but that it will no longer be rewarded?

Yes.  Fortunately, only conspiracy loons on the far-right believe that the U.S. economy is state-run. 

Will you explain that whatever their personal beliefs, tax-funded institutions will require them to imbibe and repeat the slogans of the left, and that, should they differ, they cannot have a career in education, medicine or television unless they keep their mouths shut?

No, since this is demonstrably untrue.  Please provide a single example.

Will you explain to them that it is impossible to make a budget, and that the basic arithmetic we all use at the kitchen table is not practiced at the federal and state level, and to suggest that it should be is “selfishness?”

No, since this also is untrue.  First, as economists (rather than playwrights) understand, the  federal government is not a household.  Household debt is very bad; government debt is sometimes bad, sometimes good.  What is “selfishness” is to increase that debt so that the wealthiest 1% of Americans can enjoy a tax cut, can pay no taxes whatsoever on overseas income, and pay no taxes upon inheriting millions of dollars.

Most importantly, will you teach them never to question the pronouncements of those in power, for to do so is to risk ostracism?

Of course I will not teach that.  I personally have been ostracized from parts of the Jewish community for my support of a moderate Zionist organization, J Street.  However, I would rather be ostracized than abandon my love of Israel and the Jewish values on which I grew up.

Are you prepared to sit your children down and talk them through your vote on the future you are choosing for them?

Of course.  As a gay man married to my partner, I will explain how Mitt Romney wants to destroy their family and make it impossible for them to be the legal children of their two fathers.  I will explain how a small handful of neo-conservatives are making a ‘deal with the devil’ with fundamentalist religious know-nothings who believe that rape is sometimes a good thing and that evolution is a “lie straight from hell.”

Please remember that we have the secret ballot and, should you, on reflection, vote in secret for a candidate you would not endorse in public, you will not be alone.

Fortunately, I am not a hypocrite.  I do not do one thing in private and another in public.  For the sake of my children, my country, my Jewish people, and the world in which I live, I am proud to be voting Obama.

Prop. 34: Repeal the death penalty


Jewish tradition has always championed the idea that justice is a fundamental necessity. When the Torah commands us, “Justice, justice shall you pursue,” the repetition is to teach that not only we must have just ends, our means to those ends must be equally just.

Our commitment to that core Jewish teaching will be tested on Nov. 6 by our community’s response to Proposition 34, which would replace California’s death penalty with life in prison without parole, save $130 million each year, devote $30 million per year for three years to help solve unsolved murders and rapes, and require those convicted of murder to devote prison earnings to pay restitution to the families of their victims.

During Yom Kippur, congregants at Kehillat Israel had the profound privilege of hearing Franky Carrillo, a remarkable young man who was released from prison after serving 20 years for a murder he didn’t commit. The stark reality of how unjust his fate could have been while we still have the death penalty couldn’t help but send shivers down the spines of the congregation.

Knowing that more than 140 innocent and wrongfully convicted people have been released from prisons in recent years should alone be enough to convince us of the necessity to protect the sanctity of justice and eliminate the death penalty.

Religious leaders, civil-rights advocates, human-rights organizations and others for years have been calling for an end to the death penalty, which has been banned in most democratic nations. But now, death-penalty opponents have been joined by a chorus of unlikely allies, including victims’ rights advocates, prison wardens and law-enforcement officials. Jeanne Woodford, who oversaw executions as warden at San Quentin State Prison, now runs the state’s largest anti-death penalty organization. Former L.A. County District Attorney Gil Garcetti is a leader on the Proposition 34 campaign. Even Don Heller, who wrote the ballot initiative reinstating the death penalty in 1978, now says doing so “was a terrible mistake.”

These leaders cite the risk of executing the innocent, the fact that the death penalty is used predominantly against the poor and people of color, and that the high cost of the death penalty (including trials, special prison housing, constitutionally required appeals, extra security and administrative costs) is far more expensive than permanent incarceration. As proposed by Proposition 34, the funds saved by eliminating the death penalty could instead go to law enforcement, crime prevention and other public safety priorities.

Proposition 34 would convert death sentences into sentences of permanent incarceration, effectively replacing death in the execution chamber with death in prison. It enables the state to still mete out the punishment deserved to the most heinous criminals but in a way that does not run the risk of killing the innocent, wasting money, distorting our criminal-justice system and needlessly bloodying our hands any further.

As responsible citizens, and as Jews responsive to the ethical insights that have shaped our tradition, there are compelling reasons to support Proposition 34. Some may object, however, that the Bible endorses capital punishment. Indeed, capital punishment is prescribed in a number of cases, including for offenses ranging from murder to gathering sticks on Shabbat. But from the earliest times, our rabbis understood that the ultimate judgment — who shall live and who shall die — should not be left in the hands of flawed people capable of error, bias or passion. And unlike other mistakes, no amount of teshuvah can ever undo a wrongful execution.

Therefore, the rabbis enacted numerous obstacles to implementing the death penalty, including the requirement that multiple eyewitnesses must have been present at the time of a murder, warned the offender of the punishment of death and heard him acknowledge the consequences before the murder was committed. So opposed to the death penalty were the rabbis that the Talmud records the following conversation: A Sanhedrin (High Court) that executes a person once in seven years is a murderous one (hovlanit). Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah said: “Once in seventy years.” Rabbis Tarfon and Akiva said: “If we were members of the Sanhedrin, nobody would ever be put to death.” (Mishnah: Makkot 1:10) Support for the death penalty remained a minority and rejected opinion in Jewish life. This is still the case today — every major Jewish denomination has come out in favor of ending the death penalty or imposing a moratorium on state-run executions.

The rabbis could not have envisioned the cruel and tragic system of state execution that we have today. It is a patchwork system that struggles to find attorneys competent to defend death cases. It costs more than $130 million more per year than life in prison. And, as the Sacramento Bee pointed out in reversing its 155-year-old editorial policy by endorsing Proposition 34, one’s chances of getting the death penalty arbitrarily vary according to what county you live in. And yet even without such a system corrupted by such overwhelming injustice, the rabbis had the wisdom to reject the death penalty. So, although the death penalty remained in Jewish texts, it did not gain acceptance in Jewish communities.

The instincts of those early Jewish leaders seem even wiser now. On Election Day, we would be wise to follow their lead.


Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben is senior rabbi at Kehillat Israel Reconstructionist Congregation in Pacific Palisades. Steve Rohde is a constitutional lawyer and vice chair of Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice.

For Obama campaign, trying to put to rest persistent questions about ‘kishkes’


The moment in the final presidential debate when President Obama described his visit to Israel’s national Holocaust museum and to the rocket-battered town of Sderot seemed to be aimed right for the kishkes.

The “kishkes question” — the persistent query about how Obama really feels about Israel in his gut — drives some of the president’s Jewish supporters a little crazy.

Alan Solow, a longtime Obama fundraiser and the immediate past chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said at a training session at the Democratic convention that he “hated” the kishkes question. It “reflects a double standard which our community should be ashamed of. There hasn’t been one other president who has been subject to the kishkes test,” Solow told the gathering of Jewish Democrats.

But it’s a question that has dogged the president nevertheless, fueled by tensions with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over settlements, the peace process and Iran’s nuclear program.

Obama’s Jewish campaign has tried to put these questions to rest by emphasizing his record on Israel, with a special focus on strengthened security ties. In July, the Obama campaign released an eight-minute video that includes footage of Israeli leaders — including Netanyahu — speaking about the president’s support for the Jewish state.

The Obama campaign also has worked to highlight the domestic issues on which Jewish voters overwhelmingly agree with the president’s liberal positions: health care reform, church-state issues, gay marriage and abortion.

Republicans, meanwhile, have made Obama’s approach to Israel a relentless theme of their own Jewish campaign. Billboards on Florida highways read “Obama, Oy Vey!” and direct passersby to a website run by the Republican Jewish Coalition featuring former Obama supporters expressing disappointment with the president’s record on Israel and the economy.

Polls show large majorities of Jewish voters — ranging between 65 and 70 percent in polling before the debates — support the president’s reelection. A September survey from the American Jewish Committee found strong majorities of Jewish voters expressing approval of the president’s performance on every single issue about which they were asked. The survey also found that only very small numbers said Israel or Iran were among their top priorities.

But Republicans are not hoping to win a majority of the Jewish vote. They're looking to capture a larger slice of this historically Democratic constituency, which gave between 74 percent and 78 percent of its vote to Obama in 2008. According to the AJC survey, the president was weakest with Jews on U.S.-Israel relations and Iran policy, with sizable minorities of nearly 39 percent expressing disapproval of his handling of each of these two issues, with almost as many saying they disapproved of Obama’s handling of the economy.

Critics of the president’s Middle East record have pointed to Obama’s difficult relationship with Netanyahu. Top Jewish aides to Obama say that differences between the president and Netanyahu were inevitable.

“The conversations between them, they are in the kind of frank detailed manner that close friends share,” said Jack Lew, Obama’s chief of staff. Lew spoke to JTA from Florida, where he was campaigning in a personal capacity for the president’s reelection. “It should surprise no one that there have been some political disagreements. The prime minister, even on the Israeli political spectrum, is center right; the president, on the American spectrum, is center left. But you could not have a closer working relationship.”

Indeed, the relationship between the two men was beset by mutual suspicions before either even took office. In February 2008, at a meeting with Cleveland Jewish leaders, then-candidate Obama said that being pro-Israel did not have to mean having an “unwavering pro-Likud” stance.

Dennis Ross, who had served as Obama’s top Middle East adviser, said the president was able to set aside whatever philosophical concerns he had about Netanyahu and his Likud Party. “Once it became clear who he was going to be dealing with, you work on the basis of you deal with whichever leader was there,” said Ross, who is now a senior counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Republicans have zeroed in on remarks Obama made at a July 2009 meeting with Jewish leaders. After one of the attendees encouraged Obama to avoid public disagreements with Israel and keep to a policy of “no daylight” between the two countries, the president reportedly responded that such an approach had not yielded progress toward peace in the past.

In their debates, Romney has picked up on this issue in his criticisms of Obama, accusing the president of saying “he was going to create daylight between ourselves and Israel.”

The Republican nominees’ supporters amplified the criticism. Romney “will stand with Israel – not behind her, but beside her – with no ‘daylight’ in between,” the Republican Jewish Coalition said in a statement after the final presidential debate.

Yet Obama’s performance in that debate — in which he repeatedly cited Israel’s concerns about developments in the region, from Syria to Iran, and took what was perhaps his toughest line to date on Iran’s nuclear program — drew accolades from his Jewish supporters.

“He made me very proud last night for many reasons, but especially for his unequivocal, rock solid declarations of support for Israel,” Robert Wexler, the former Florida congressman who has become one of the campaign’s top Jewish surrogates, told JTA the next day, speaking from South Florida, where he was campaigning for the president.

At one point in the debate, Romney had criticized Obama for not having visited Israel as president. Obama pivoted, contrasting his own visit to Israel as a candidate in 2008 to Romney’s visit in July, which included a fundraiser with major GOP donors.

“And when I went to Israel as a candidate, I didn't take donors, I didn't attend fundraisers, I went to Yad Vashem, the — the Holocaust museum there, to remind myself the — the nature of evil and why our bond with Israel will be unbreakable,” Obama said.

“And then I went down to the border towns of Sderot, which had experienced missiles raining down from Hamas,” he continued. “And I saw families there who showed me where missiles had come down near their children's bedrooms, and I was reminded of — of what that would mean if those were my kids, which is why, as president, we funded an Iron Dome program to stop those missiles. So that's how I've used my travels when I travel to Israel and when I travel to the region.” (Romney, The Times of Israel reported, has also been to Yad Vashem and Sderot on past trips to Israel.)

The Obama camp apparently saw in the president’s answer an effective response to questions about the president’s kishkes. It was quickly excerpted for a video that was posted online by the Obama campaign.

Solow said that based on his campaigning, he doesn't see Jewish voters generally buying into the “kishkes” anxiety expressed in the past by some Jewish community leaders.

“I'd like to think our community is more sophisticated than that, and if we're not, we should be,” Solow said. The president “has a longstanding relationship with and interest in the Jewish community, and he takes pride in that.”

Down to the wire, Romney resurrects moderate posture that attracted Jewish support


Mitt Romney’s record as a moderate Republican governor would seem to have made him ideally suited to peel off Jewish votes from President Obama. The problem is that he spent much of the past half decade running from that past.

Now, however, as the campaign draws to a close, Romney is ditching his “severely conservative” primary persona, as he famously described himself, and trying to remind voters about the centrist Republican who once governed Massachusetts. Given his recent rise in the polls, the strategy appears to be paying off.

In addition to enhancing the Republican nominee’s appeal to undecided and swing voters, the shift also could help Romney with a subset of Jewish voters disillusioned with Obama over the economy and the Middle East but who do not necessarily subscribe to conservative positions on domestic and social issues.

While Democrats continue to portray Romney as beholden to the right, his Jewish surrogates have embraced his move to the middle and argue that, if elected, Romney will govern more from the center than his critics suggest.

“It's no different for any politician of any stripe or ilk,” said Fred Zeidman, a Houston businessman and former chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council who is a leading Romney fundraiser. “You look at anybody running, you look at President Obama, he tacks left when he’s campaigning.”

On social issues, Romney's emphasis during the primaries was on the narrative that led him, as governor, to evolve from a supporter of abortion rights to an opponent. But since getting the nomination, he has looked to highlight his differences with more ardent abortion foes, saying in an October interview that abortion legislation is not part of his agenda. On health policy, Romney’s pledge to repeal “Obamacare” now includes a promise to work to preserve aspects of the health care reform that are popular, such as requiring insurance companies to cover people with preexisting conditions.

On Middle East policy — an area seen by his supporters as one of his major selling points to Jewish voters — Romney has also softened some of his tough talk of late. In the candidates’ foreign policy debate, Romney accompanied his longstanding criticism of Obama’s policies on Iran with a reassurace that he would exhaust all options before considering a direct military confrontation.

Romney’s expression of pessimism at a May fundraiser about prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace — an appearance that was secretly recorded and included his now infamous remark about foregoing trying to win over the 47 percent of Americans dependent on government — has been followed by promises to pursue a two-state solution. Speaking at the Virginia Military Institute, Romney vowed to “recommit America to the goal of a democratic, prosperous Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with the Jewish state of Israel.”

Romney’s nods toward the middle have not stopped Democrats from trying to paint him and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), as bearers of a ultra-conservative agenda, with critics lashing the Republican ticket’s positions on Medicare, tax policy and social issues.

“‘Severely conservative’ Romney has pledged to be a ‘pro-life president,’ and when he's tried to give some semblance of moderation, his staunchest anti-choice supporters jump in to knock down any notion that he is anything but solidly in their camp,” David Harris, the National Jewish Democratic Council’s president, wrote recently in the Washington Jewish Week.

Some Jewish supporters, however, counter that Romney’s stance on abortion is not the paramount issue that his critics make it out to be.

“They continue to miss opportunities by harping on the issue of abortion,” Matt Brooks, the Republican Jewish Coalition’s executive director, said in an interview during the Republican convention. “This is something they have been trying to scare people with for decades, and yet access to abortion in this country continues despite having incredibly conservative presidents and a conservative court.”

The RJC has focused much of its effort to woo Jewish voters on Middle East policy, although it also has emphasized the struggling economy. On Israel, Romney has tried to distinguish himself from the president by arguing that he would have a closer and more harmonious relationship with Israel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who faces an election contest Jan. 22.

“I will make clear that America’s commitment to Israel’s security and survival as a Jewish state is absolute, and will demonstrate that commitment to the world by making Jerusalem the destination of my first foreign trip,” Romney wrote in reply to an American Jewish Committee questionnaire. “Unlike President Obama, I understand that distancing the U.S. from Israel doesn't earn us credibility in the Arab world or bring peace closer.”

Romney’s Israel stance was prominently displayed at the Republican convention with a video highlighting the nominee’s July trip to Israel. He has also promised that as president he would not allow disagreements with Israel to be aired in public.

Many of Romney's advisers on both foreign and domestic policy are Jewish. They include Dan Senor, a former spokesman for the Coalition Provisional Authority after the U.S. invasion of Iraq and co-author of “Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel's Economic Miracle,” who has risen to prominence as one of the campaign’s most visible foreign policy voices; Eliot Cohen, an international relations scholar and former State Department counselor; Michael Chertoff, President George W. Bush’s second Homeland Security secretary; Dov Zakheim, a former Pentagon comptroller who has a reputation as a foreign policy realist; and Tevi Troy, a former deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services who also served as Jewish liaison for the George W. Bush’s White House.

By the time he made his second run for president, Romney already had built good relationships with Jewish Republicans from his first term as governor and his first presidential run. Romney’s record of moderation made him a natural fit with the party’s Jews, Zeidman said.

“A lot of people in Boston and on Wall Street knew him and respected him,” Zeidman said of the period in 2005-2006 when Romney started exploring his first presidential run. “But he had yet to be in a position where he addressed the Jewish community at large. Now we know what kind of problem solver he is, we know his integrity, his ability to get things done and that as Jews we never have to be concerned about his commitment to the security of the State of Israel.”

Ann Romney has said that she and her husband, as Mormons, feel a kinship with Jews. “Mitt and I can appreciate coming from another heritage,” she told the RJC last year. When he was starting his business career in consulting, Romney reportedly would joke with Jewish colleagues about being fellow outsiders.

For his first job after graduating from Harvard Business School, Romney joined Boston Consulting Group, where he first met a young Benjamin Netanyahu who was employed there at the time. Today, Romney speaks of his strong bond with the Israeli prime minister.

Romney often repeats to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences his favorite Netanyahu story, in which the Israeli leader describes an Israeli soldier in basic training who is told to run a course with an overweight soldier on his shoulder. The punch line: “Government is the guy on your shoulders.”

In campaign for Jewish votes, GOP has the money, Dems have the history


In the battle for Jewish votes this November, both parties acknowledge the other’s advantage: Republicans have the money and Democrats have the history.

The funding disparity was evident on Sunday and Monday when the Republican Jewish Coalition rolled out major voter outreach bids in three major Jewish population centers: the suburbs of Cleveland and Philadelphia, and in Broward and Palm Beach counties in South Florida.

The operations included expensive mechanisms unheard of in any Jewish outreach operation for years, if ever: Banks of volunteers phoning voters identified beforehand by researchers through “microtargeting,” a system that uses market research and other factors to narrow respondents to those likeliest to switch their vote.

Volunteers also distributed leaflets to homes in suburbs with high Jewish concentrations.

The effort attracted hundreds of RJC volunteers from across the country to the three target areas in states that both parties have identified as having enough undecided Jewish voters who could decide the election. Among the volunteers were dozens of students whose hotel stays over the Sabbath were paid for by the RJC.

“This effort — both in terms of numbers of participants and scope of the effort — was unprecedented and historic,” the RJC's executive director, Matthew Brooks, told JTA in an email.

Democrats, slightly slackjawed, said they could never match the effort, which is part of an overall push that Brooks has priced at $6.5 million.

“We will be outspent,” acknowledged Robert Wexler, a former Florida congressman and one of the Obama campaign’s chief Jewish surrogates.

Democrats have said previously that they hope to raise $1 million to $2 million for their Jewish outreach efforts.

The RJC’s efforts in suburban Philadelphia were not without mishaps. Cellphones leased for the occasion did not work for hours on Sunday because the volunteers were housed in a lower-level hotel room that did not have reception. And some door-to-door canvassers were dropped off in areas such as Blue Bell that appeared to have few Jews and where houses were adorned with Christian symbols.

Striding along the broad paths leading to double doors in the wealthy neighborhood of Gladwyne, Carol Eberwein, a 70-year-old retiree sporting a white “RJC Victory Team” T-shirt, said she had not set foot in a synagogue for four years, infuriated with her fellow Jews for handing Obama a substantial majority.

“If these damned Jews vote for Obama” this year, she said, “I’m not likely to go back.”

The RJC’s outreach overall has won national attention. Its drive includes “My Buyer’s Remorse,” a TV ad campaign targeting swing states and featuring Jewish voters who supported Barack Obama in 2008 but are now voting against the president. The same theme appears on the leaflets that volunteers tucked into mailboxes on Sunday and Monday.

“We had high hopes for Barack Obama,” they say. “Now, we have only buyer’s remorse.”

Also featured in South Florida are billboards reading “Obama, Oy Vey!” and “Had enough?” Passers-by are directed to the “My Buyer’s Remorse” website.

Democratic outreach is considerably more modest. The National Jewish Democratic Council is canvassing the same areas with volunteers handing out postcards calling the Obama-Biden ticket “the choice of American Jews.”

The NJDC's president, David Harris, said his group could not match the RJC outreach, but that it was not necessary to do so because of the Democrats' traditional advantage among Jewish voters.

“We start from an inbuilt advantage, that since the New Deal the vast majority of American Jews have voted Democratic,” he said.

It’s a history that Republicans acknowledge, which is why the focus is on “microtargeting” the undecided Jews who, despite their relatively small percentage, could swing the vote in closely fought states.

“Our goal is to get to those leaners,” Brooks said two weeks ago in Tampa,  Fla., at the Republican National Convention when he first rolled out plans for the outreach blitz. Ultimately, he predicted, “the undecideds will shift dramatically.”

It’s an argument Democrats are taking seriously. Days after Brooks announced his plans, Ira Forman, the top Jewish outreach official for the Obama campaign, gave a PowerPoint presentation at the convention center in Charlotte, N.C., the site of the Democratic National Convention, in which he outlined what a 10 percent swing in the Jewish vote could cost Democrats. Obama is believed to have earned between 74 and 78 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008; Gallup tracking polls had him at 68 percent in July.

Should Obama’s Jewish support fall to 65 percent on Election Day, in Florida he could conceivably lose 83,500 votes, according to Forman’s chart; in Pennsylvania, 41,500 votes; and in Ohio, 19,000 votes.

In its outreach literature, the RJC stresses Israel and the threat of a nuclear Iran. The leaflet distributed to suburban homes this week is mostly about the Middle East, with the economy relegated to less than a third of the content.

By contrast, the NJDC handout is split evenly between the Middle East and other issues: the economy, health care reform and social issues such as abortion and gay marriage.

Republicans recount well-known instances when Obama has differed with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, particularly on what terms negotiations with the Palestinians should resume, and they note that Iran continues apace in its suspected attempt to build a nuclear weapon. Democrats note enhanced security cooperation with Israel, Iran’s increased isolation under Obama and the administration’s efforts to block anti-Israel efforts at the United Nations.

The emphasis on the economy and social issues makes sense for the Democrats because the gaps between Jews and Republicans are wider on domestic issues — something that the phone canvassers at the Radisson Valley Forge Hotel outside of Philadelphia discovered.

David Edman, 57, a health care consultant from Wayne, Pa., said the callers he reached on Sunday tended to want to talk more about the economy.

“It’s been about 50-50,” he said in terms of callers who were receptive to the RJC message.

“I talked to two people who said health care was their most important issue. They seemed elderly and they were leaning” toward Obama, Edman said. “I ask people to keep an open mind.”

Dara Fox, 46, a homemaker from Manassas, Va., who awoke at 4:30 a.m. to ride a bus in for the day, said she got nothing but answering machines and hang-ups after an hour of calls. She said she also encountered the economic argument against voting for Romney among her liberal Jewish friends in northern Virginia — another swing state where a shift in the Jewish vote could conceivably make the difference.

“I am at a complete loss as to how liberal Jews have taken Israel and put it in a separate bubble,” she said.

Democrats, however, are not sanguine about the prospect of Jewish voters compartmentalizing any concerns they have about Israel and focusing instead on areas of domestic agreement with Obama.

Echoing a common complaint among Obama’s closest Jewish backers, Wexler, speaking Monday to the B’nai B’rith International policy conference, said the question he hears from Jewish audiences that vexes him most is the “kishkes” question: Does Obama “get” Israel in his gut?

“I get done with the litany of 30 things the president has done for Israel, and then I get asked, ‘Yeah, Wexler, I know about all that, but in his kishkes does he really feel it?’ ” Wexler recounted, his voice rising in frustration. “Short of joining the IDF itself, I’m curious as to what President Obama could do to convince some in our community.”

At Democratic convention, a focus on Jewish swing voters as key to election win


Jewish swing voters could make or break President Obama’s bid for reelection.

At least that’s the case that Democratic Party leaders made in a training session that packed one of the larger halls at the convention center here on Monday, the day before the formal start of the Democratic National Convention.

It came with a message delivered to Jewish volunteers at the convention in Charlotte: Some Jewish voters matter more than others. And when it comes to issues, Israel is especially important — but don’t forget domestic policy.

At the session, Jewish public officials such as Delaware Gov. Jack Markell and U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) shouted out the party’s new Jewish tagline: “I’m here because I’m a Jew and I support the president and I support Israel.”

Both parties are aggressively targeting Jewish voters in swing states. Next week, the Republican Jewish Coalition will conduct a voter outreach drive in South Florida, Cleveland and Philadelphia. The blitz, part of an overall $6.5 million RJC effort to sway Jewish voters, will be based on prior polling that will “micro-target” Jewish undecideds.

Despite their relatively small number in America — approximately 2 percent of the population — Jews remain a key electoral demographic.

Ira Forman, the veteran Jewish Democrat who has been running Obama’s Jewish outreach campaign, listed seven states — Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, Colorado, Nevada and Michigan — where a 10 percent swing among Jewish voters could change the election.

A drop in support for Obama from the approximate 75 percent of the Jewish vote that he received in 2008 to 65 percent this year would cost him 83,500 votes in Florida, 41,500 in Pennsylvania and 19,000 in Ohio, according to Forman. The figures were based on educated guesses about eligibility and voter turnout.

The most recent Gallup tracking polls of Jewish voters, from June and July, had Obama at 68 percent of the vote — ahead of the 61 percent level at which he was polling in July 2008, when he was facing Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

The speakers at Monday’s event said that swing voters tended to be exercised by concerns about Obama’s Israel policies, though their principal concerns are about the economy, health care and social issues like abortion rights.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), the DNC chairwoman and the party’s highest-ranking Jewish member, said Republicans hammer on the Israel issue because the Republican Party has little common ground with Jewish voters on domestic policy.

“The natural political home for Jewish voters in this country is with the Democratic Party,” she said.

Republicans cite changing Jewish demographics and voter patterns — including the increasingly large Orthodox community, which is more politically conservative than other Jewish denominations — as evidence that is changing.

Based on Monday’s training session — similar to a number that Democrats say the party has held throughout the swing states — it’s clear that the campaign waged by Republicans to depict Obama as lacking commitment to Israel has had an impact.

For the Israel argument, Democrats unveiled an eight-minute video titled “Steadfast” that features an array of Israeli leaders, including Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres, extolling what is depicted as an unprecedented level of cooperation on defense and intelligence sharing with the Obama administration.

Also featured in talking points handed out to attendees are the Obama administration’s efforts to isolate Iran in a bid to halt its suspected nuclear weapons program, including intensified sanctions.

Republicans acknowledge the close relationship between the Israeli and U.S. administrations on defense, but say that Obama has undercut its benefits by making public his disagreements with Israel over peacemaking with the Palestinians. They also say that he has not made it sufficiently clear that Iran could face a military strike from Israel or the United States if it does not cooperate.

Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has suggested that he would not stand in the way of an Israeli strike, while Obama administration officials have spent recent months in intensive talks with Israelis hoping to head off such a strike.

Indeed, Wasserman Schultz, in making the case for Obama’s Iran policy, repeated a talking point that distinguishes the Democratic position, which counsels military force as a last resort: She praised Obama for “making sure that all options are on the table, but making sure that the military option is the last, not the first, one.”

Once the Israel argument is out of the way, Forman counseled volunteers to sway undecided voters by talking about domestic policy, where Democrats believe they have a sharp advantage.

David Simas, the Obama campaign’s director of opinion research, outlined for the session how to incorporate one’s own story into campaigning. Simas, a rising star in the party, spoke of his own background as the child of penniless Portuguese immigrants who may have foundered had it not been for worker protections he suggested that Republicans would remove.

Wasserman Schultz cited her own personal story, noting her struggle with breast cancer a few years ago. Discovering a lump in her breast while showering, she said, “I realized I was one job loss away from being  uninsured and uninsurable.” Now, with the passage of Obama’s health care reforms, she said she need no longer fear the prospect of insurers turning her down because she has a preexisting condition.

Volunteers at the session agreed that the Israel component was critical to swaying the undecideds among their friends.

Cynthia Johnson, 56, a publicist from Portland, Ore., said she attended because she was finding that some of her Jewish friends were wavering, particularly over the Israel issue.

“That was the one concern I wanted to be able to address,” said Johnson, who is not Jewish.

Steve Leibowitz, 55, an information technology professional from Cape Cod, Mass., said the Israel talking points would assist him in his social media interactions with Jewish friends, where he said he was likelier to encounter questions about Obama’s Israel policy than outright hostility.

Ellen Blaine, 52, a public health professional from Charlotte, said she needed tools to counter misconceptions about Obama’s relations with Jews and Israel.

“That’s what’s on top of people’s minds,” she said.

Blaine noted one success so far: Four years ago her mother, then 80, believed a sister in New York who assured her that Obama was a secret Muslim and voted for a Republican for the first time. Blaine said her mother, now disabused of that notion, was ready to vote Obama this year — but marveled at how such rumors spread among Jewish voters.

“My aunt was a schoolteacher!” she said. “We’re supposed to be an educated and engaged people.”

Amid roasted pigs, country music and rabbinical blessings, Romney seeks to define himself


Whole barbecued pigs, cheerleaders and elegies to skinny-dipping farmers’ daughters.

That was the organized noise Sunday night at the opening bash of the Republican National Convention at Tropicana Field, the home of Major League Baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays in St. Petersburg.

For those seeking Jewish content, a noted rabbi was set to kick off the formal proceedings on Tuesday, and scattered through the rain-drenched towns of Tampa Bay were a number of events addressing the pro-Israel community’s foreign policy concerns.

At the opening party, delegates availed themselves of free wine and dug into the roasted pigs, a Cuban delicacy, while watching cheerleaders grind to Rodney Atkins singing “Farmer‘s Daughter“ and “What I Love About the South” (“Hot women skinny swimming, barely belly button deep”).

Other noises reverberating across Tampa Bay: There were the winds roiling the waters that lap the bridge that links Tampa with St. Petersburg, echoes of Tropical Storm Isaac, heading west toward New Orleans. The storm mostly missed the Tampa region, but its threat was potent enough to shut down the convention’s first formal day on Monday.

And there was political noise, too: Tea Partiers met at rallies in the region to protest what they depicted as an attempt by Mitt Romney, the presumptive presidential candidate, to marginalize the hard-line conservatives as he attempts to steer the party toward the center ahead of November’s elections.

“This is what the Tea Party is not: We are not an unwanted second-class political party,” U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), a leader of the movement, was quoted by the Tampa Bay Times as telling a packed church hall on Sunday.

There were reports that small groups of delegates in state delegations would protest either by not voting at the convention or by switching votes to libertarian Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), the only contender from the primaries who has not formally relinquished his nomination fight.

Followers of Paul unleashed their anger with the party’s establishment—and particularly its advocacy for a robust U.S. posture overseas—at a packed rally on the University of South Florida campus.

Paul, to cheers, blamed recent wars on “powerful special interests behind a foreign policy of intervention and the military industrial complex” and said “neocons” are “all over the place, and they’re not in one place, they’re in all of the parties.”

The rally was structured as a passing of the torch from Paul, 76, to his son, U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), 49. When Rand Paul appeared, the crowd, estimated at 7,000, began chanting “16!”—underscoring the expectation that he would be a contender for the GOP nomination in four years.

The younger Paul has avoided the associations with bigots and the outright hostility to Israel that have frustrated his father’s multiple bids for the presidency. He has, however, embraced Ron Paul’s isolationism, opposing foreign assistance, including to Israel. And at the Sunday rally he posited a new challenge—an audit of the Pentagon—to a Romney campaign that has pledged increased defense spending, in part to make it clear to Iran that it was not reducing its profile in the Middle East.

“Republicans need to acknowledge that not every dollar is sacred or well spent in the military,” Rand Paul said.

There also were remnants of the moderate Republican Party nipping at the edges of the convention. Events were planned for the Log Cabin Republicans, an umbrella for gays in the party, and Republicans for Choice, an abortion rights group.

The convention schedule, constantly shifting because of the weather, was a template of Romney’s struggle to define himself and to accommodate the party’s multiple strands. Organizers pointed reporters particularly to the primetime 10-11 p.m. slot on Tuesday that featured Romney’s wife, Ann, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.

Both choices were aimed squarely at attempts by Democrats and the Obama campaign to depict Romney as a flip-flopper beholden to ultra-conservatives. Ann Romney, seen as his most appealing surrogate, would once and for all humanize him, and Christie would show how a moderate Republican could prevail in a Democratic state, as Romney had done when he governed Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007.

The party’s conservative wing also will be present, with speeches by Rick Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator who was Romney’s most pronounced social conservative challenger during the campaign, and Rand Paul. There also will be a video tribute to Ron Paul, an event that Jewish Democrats have derided.

Notably absent as speakers were any remnant of the past decade’s GOP bids for the presidency. Former President George W. Bush is not present or speaking, nor is his vice president, Dick Cheney. Missing also is the 2008 ticket, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor.

Romney has, however, surrounded himself with foreign policy advisers from past presidents. Most notably for the pro-Israel community, his top Middle East adviser is Den Senor, who has close ties with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and was the U.S. spokesman in Iraq in the period following the war that ousted Saddam Hussein.

AIPAC, as it has at past conventions, was running a number of closed events with top campaign advisers in the Tampa area during the convention, and is planning to do the same next week in Charlotte, N.C., when the Democrats meet. On the pro-Israel lobby’s agenda in Tampa is a bid to understand how Romney would distinguish himself from President Obama in confronting Iran and a broader Middle East roiled by change—the principal source of tension between the president and the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

One signal of consistency with the Obama presidency emerged last week during platform debate when Romney surrogates, led by Sen. Jim Talent (R-Mo.), pushed back against bids to remove a commitment to eventual Palestinian statehood from the platform. Talent noted at the time that two states remains the official Israeli government position.

Jewish officials, committed to building bipartisan consensus on Israel and other issues, expressed concerns about navigating a polarized Washington. At an American Jewish Committee event on energy policy, Richard Foltin, the AJC’s director of legislative affairs, acknowledged the difficulties of making the case for an AJC energy security policy that strives for a middle ground between exploiting U.S. natural resources, which Republicans favor, and alternatives to fossil fuels, the choice of Democrats.

“It’s our role as advocates to say we are not free to desist, even though we are dealing in a polarized and difficult time to move those agendas,” Foltin said.

The convention schedule also underscored Romney’s bid to make more diverse a party that has become increasingly identified with white Christians. Delivering Tuesday’s opening invocation is Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, the scion of a distinguished rabbinic family who has opined on (small c) conservative issues. He also is the director of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University and associate rabbi at Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

Also delivering blessings are Hispanic evangelical leader Sammy Rodriguez; Ishwar Singh, a leader in Central Florida’s Sikh community (who approached convention organizers about delivering an invocation in the wake of the recent massacre at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin); Archbishop Demetrios, the primate of the Greek Orthodox Church in America; Ken and Priscilla Hutchins, the president and matron of the Mormon temple in Romney’s home base of Boston; and Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the head of New York’s Roman Catholic Archdiocese and the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Where’s the tough love for Obama?


When it comes to criticizing Israel, liberal supporters of Israel routinely quote the Jewish value of self-criticism. Try telling a pro-Israel critic the following:

“Israel is already being criticized beyond all proportion by much of the world community; it is being demonized and boycotted by a global movement trying to eradicate the Zionist project; it is surrounded by enemies sworn to its destruction; and it already has plenty of criticism and dissent within its own country. Should we, as Diaspora Jews, pile on the criticism and join the feeding frenzy — or should we push back against these exaggerated attacks and make Israel’s case to the world? Why give our enemies more ammunition to hurt us?”

The typical answer you’ll get is: “Because self-criticism is one of the highest Jewish values! It’s not just a right to criticize Israel, it’s an obligation! That’s how we improve. Israel needs our public criticism. It’s the highest and deepest expression of our love for the Jewish state.”

I understand that sentiment: We can’t grow in life without getting some tough love.

But what I don’t understand is this: Why won’t liberal critics of Israel use the same argument for President Obama? If self-criticism is such a noble value, why won’t they show the same kind of “tough love” for the president and criticize him as loudly as they do Israel?

I can’t tell you how often I’ve seen liberal supporters of Israel get all aggressive when criticizing Israel’s policies, but then, as soon as the subject turns to Obama’s policies, they suddenly get all defensive.

Apparently, not all self-criticism is created equal.

This is a shame, because the president could use a lot more criticism from liberals, especially on issues that liberals care deeply about.

In a recent post on the Atlantic Web site titled “Why do Liberals Keep Sanitizing the Obama Story?” Conor Friedersdorf pleads with liberals to “stop ignoring President Obama’s failures on civil liberties, foreign policy, and the separation of powers, treating them as if they [don’t] even merit a mention.”

Friedersdorf takes to task several prominent liberal writers, among them Jonathan Chait, whom he calls “the latest to write about the president as if his civil liberties abuses and executive power excesses never happened.”

Referring to a long assessment of Obama by Chait in New York Magazine, Friedersdorf writes:

“Apparently it isn’t even worthy of mention that Obama’s actions in Libya violated the War Powers Resolution … and the legal advice provided to him by the Office of Legal Counsel.

“Perhaps most egregiously, Chait doesn’t even allude to Obama’s practice of putting American citizens on a secret kill list without any due process.

“Nor does he grapple with warrantless spying on American citizens, Obama’s escalation of the war on whistleblowers, his serial invocation of the state secrets privilege, the Orwellian turn airport security has taken [and] the record-breaking number of deportations over which Obama presided.”

Seriously, how often do we see prominent liberal writers publicly criticize the president for some of these vexing actions, which certainly can’t be blamed on the previous president?

“Why is all this ignored?” Friedersdorf asks. “Telling the story of Obama’s first term without including any of it is a shocking failure of liberalism.

“What does ‘better than the Republicans’ get you if it means that executive privilege keeps expanding, the drones keep killing innocents and inflaming radicals … the Pentagon budget keeps growing, civil liberties keep being eroded, wars are waged without Congressional permission, and every future president knows he or she can do the same because at this point it doesn’t even provoke a significant backlash from the left?”

Friedersdorf says it just won’t cut it “for smart writers and prestigious publications to keep writing big think pieces about Obama’s tenure that read as if some of its most significant, uncomfortable moments never happened.

“Civil liberties and executive power and war-making aren’t fringe concerns. … They’re central to the Obama narrative, and the American narrative, as the president himself would’ve affirmed back when he was articulating lofty standards that he has repeatedly failed to meet.”

So, given all these liberal failures, why are Obama’s liberal supporters “sanitizing” his story? Even before this election season, why have so many of them been reluctant to publicly criticize their president and give him the kind of “tough love” he needs?

Well, here’s one possibility. It’s not that they think Obama is perfect and can do no wrong. Rather, it’s that they see how Obama is already being criticized beyond all proportion by much of the conservative community, and they say to themselves:

“Why should we pile on the criticism and join the feeding frenzy? Better to push back against these exaggerated attacks and make a strong case for our side. Our opponents are so much worse than we are — why give them more ammunition to hurt us?”

Why? For the same reason you criticize Israel — because self-criticism is one of the highest Jewish values! Because self-criticism is not just a right, it’s an obligation!

Because if your beloved Israel deserves your tough love, then so does your beloved president.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan and Florida Jews


In 1992, Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts mounted a strong campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. The pundits considered him a brainy guy who was willing to take on the sacred cows of Social Security and Medicare. Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, by contrast, seemed like a flawed candidate. Tsongas stung Clinton by calling him “pander bear.”

Tsongas won the New Hampshire primary. With the wind at his back, he headed south to Florida. And there, like an alligator in the Everglades, waited Bill Clinton.

Clinton took Tsongas to the woodshed, running a devastating television campaign that highlighted the threat Tsongas’ plans posed to the entitlement programs so revered by Florida’s Democratic Party electorate. Florida was Tsongas’ Waterloo. His campaign never recovered.

I was reminded of that 20-year-old electoral watershed when I heard that Mitt Romney had selected Congressman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) as his vice presidential candidate.

Romney has been working hard to break the Democratic hold on Jewish voters. As Dan Schnur pointed out recently (Los Angeles Times, Aug. 12), since Obama already has a lock on New York and California, the Jewish vote really matters strategically in only three battleground states for the presidential race: Florida, Pennsylvania and Nevada. Florida is the most important, and it has held some opportunities for Romney.

Florida’s Jews, concentrated in three southern counties of Broward, Palm Beach and Dade, represent 3.3 percent of the state’s population, but their turnout share is as high as 4 percent of the statewide vote.

Jewish voters in Florida, especially those who are elderly, preferred Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary in 2008, although they voted in a strong majority for Obama in the general election. Generally, Obama has done better with younger than older voters, and this is true among Jews as well. And the Florida Jewish electorate is comparatively elderly.

Florida had 613,235 Jews in 2010 according to a North American Jewish Data Bank report by Ira Sheskin and Arnold Dashefsky. Florida held the top six places in the country in proportion of the Jewish population older than 65 years of age, led by South Palm Beach at 62 percent and West Palm Beach at 57 percent. By contrast, the elderly Jewish population of Los Angeles is only 21 percent.

Israel is the one issue that gives Republicans a chance with Jewish voters, and Romney’s recent trip to Israel enabled him to run commercials in Florida that noted that Obama has not yet visited the Jewish State. There is also discontent about political conflicts between Obama and the Israeli political leadership. Republicans have been gaining with older white voters, even as they struggle with young and minority voters.

But expecting older Jewish voters to go to the next step of voting for a Republican is not a given. Romney still has had to convince those who might be skeptical of Obama that he is a safe choice, and that he won’t be a tool of the most conservative wing of the Republican Party. And here is the problem. What Romney needed to do in his selection of vice president to unite his party is exactly the opposite of what he needed to do to make inroads among Jews.

Had he made a safer choice, Rob Portman of Ohio, for example, he might have been able to reassure some Jewish voters that his ticket would be a safe harbor for their discontent with the incumbent president. For these voters, boring would be good, especially if boring meant no change to Medicare and Social Security. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, Florida has 3,390,801 Medicare recipients, 18 percent of the state’s population. According to the AARP, one in five Florida residents received Social Security benefits in 2006. Strikingly, for three out of 10 Floridians older than 65, Social Security provided their sole source of income.

Ryan’s plans for a full or partial privatization of Medicare and Social Security will be anathema to older voters. These ideas are so unpopular — and to many people so unfathomable —  that the Democrats have had to struggle to convince voters that anybody would actually propose it. Now Romney’s selection of Ryan as his running mate clearly aligns him with Ryan’s plans.

If the debate turns to Medicare and Social Security, the debate over Americans’ relationship with Israel may become less compelling. And certainly older voters in general will be paying very close attention to what happens with entitlement programs.

Although there is no guarantee that the famously undisciplined Democrats, prone to scattershot campaigning on numerous fronts, will press the advantage, but if they do, the Romney-Ryan ticket could mean that their prospects could be very bright, not just in the presidential campaign but in congressional elections nationwide as well. Romney’s selection of Ryan likely will have the unintended consequence for the Republicans of shifting the debate from focusing on insufficient jobs for Americans of working age to the otherwise dormant questions of health and income security for the high participation, retired senior citizen voters.

It is hard to imagine more difficult terrain for the Republicans in an election year that for them began with so much promise.


Raphael J. Sonenshein is executive director of the Edmund G. “Pat” Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University, Los Angeles.

Ryan hailed by Jewish GOPers, organizations see him as a face of budget confrontations


Anointing Paul Ryan as his running mate, Mitt Romney attached a name and face to his fiscal policy.

Jewish Republicans, including the House majority leader, say they are thrilled with Wisconsin’s Ryan emerging as the ticket’s fresh face, hailing the lawmaker as a thoughtful and creative budget guru bent on taming out-of-control federal spending.

Ryan’s name is well known to Jewish community leaders who have been grappling with the Republicans’ chief budget shaper since the party retook the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2010.

It’s just not one they’re happy pronouncing.

The Washington groups that deal with budget policy have had many interactions with Ryan, who as chairman of the House Budget Committee authors Congress’ proposed budget.

They have not been happy ones, although speaking on background, the first thing Ryan’s Jewish and Democratic interlocutors emphasize is that he is as affable and gracious one on one as he appears to be in public. But Jewish groups see Ryan’s plan threatening Medicare and Medicaid, programs that are cornerstones of care for the Jewish elderly—a population growing faster than among most other religious and ethnic groups.

“The Republicans can write off Florida, or at least its Jewish vote,” said one organizational insider who has a strong working relationship with both parties.

Jewish Democrats made it clear that they were ready to seize the moment.

“Ryan’s signature budget plan drew the profound concern and even ire of many in the American Jewish community because of its plans to end Medicare as we know it, slash vital social safety net programs, and increase the burden on seniors, the middle class and the poor—yet Romney today proudly hitched his horse to Ryan’s dangerous plan,” the National Jewish Democratic Council said Saturday after Romney, the presumptive GOP presidential candidate, announced his pick.

Ryan and his defenders argue that his proposals will drive down costs by spurring competitive pricing and save popular entitlement programs from eventual bankruptcy.

“Paul Ryan has challenged both party leaderships in Washington to face up to growing fiscal problems that threaten to blight our nation’s future.,” the Republican Jewish Coalition said in its statement welcoming Romney’s announcement on Saturday.  “And while congressional Republicans have responded to the challenge, Democrats have ducked responsibility.”

Outside of his leaderdship on budget issues, Ryan, 42, has not been preeminent in many of the areas that traditionally have attracted Jewish organizational interest.
Elected in 1998, he visited Israel in 2005 on a trip organized by the American Israel Education Foundation, an affiliate of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Along with Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), he has joined Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the House majority leader, as the “young guns” heralding a more robustly conservative Republican Party, one that appeals more to the Tea Party insurgents who fueled the Republican takeover of the House in 2010.

Cantor has often pointed out the diversity embodied by the trio—Cantor is a Southeastern observant Jew, Ryan is a Midwestern Roman Catholic and McCarthy is a Western Protestant.

“Having worked closely with Paul, I’ve seen firsthand the energy and commitment he brings to pursuing the kind of pro-growth economic policies we need to create jobs and reduce our massive debt,” Cantor said in a statement. “Quite simply, Mitt Romney could not have made a finer choice for the future direction of our country.”

Ryan has followed Cantor’s lead on foreign policy, co-sponsoring signature pieces of legislation that the majority leader initiated, most recently one that enhances security cooperation between the United States and Israel.

“America has no better friend in the Middle East than the nation of Israel. Not only is Israel the region’s only fully functioning democracy, with a government based on popular consent and the rule of law, but it is also a valuable ally against Islamic extremism and terrorism,” Ryan says on his congressional page.

Ryan has not interacted extensively with the small Jewish community in Wisconsin, but those who have met him say he’s an eager student of the Middle East.

“He’s thought a lot about those issues, although he might not be an expert like he is on the nitty gritty of the budget,” said Nat Sattler, who has been active in Wisconsin Republican politics and who has met Ryan at Republican and pro-Israel events. “Knowing his ability to suck up information, I’m sure he is becoming an expert.”

Ryan has backed cuts to the overall foreign assistance budget, although he favors funding at current levels for Israel. AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups generally are committed to maintaining foreign assistance funding overall, and not just for Israel.

It is in the area of domestic spending that the clashes between Ryan and the Jewish organizational community have been evident.

On the record, however, organizational criticism often does not often name Ryan because such groups do not want to make enemies or to seem partisan. But even absent names and party affiliation it can be scathing.

In 2011, the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs – the two leading policy umbrellas addressing economic issues – were blunt in a joint letter to Congress members slamming plans that originated with Ryan that would transition parts of Medicare, the medical program for the elderly, to a Medicare Exchange in which a variety of private plans would be made available.

The plan also would convey funds for Medicaid, government-funded insurance for the poor, in block grants to the states. JFNA and JCPA objected to the loosening of federal controls over how such money is spent.

“We recognize that this country’s very significant budget deficit threatens the long-term prosperity of our nation,” it said. “We also believe that the major entitlement programs protect the health and economic security of our most vulnerable citizens.”

It continued: “Within the current framework of Medicaid and Medicare, we believe that it is possible to restrain growth and rein in costs,” read the April 2011 letter.  “We are capable of strengthening their long-term viability without a fundamental restructuring that turns Medicaid into a block grant or Medicare into a voucher program.”

As the budget debate has become more rancorous this year, the JFNA has opted out, although among other Jewish groups the criticism has become more pointed.

Also featuring in the Jewish criticism of Ryan’s plans are his proposals to slash spending on assistance for the poor, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, formerly known as food stamps.

The Reform movement’s Religious Action Center has taken to naming Ryan in its broadsides against his budget.

“By ending the entitlement status of Medicaid and Medicare, fundamentally altering the tax system, and slashing spending for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and education programs, the Ryan plan would turn our backs on our obligation to care for all Americans,” said a statement in March from the RAC. “We are commanded in Deuteronomy, ‘Do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman.’ ”

Ryan’s defenders note that much of his plan was shaped in coordination with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), who happens to be Jewish—although Wyden now disavows much of the claim. Wyden notes that he joined Ryan in shaping the plan in part based on the understanding that it would keep intact President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which Romney and Ryan have pledged to repeal.

“If you repeal the Affordable Care Act, what Mr. Romney is saying is, he just wishes for the best,” Wyden told the Oregonian.

Jewish community officials say that privatization of entitlement programs is more likely to drive up costs for individuals than it is to keep overall costs down.

“A competition approach is not appropriate for people who are higher risk,” said Rachel Goldberg, the director of senior advocacy for B’nai B’rith International. Ryan’s plan, she said, would lure younger and healthier Medicare-eligible Americans into cheaper plans, which in turn would drive up costs for older and less healthy citizens.

Ryan’s defenders note that Obama’s plan also incorporates cuts to Medicare. They argue that Ryan’s plan, broadening options for recipients, is the more efficient and the likelier to prevent further cuts.

“Everyone acknowledges the program is the foremost driver of our long-term debt,” Rich Lowry wrote in National Review Online. “Both Ryan and the president use the same formula of roughly GDP growth plus inflation for setting Medicare’s global budget. The difference is that the president wants a bureaucratic board to get the savings through arbitrary limits on prices that ultimately will limit access to care, while Ryan wants to get the savings through competition and choice.”

Romney to meet with Jewish donors


Mitt Romney is meeting with about 30 major Jewish donors to his presidential campaign as part of a “constituents day.”

Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and all-but-certain Republican nominee for president, will meet for about an hour with the donors in Boston on Thursday.

A donor who was invited told JTA that the purpose of the meeting would be an exchange of views.

There would be other meetings the same day with other constituent groups, the donor said, confirming reports of the meeting from a number of Jewish community officials.

Romney and President Obama have intensified outreach to Jewish voters and supporters in this presidential election year.

On Monday, the White House hosted some 70 Jewish leaders in a bid to reassure them that the Obama administration was determined to keep Iran from acquiring a nuclear bomb.

Obama vs. Romney: The Jewish debate


On May 5, President Barack Obama kicked off his re-election campaign in front of a crowd of 14,000 people at Ohio State University. Obama presented his new campaign slogan, “Forward,” and strongly criticized his presumed Republican opponent Mitt Romney.

Sixty-one percent of respondents in a recent American Jewish Committee (AJC) survey said they would vote for Obama, who garnered 78 percent of the Jewish vote in the 2008 presidential election. Now that a Romney-Obama matchup in November is all but inevitable, JointMedia News Service compares Obama’s record from his first term with Romney’s views and campaign statements on the most important issues to the Jewish community.

ISRAEL & THE CONFLICT

Obama:

“There should not be a shred of doubt right now: When the chips are down, I have Israel’s back,” the president said at the 2012 AIPAC conference in response to ongoing criticism that his policies regarding the Jewish state and the conflict with the Palestinians are shaky.

On the one hand, Obama had publically opposed last September’s unilateral Palestinian bid for statehood recognition at the United Nations and approved nearly $1 billion for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense program. However, he also endorsed a solution to the conflict with the Palestinians based on “the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps,” which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said is dangerous to Israel’s security. Obama has also criticized Jewish building in the West Bank.

Under Obama’s administration, the U.S. State Department has refused to publically recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. “Our policy with regard to Jerusalem is that it has to be solved through negotiations,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland recently said.

Romney:

In the wake Obama’s 1967 borders statement, Romney said that Obama has thrown Israel under the bus, indicating he agrees that such borders will pose a security risk for the Jewish state. Furthermore, “it is disrespectful of Israel for America to dictate negotiating terms to our ally,” Romney said.

Romney has also said that the relationship between the U.S. and Israel should be one of support and not criticism, since Israel is “a nation which shares our values and is our best friend in the Middle East.” He also believes it is not the duty of the U.S. to dictate to Israel where it should have its American embassy. Currently, the embassy is in Tel Aviv because Jerusalem is not internationally recognized as Israel’s capital. “My inclination is to follow the guidance of our ally Israel, as to where our facilities and embassies would exist,” he said.

However, Romney has not explicitly acknowledged support for Jerusalem as the capital city of Israel.

IRAN

Obama:

“I think both the Iranian and the Israeli governments recognize that when the United States says it is unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon, we mean what we say,” Obama has previously said regarding Iran.

The Obama administration is primarily focused on using diplomatic sanctions against Iran. Obama has said such sanctions would strike “at the heart” of Iran’s nuclear ability. “We are showing the Iranian government that its actions have consequences, and if it persists, the pressure will continue to mount, and its isolation will continue to deepen.” In fact since 2010 the president signed the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010, as well as other sanctions, all of which targeted Iran’s international banking and oil sale abilities.

With regard to a military solution to the conflict, Obama had warned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against prematurely attacking the country. As to his own administration, “as part of my solemn obligation to the American people, I only use force when the time and circumstances demand it. And I know that Israeli leaders also know all too well the costs and consequences of war, even as they recognize their obligation to defend their country,” Obama has said.

Romney:

Romney calls for another round of tough diplomatic sanctions on the country targeting the financial resources of the Iranian regime, as well as placing more restrictions on the Central Bank of Iran and all business activities of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. If the United Nations cannot lead these sanctions due to vetoes from major world nations like Russia or China, the U.S. must be ready to lead with the support of as many governments as it can muster.

However Romney believes that sanctions will only be effective if they are buttressed by a concrete military presence in the region. According to his campaign website, this should begin with restoring the presence of U.S. aircraft carrier task forces in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf region, repairing relations with Israel, increasing military coordination with Arab allies and conducting more naval exercises to demonstrate American military strength to the region. “Only if Iran understands that the United States is utterly determined when we say that their nuclear-weapons program is unacceptable is there a possibility that they will give up their nuclear aspirations peacefully.” Romney has also promised to “take every measure necessary to check the evil regime of the ayatollahs.”

THE ARAB SPRING & SYRIA

Obama:

In this year’s State of the Union address, Obama emphasized that “a wave of change has washed across the Middle East and North Africa, from Tunis to Cairo; from Sana’a to Tripoli. A year ago, [Muammar] Gaddafi was one of the world’s longest-serving dictators—a murderer with American blood on his hands. Today, he is gone.” However, Obama also said that the final outcome of the “Arab Spring” remains uncertain. Even so, he pledged more than $800 million in assistance to countries engulfed in these revolutions.

“We will advocate for those values that have served our own country so well. We will stand against violence and intimidation. We will stand for the rights and dignity of all human beings,” Obama said, adding that Syria’s Assad regime “will soon discover that the forces of change can’t be reversed, and that human dignity can’t be denied.”

However, recent estimates put the total death toll since the Syrian conflict began at more than 11,000. The U.S. government has not yet intervened militarily, even though it had intervened in Libya just months earlier, citing UN vetoes by major countries like Russia.

Obama did recently announce his intention to extend a national state of emergency over Syria for another year, which will allow him to continue placing a variety of sanctions on the country. In March he announced that the U.S. government will provide direct humanitarian and communications assistance to the Syrian opposition.

Romney:

Romney has said that the “Arab Spring” has spun out of control. “We’re all very happy that a very bad guy in Moammar Gadhafi was killed, but…how can we try and improve the odds so…that the developments are toward democracy, modernity and more representative forms of government? This we simply don’t know,” he said in October 2011.

Romney’s official website statement on the Middle East addresses the concern that rather than evolving into democracies, these Middle Eastern revolutions could lead to radical Islamist regimes: “The Romney administration will strive to ensure that the Arab Spring is not followed by an Arab Winter.” Romney’s campaign claims that the U.S. government will “make available technical assistance to governments and transitional bodies to promote democracy, good governance, and sound financial management” under his leadership.

As for Syria, “the United States must recognize Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad for what he is: an unscrupulous dictator, a killer, and a proxy for Iran,” according to Romney. He argues for increased pressure on the UN to act and collaborate with Saudi Arabia and Turkey against the Syrian regime, and to make it clear that the U.S. and its allies will support the Syrian opposition when it will be building a post-Assad government. However, Romney said at a news conference in March that he too is “not favoring military involvement, direct military involvement by the United States” at the current stage.

JONATHAN POLLARD

Obama:

Various groups have called on the president to grant clemency Jonathan Pollard, who was convicted of spying for Israel in 1987, arguing that Pollard’s life sentence is disproportionate to sentences given to others serving time for espionage. In April of this year, Israeli President Shimon Peres wrote a letter entreating Obama to release Pollard. The White House responded that “regarding Mr. Pollard the administration’s position has not changed.”

Romney:

When it comes to Pollard, Romney seems to be undecided on whether he deserves a presidential pardon, though he has said he is “open to examining” the issue.


Information and quotations in this report taken from Mittromney.com, Politico.com, Washington Post, Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel Hayom, BBC, Huffington Post, Fox News, Israel National News, Whitehouse.gov, CBS, New York Times, Israeltoday.co.il, jonathanpollard.org and Freebeacon.com.

Reform movement spearheads faith letter to Obama on discrimination


Nearly two dozen faith groups joined an initiative led by the Reform Jewish movement calling on President Obama to reconsider his decision not to issue an anti-discrimination executive order.

In Thursday’s letter, 23 organizations expressed disappointment that the president did not issue an executive order to include sexual orientation and gender identity as prohibited forms of employment discrimination practices by U.S. government contractors.

“We believe that no one should face discrimination based on their sexual orientation or gender identity: Our various faith traditions and belief systems counsel the treatment of all people with dignity,” the organizations wrote.

The letter was spearheaded by the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center. Signatories included Christian, Muslim and Jewish groups.

In addition to a number of Reform-affiliated bodies, Jewish groups included the Reconstructionist movement, the Anti-Defamation League and the National Council of Jewish Women.

After Toulouse attack, French Jews are reconsidering Sarkozy


With the first round of France’s presidential election less than four weeks away, the attacks that left four Jews and three French soldiers dead are reshaping the race—but for now it’s not clear exactly how.

In the days leading up to the attacks, President Nicolas Sarkozy had managed to close most of the gap behind the leader in the polls, Socialist candidate Francoise Hollande, with a rightward turn that included calls by Sarkozy in favor of tougher immigration restrictions and against the labeling of halal meat.

Since the March 19 attack on the Jewish Otzar Hatorah school in Toulouse, Sarkozy has announced several measures to clamp down on right-wing and Islamic extremists. He ordered French security forces to seek out Muslim extremists, barred an influential Egyptian Sunni cleric from attending a conference in France next month and urged TV networks not to air footage of the Toulouse attack and the one on soldiers in nearby Montauban that had been delivered to the Al Jazeera bureau here.

While politicians across the political spectrum condemned the attacks, Sarkozy won praise from the Jewish community for suspending his campaign and flying to Toulouse immediately after the school shooting, calling it “obviously anti-Semitic” and saying that the “whole republic” was mobilized to face the tragedy.

But it’s not clear how long the focus will remain on security before shifting back to the main issue facing France: the economy.

“The political debate will probably refocus on the fundamental economic topics,” said Jean-Yves Camus, a political scientist who specializes in right-wing extremism. “Still, it is very important to French Jews to make the population understand that the Toulouse attack does not only concern their community but the whole country.”

French Jews, he said, “will most certainly vote for politicians with solid experience who are able to put in practice legal and credible measures to answer an Islamic threat.”

The latest national polls show Sarkozy and his center-right Union for a Popular Movement, or UMP, trailing Hollande by a percentage point or two in the first round scheduled for April 22, but by a wider gap in a theoretical runoff scheduled for May 6.

Since the Toulouse attack, the National Front, France’s largest far-right party, has tried to take advantage of the changed climate. On Sunday, party leader Marine Le Pen promised to “bring radical Islam to its knees.” In her speech Le Pen, who has been polling at approximately 15 percent, also linked mass immigration with fundamentalism and denounced the risk of a “green fascism.”

Few observers believe that many Jews will opt for the National Front, even though Le Pen has sought to woo Jewish voters and distance herself and her party from the anti-Semitism of her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded the National Front.

“In 2002, only 6 percent of French Jews voted for the National Front, while the election occurred only a few months after 9/11,” Camus said. “A substantial movement from the Jewish community toward Marine Le Pen is very unlikely.”

The Jewish community, whose 600,000 members represent less than 1 percent of the total French population, remains more supportive of Sarkozy’s party than the general public. But prior to the Toulouse shootings, a survey of the Jewish electorate showed that Sarkozy had lost support among Jews even though he remained more popular than any other single candidate.

According to a March 9 poll from the French polling institute IFOP, Sarkozy’s favorable ratings among Jews had fallen to 43 percent as of January from 62 percent in May 2007, when Sarkozy was elected president. The main reason, said Jerome Fourquet, who directed the survey for IFOP, was France’s economy.

“The trend is similar to the French general electorate’s disaffection with Sarkozy,” Fourquet said. “People are dissatisfied with the economic situation and their purchasing power.”

For many Jews, the economy is not the only source of discontent with the president. In early March, Sarkozy’s prime minister, Francois Fillon, made controversial statements about halal and kosher slaughter rituals, declaring that the “ancestral traditions” in Islam and Judaism were “outdated.”

The comment provoked a strong reaction from Jewish leaders.

“As religion and state are strictly separated in France, politicians should avoid giving their opinion on these topics,” said Richard Prasquier, president of the CRIF, the main French umbrella organization for Jewish institutions.

More widely, French moderates also have expressed concern about Sarkozy’s tilt to the right. A week before the Toulouse shootings, Sarkozy told an audience that France has “too many foreigners” and proposed cutting legal immigration in half.

Thirty years ago, most Jews leaned toward the Socialist Party. Francois Mitterrand, a Socialist who served as president of France from 1981 to 1995, was considered a friend of Israel—an image he developed after his 1982 address to the Knesset, where he emphasized the Jewish state’s right to security.

But the Jewish vote drifted toward the UMP during the second intifada, when many leftist organizations took a pro-Palestinian stance and violence against French Jews soared.

“Violence in the Middle East had a huge impact on this community,” Fourquet said. “During the wave of anti-Semitic attacks in France in the early 2000s, many Jews felt abandoned by the Socialists. This is when the center of gravity started shifting to the right for French Jews.”

Sarkozy was interior minister at the time—serving two stints from 2002 to 2007—and his tough rhetoric and the aggressive measures he championed were credited with helping tamp down the anti-Semitic violence.

Which Republican candidate has the Jewish vote?


When Jewish Republicans around the country enter the voting booth for 10 primaries and caucuses on March 6 for “Super Tuesday,” they will see three candidates who still have a puncher’s chance at securing the GOP presidential nomination.

In this unpredictable race that has seen multiple twists, turns, and momentum shifts, one thing is clear: nobody is backing down just yet.

“This is going to be a dogfight, I don’t think anybody is dropping out,” Richard Baehr, chief political correspondent for American Thinker, told JointMedia News Service. “I think the candidates will be well-funded enough to make it through for a while.”

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich have all expressed pro-Israel sentiments in public debates, leaving Jewish Republicans with the task of distinguishing them from each other to arrive at their candidate of choice.

Mitt Romney

Romney—the longtime frontrunner until surges first by Gingrich, and more recently Santorum—has used every opportunity to name his support of Israel as a Jewish State, and has been firm with the Palestinian leadership and Iran. He has expressed the desire to put pressure on the former to recognize Israel as the Jewish state, and to cease violence by Hamas and other terrorist groups in the region.

On Iran, Romney supports keeping the military option “on the table,” and imposing a fifth round of sanctions that would target the Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Central Bank, and other financial institutions. He has also stated multiple times that there should be no preconditions on the Jewish state, and that it should be allowed to make decisions independently.

“The right course for us is not to try and negotiate for Israel,” Romney said at the Fox News/Google Debate in September 2011.

“[It is] to stand behind our friends, to listen to them and to let the entire world know that we will stay with them, and that we will support them and defend them,” he said.

Romney has also strongly criticized Obama and his administration for their behavior and policy toward Israel. He claimed that Obama “threw Israel under the bus,” for insisting that it should go back to the ’67 borders.

Tevi Troy—a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute, the former Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, a former liaison to the Jewish community under the Bush administration, and a special and unpaid advisor to the Romney campaign—told JointMedia News Service that he sees a “significant contrast between [Romney’s] strong pro-Israel position and what we’ve seen as a consistent coldness in the Obama administration [on the issue of Israel].”

Troy specifically referred to “a number of unpleasant dustups between the Obama and Netanyahu administrations.” During Netanyahu’s visit to the White House last march, Obama controversially skipped a photo op with the Israeli President, and did not extend an invitation to dinner. Both are common practice during a presidential visit. Obama was also famously overheard blasting Netanyahu with French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

“There were a number of these incidents that were not only unpleasant but discomforting to Jewish voters,” Troy said.

Romney has insisted that any such disagreements with any ally should be voiced behind closed doors.

“If you’ve got an issue with Bibi Netanyahu then sit down in private and hammer it out, but then come out, hold arms together and say ‘we’re together,’” Romney said in an interview with Fox News. “Because ultimately, if you don’t do that, then the foes of America, or of our allies around the world, they take courage from what they think is a split between us.”

Massachusetts U.S. Senator Scott Brown also named Romney’s skill in the economic sector as one of his great strengths. In an interview with JointMedia News Service, Brown touted Romney as “one of the nicest, honest, hard working men I’ve ever met.” He continued that when it comes to the economic issues “there’s no one who can handle them like him.”

According to Troy, Romney is the “total package.”

“[He is] the best option for Israel and a strong contrast to Obama in the fall,” Troy concluded.

Rick Santorum

A social and fiscal conservative known for his steady focus on U.S. policy towards Iran, Santorum has called the “theocracy in Iran” a “real existential threat to the state of Israel.”

Santorum, who introduced sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program back in 2004, said America needs to make it clear that it “will stop Iran getting a nuclear weapon. Period.” Santorum has also described the power of oil, saying that it “has given the capability of the radical Islamists to re-tool and re-arm, and to have capabilities increasingly equal to our own.”

Chris DeSanctis, an adjunct professor in the Department of Government and Politics at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut, said Santorum, out of the three viable candidates, has been the most “consistent as far as his viewpoint and worldview on government.”

“He’s supported conservative causes from social issues to fiscal issues to his support for Israel unwaveringly throughout the years,” DeSanctis, a supporter of Santorum in his personal rather than professional life, told JointMedia News Service.

DeSanctis said “you can trust Santorum a lot more than you can the other two candidates,” calling him the only candidate in the field who is forcefully “talking about the external threat to Israel in regards to terrorism.”

Newt Gingrich

The former Speaker set a tone as perhaps the most outspoken pro-Israel candidate in this race by calling the Palestinians an “invented” people in an interview with The Jewish Channel. Though “there’s always a little bit of pandering” during election season, Gingrich’s statement was historically accurate and “he can defend pretty much everything he says,” according to Baehr.

“He does know the history, and I think he’s taken it seriously,” Baehr said, adding that Gingrich “made support for Israel a prime issue for Republicans in Congress, and when they took control of the Senate and the House in 1994, it became high on their agenda.”

Gingrich also has the support of noted Jewish philanthropist and casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who has already contributed $11 million to Gingrich’s super PAC. Adelson is expected to donate at least $10 million more, recently telling Forbes “I might give $10 million or $100 million to Gingrich.” 

Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) President Morton Klein told the Associated Press that Gingrich has been known as “one of the few politicians who has had the courage to tell the truth about Israel,” identifying that as the reason for Gingrich’s relationship with Adelson.

Who has the Jewish vote?

According to Dr. Ira Sheskin, director of the Jewish Demography Project of the Sue and Leonard Miller Center for Contemporary Jewish Studies at the University of Miami, Romney’s appeal to Jewish voters extends beyond his stance on Israel and Iran. Of the three likely Republican candidates, Romney will most likely capture the most Jewish votes, he says.

“Everyone knows he is kind of a moderate on a lot of things and consequently he could do a lot better than the other two,” Sheskin said in a phone interview with JointMedia News Service. Santorum, Sheskin continued, has the worst chance of the Republican candidates to win Jewish votes due to his conservative views on social issues.

“If [he] gets the Republican nomination, they’re going to do as badly as the Democrats did when they nominated George McGovern. He will do miserably in the general election, but even more so in the Jewish vote.”

Gingrich is somewhere between the two, Sheskin concluded, as he is conservative but known for his ability to compromise.

Baehr noted that there are many Jewish Republicans “who are more moderate on social issues, which kind of reflects the [Jewish] community in general, both Democrats and Republicans,” which works against Santorum’s chances.

Though Gingrich “has the most emotional level of [Jewish Republican] support” because he’s been more outspoken than the other two candidates, Romney remains the “slight favorite” to be nominated, according to Baehr.

“[Romney] is probably the second favorite among Jewish Republicans, but probably the favorite among Jews who might consider voting for a Republican who are not typically Republican,” Baehr concluded, “and I think Santorum comes in third in part just because he wears his social conservatism on his sleeve, and that makes a lot of moderates on social issues or liberals on social issues in the Jewish community nervous.”

Surging Santorum has Jewish GOPers shrugging, shvitzing and kvelling


If Rick Santorum secures the Republican nomination, expect to hear this mantra from his Jewish supporters: In times of crisis, social issues don’t matter.

The former Pennsylvania senator, who is leading in national polls in the race for the GOP presidential nod, is fiercely anti-abortion and believes that states have the right to ban birth control—stances that are at odds with the views of most American Jews.

Not a problem, says Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition.

“Jobs and the economy and international affairs, these macro issues are front and center,” he said. “If the micro issues, abortion and contraceptives, become predominant, then you’ve got a problem. But this is a big picture, big issue, high-stakes election.”

But the prospect of Santorum winning the Republican nomination excites Jewish Democrats, as they believe he will be an easier opponent for President Obama in November.

Among Jewish Republicans, the bulk of the party’s Jewish donors and advisers have signed with Mitt Romney. The former Massachusetts governor’s relative moderation was seen as a natural fit for a GOP Jewish constituency that is hawkish on Israel and often fiscally conservative but averse to extremes on social issues.

“We know he’s a great friend of Israel,” Fred Zeidman, a Houston lawyer who is one of Romney’s leading fundraisers, said of Santorum. “I do fear his social views will be anathema to a great deal of our Jewish community.”

Romney Republicans like Zeidman have counted on Romney’s moderation to carry swing states where substantial Jewish populations could make a difference—for instance, in Florida, Pennsylvania and Nevada.

In recent interviews, several top Jewish Democratic activists have launched conversations, unsolicited, with a reporter with “What about Rick Santorum?” followed by hearty, relieved laughter.

“He will clearly be a nonstarter with the Jewish community,” said David Harris, president of the National Jewish Democratic Council. “I wish him the best of luck in the primaries.”

Such blasts are bound to increase now that Santorum is leading in polls for the Feb. 28 Michigan primary. Winning in Michigan would likely cripple the campaign of Romney, who until now (although with some difficulty) had claimed front-runner status: It is the state in which Romney grew up and where his father had been a popular governor. Arizona also votes the same day; polls show Romney in the lead there.

Liberal websites have compiled “greatest of” lists of Santorum’s hard-line stances on social issues.

“During his 99-county tour of Iowa, Santorum frequently compared same-sex relationships to inanimate objects like trees, basketballs, beer, and paper towels,” Think Progress said Jan. 4 after Santorum’s first surprise showing—a virtual tie with Romney in the state’s caucuses.

Lonny Kaplan, a New Jersey businessman who is leading Santorum’s fundraising in the Jewish community, says his candidate can overcome his Jewish problem by making his election about the economy and backing Israel as its tensions with Iran increase.

“My sense is that those issues, while they’re important to him, are not what his campaign is about,” Kaplan said. “Obviously it’s a challenge. It doesn’t hurt him during primaries. In the general [election] they’ll raise it again and again, so he counters it by saying what his rationale is for running.”

There is a precedent: Ronald Reagan campaigned well to the right of his GOP rivals and predecessors, yet won nearly 40 percent of the Jewish vote in 1980. It was a year, like this one, when the U.S. was tangling with a recalcitrant, unpredictable Iran and a sagging economy. That’s a bigger chunk of the Jewish vote than any Republican had won in decades. No Republican presidential candidate since has matched that level of Jewish support.

Kaplan says 2012 is similar, given the jobs crisis and the tensions with Iran. Santorum has been the most hawkish of the candidates on Iran, going beyond years of “no options are off the table” language to explicitly say that he would order a U.S. strike if necessary to keep Iran from having a nuclear weapon.

“Israel is severely challenged today, and all of us are very comfortable with Rick’s stand on Israel,” said Kaplan, a former president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. “And while the economy is showing signs of improvement, it’s been bad for four years.”

Harris of the NJDC said that was wishful thinking, dismissing any efforts to compare Santorum to Reagan or to George W. Bush. While those candidates embraced socially conservative stances, Santorum has been defined by them, he said.

“It’s not that he takes a principled stand re: abortion,” he said. “It’s that he’s long prided himself on being the most far-right social issues candidate.”

Alan Steinberg, a New Jersey political commentator who has been advocating for a more conservative alternative to Romney, suggested that whatever support Santorum would lose among more moderate Jews he would make up in support among Jewish conservatives.

“His stance on social issues will be a plus, particularly in the Orthodox community,” he said. “He will have the Orthodox,  Jewish conservatives and the pro-Israel community that is pro-Netanyahu and pro-Likud.”

Florida primary is first big showdown for the Jewish vote


With Newt Gingrich gaining ground on frontrunner Mitt Romney, the stage is set for a crucial Jan. 31 Republican presidential primary in Florida. By playing a significant role in that day’s outcome, the state’s large Jewish population might set the tone for the rest of the GOP race.

About 638,000 Jews call Florida home, according to the December 2011 figures from the Jewish Virtual Library—in stark contrast to the relatively small Jewish communities in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, states that have held primaries and caucuses so far.

Up until 2004, Florida held its presidential primaries in March. Now, with an earlier contest—open only to Republican voters—an active Jewish electorate should wield significant influence, said Dr. Terri Susan Fine, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida.

If a primary is early in the calendar, Fine explained in an interview with JointMedia News Service, that means voters still have a choice of candidates—which is the case in Florida despite the dropouts of Rick Perry, Michele Bachmann, Jon Huntsman and Herman Cain. Fine said voters in early primaries “end up impacting the choice for the rest of the nation, because if [a candidate] drops out because they don’t do well in your state, or if they do very well in your state … the media presents you as if you’re the winner.” With a later primary in previous election years, some names on the Florida ballot were those of candidates who had already dropped out, meaning “the whole tenor of the campaign changed by the time it got to Florida,” Fine said.

The fact that Florida’s primary is closed to voters outside the Republican party means a low voter turnout is likely, which Fine said magnifies the importance of the Jewish population.

“High-turnout groups within a low-turnout electoral environment are going to be very impactful, and Jews demonstrate not only the highest voter turnout compared with any other religion, but at the same time you’re also talking about the fact that the candidates’ recognize this,” Fine said. “So, we see some ways in which the candidates are differentiating themselves from one another, and also distinguishing themselves from President Obama in order to secure that vote from among Jewish voters, particularly in Florida.”

Herb Swarzman, vice president of Tampa Jewish Federation and area chairman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), told JointMedia News Service that there is a “great deal” of local interest in Florida regarding the presidential election “because of a general feeling amongst those who do contribute to political campaigns that Israel has not been treated well by this administration.” Jews for whom Israel is an important issue “want to participate to whatever extent they can in the Republican primaries so that they can defeat Barack Obama.”

Swarzman added that “there also is great concern amongst those who are actively involved, for those who read about the issues every day, for those who really care about the possible terrorist threat both in Israel and America, that the United States government is not dealing properly with Iran … and they are looking for a candidate who will be much more aggressive towards the Iranian attempts to create nuclear power.”

However, besides for voters concerned with Obama’s Israel policies, Rabbi David Steinhardt—leader of B’nai Torah Congregation in Boca Raton and Jewish Community Relations Council chair for the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County—told JointMedia News Service that he sees a “growing realization among many in the Jewish community that the early portrayal of President Obama not being a friend of Israel has been changing.”

Following Gingrich’s surprise 12-point victory over Romney in South Carolina, a new Rasmussen Report poll shows the former Speaker of the House garnering 41 percent support among likely Florida GOP primary voters, with 32 percent backing Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and winner of the New Hampshire primary. Former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, who edged Romney in the Iowa caucus, and Texas congressman Ron Paul also remain in the race.

Swarzman said he is supporting Gingrich because he “was the most pro-Israel Speaker in the history of this country and I think that he will declare Jerusalem as the undivided capitol of Israel no matter what the State Department or the Arab countries say, if he becomes the president.”

Steinhardt said his “subjective reading” of the perception of the Republican primary in Florida “is one of disappointment.”

“By in large, I sense that the community feels that the Republican candidates don’t reflect the stature or the vision that they’re looking for in a president of the United States,” he said.

Steinhardt also believes “that the press has sold the Jewish community short, in that the Jewish community is not just a one-issue voting bloc anymore, and I don’t know if it ever was, but maybe we tend to think of it that way.”

“Jews are very concerned about healthcare, and very concerned about social policy, and very concerned about issues of war and peace and national defense and Israel,” he said. “Those are all on the agenda of engaged Jews who are politically aware and somewhat active in the process—certainly active in the conversation.”

With the highest percentage of elderly residents compared to any other state, issues such as Medicare, Social Security and healthcare are critical for Jewish voters in Florida, Swarzman and Steinhardt agreed.

The older nature of Florida’s Jewish voter base has another political impact, according to Fine. She said scholars have found that members of Congress born after 1950 take a different position on Israel than those born before 1950. This is attributed to memories of the Holocaust and World War II, and memories relating to the formation of the state of Israel, Fine explained.

“So, if you didn’t have that experience in your lifetime, or if you had the experience but don’t remember it, then that has an impact on your overall political socialization and that impacts how you function in Congress,” Fine said. “We found, for example, that older members of Congress had to be far more for one state of Israel, pro-Israel, but the other members of Congress are more likely to be more liberal when it comes to the notion of Palestinian rights and the right or return of Palestinians and those kinds of things.”

Looking ahead to the general election, one can easily remember 2000, when George W. Bush’s historically narrow victory over Al Gore in Florida—amid a recount of the vote and a Supreme Court ruling in his favor—essentially decided the presidency. Fine said Florida could have an even greater impact on the 2012 election because the state’s number of electoral votes has increased from 27 to 29, exceeding 10 percent of the total electoral votes a candidate needs to win.

With Florida’s “winner take all” system within the Electoral College, all a candidate needs is one more vote than the closest competitor to gain all 29 electoral votes—and that’s why the Jewish vote matters, said Dr. Ira Sheskin, director of the Jewish Demography Project of the Sue and Leonard Miller Center for Contemporary Jewish Studies at the University of Miami.

In close presidential elections, which are usually won by a margin of about 52 percent to 48 percent, candidates are fighting for small percentages and need to appeal to every vote they can get, Sheskin told JointMedia News Service. Although Florida’s Jews amount to 3.7 percent of the state’s total population, well over 90 percent of Jews are registered to vote—meaning they represent a more statistically significant 6-8 percent of Florida’s electorate, Sheskin said, adding that Jews are more likely to vote than other groups.

“[Florida is] very significant because the Jewish population is large here, and Florida is a significant state because of the Electoral College,” said Steinhardt, “so obviously there’s great importance to the Jewish vote here.”

A Jewish vote?


The election to replace the termed-out Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa isn’t until March 2013, but already candidates are out raising cash, taking meetings, locking up supporters. I’ve run into City Controller and mayoral candidate Wendy Greuel at so many pro-Israel banquets, you’d think she was making aliyah. 

In fact, the L.A. mayor’s race is shaping up to be like a verse in Adam Sandler’s Chanukah song: full of familiar names you never knew were Jewish. 

Greuel is not Jewish, but her husband is, and her family is involved in the community. There’s City Council President Eric Garcetti, whose father is of Italian and Mexican heritage, but whose mother is Jewish. City Councilwoman Jan Perry, who declared her candidacy during a meeting last February in my office, is African-American and Jewish. Investment banker Austin Beutner turns out also to be Jewish, though even colleagues who’ve worked with him for years were unaware of the fact. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who has yet to declare, has been active in the Jewish community since he taught Hebrew school at Stephen S. Wise Temple many decades ago. I should know: I was one of his brats. I mean, students.  

Developer Rick Caruso and radio host Kevin James, the other two declared candidates, are not Jewish. As far as I know. 

The fact that in a city that is a scant 6 percent Jewish so many candidates identify as Jews might lead one to assume that there is a piñata called “The Jewish Bloc” just waiting for the right man or woman to strike it open and collect all the votes inside. I can understand the temptation: As our columnist Raphael Sonenschein, newly appointed executive director of the Pat Brown Institute, has pointed out, Jews account for 20 percent of the municipal vote. More than that, they make up a significant portion of the activists, volunteers and funders.  

But if Los Angeles ever truly had a “Jewish vote,” that is no longer the case. The cliché that all politics is local was likely more apt before the advent of mass media and the Internet. Its corollary, the notion that politics is mostly tribal, collapsed when assimilation and acculturation lifted ideology and interest over ethnicity.  

The conventional wisdom is that in order to win the mayor’s race, a candidate has to assemble a coalition along ethnic or geographic lines. Tom Bradley, the city’s first black mayor, reached office through the combined support of blacks and liberal Westside Jews. Mayor Richard Riordan won by pulling together Latinos and conservative San Fernando Valley Jews. Villaraigosa knitted together labor, Westside Jews and Latinos.

But these examples also point to a flaw in the conventional wisdom. Jews vote less as an ethnic bloc and more along ideological, or even geographical, lines. Riordan earned the support of more suburban Jews; Villaraigosa won the Westside Jews, but not so much the Valley Jews.

A liberal Westside Jew may vote less like a conservative Valley Jew and more like an east-side union member. Class and professional interests, political causes and personal networks matter more than tribal affiliation. The appeal to ethnic loyalty in and of itself will no longer work.

In the upcoming race we will see the fault lines even more clearly. There are so many Jewish candidates, they will necessarily split the Jewish vote six ways to Shabbos. In the small town of city politics, we will see that the fact that you’re a Jew matters less than whether I like the way you handled some zoning battle or another. I once pointed out to a peeved neighbor that his city council representative at the time was a fellow Jew. “I claim her,” my friend said, “and I blame her.”

This fractured vote reflects the growing diversity of Jewish identity. Since the late 19th century through most of the post-World War II boom, the Jewish community of Los Angeles was white, Ashkenazic, liberal, more secular than religious. Since the 1970s, Israelis, Russians, Persians, Sephardim, newly Orthodox, converts and adoptees have rendered L.A. Jewry almost as diverse as the city it calls home. If you could say about the majority of the current candidates, “Funny, they don’t look Jewish,” that’s because the same is true of L.A.’s Jewish community today. 

Likewise, they no longer vote a single ideology. Jews have a huge stake in the success of this city, home to the world’s third-largest Jewish population. The mayoral candidates will fall over themselves to profess love for Israel, but municipal elections don’t swing on international relations. I suspect that what will sway the majority of Jewish voters is a track record for effective government and management, and good ideas for moving Los Angeles forward.

I love L.A., but the more I travel, the more I feel that my city is falling behind. New York City, for instance, with twice the size, just seems to work better: less crime, fewer students per classroom, more bike-friendly, and 15,000 fewer homeless. And don’t get me started about Los Angeles International Airport, which J.D. Powers ranked 18 out of 19 in customer satisfaction. Among major world cities, L.A. seems to be running in place.

The reasons are numerous, and not just the fault of whomever is mayor.  But the otherworldly traffic on the 405 North allows me hours of time to sit and stew about which candidate has what it takes to win Jewish votes.

Lumping together the rich vein of Jewish voters (and funders) as a single ore is a fallacy. There is no singular “Jewish vote,” and no candidate on the horizon who could possibly please them all. A smart candidate will resist the temptation to think there is one way to the heart of Jewish L.A., or just one mayoral candidate who can win it.

I mean, besides Michael Bloomberg.

Jewish vote in play for 2012


Will the Jewish vote, normally overwhelmingly Democratic, be up for grabs in 2012? That question became a subject of intense debate when a Republican was elected recently to the House of Representatives from New York’s 9th Congressional District for the first time in 90 years.

The district, which encompasses parts of Brooklyn and Queens and is about one-third Jewish, had been predictably Democratic and liberal. But in the blink of an eye it gave the non-Jewish Republican candidate an 8-point victory over the Democrat, an Orthodox Jew.

Public rabbinical endorsements in the district and extensive reportage in local Jewish papers indicated substantial Jewish defections from the Democrats, particularly among Orthodox Jews, estimated to make up about a third of the Jewish electorate there. Since the election, Republican presidential candidates have been ramping up their pro-Israel rhetoric on the assumption that Jews are disappointed with the administration’s Middle East policy, while Democrats are organizing special outreach initiatives in the hope of holding on to their Jewish support.

The just-released AJC Survey of American Jewish Opinion indicates a definite falloff of Jewish support for Obama, although it is not clear that the Republican candidate for president next year can count on a significant shift in the Jewish vote.

Jewish support for Obama began at a far higher threshold than in the electorate at large: In 2008 he received an estimated 78 percent of the Jewish vote while polling 53 percent nationally. Three years later his national approval rating stands at 39 percent, a 14-point drop, while his approval rating among Jews—according to the AJC survey—is 45 percent, a decline of 23 percent but still 6 points higher than among Americans as a whole. Among Orthodox Jews, who made up 9 percent of the sample, disapproval is much higher, 72 percent.

The AJC poll indicates that the president has retained the support of American Jews on certain issues. A solid 68 percent approve of the way he has handled national security, for example. Yet there has been a striking reversal in Jewish attitudes toward the president’s handling of U.S.-Israel relations. In the fall of 2009, toward the end of the administration’s first year, the AJC survey showed Jewish approval outstripping disapproval by 54 to 32 percent. Now, two years later, disapprovers outnumber approvers by 53 to 40 percent. Among the Orthodox Jews, 81 percent disapprove.

But Jewish disaffection from the president is not confined to Israel policy; Jews share the broader American unhappiness with recent economic trends. In March 2010, an AJC survey had Jewish approval of the president’s economic policies at 55 percent as compared to 45 percent in the general population. Today the Jewish approval rating on the economy is down to 37 percent, about the same as among Americans as a whole.

The latest AJC survey indicates some falloff in Jewish identification with the Democratic Party, which stood at 53 percent in 2009 and is now at 45 percent. However, this has not translated into gains for the Republicans, which stands steady at 16 percent. Rather, the number of Jewish political independents rose in that time period from 30 percent to 38 percent. In the Orthodox sample, Republicans now outnumber Democrats by 35 to 21 percent, with 41 percent identifying as independents.

Looking forward to the 2012 election, the AJC survey matched up Obama with a number of potential Republican candidates and asked respondents to indicate for whom they would vote. Mitt Romney did best in the hypothetical contest, garnering 32 percent to Obama’s 51; Rick Perry garnered 26 percent to Obama’s 54; and Michele Bachmann received 21 percent against 59 percent for Obama.

Since 1928, Democratic candidates for president almost always have received at least 60 percent of the Jewish vote, with many doing far better. Only Jimmy Carter in his 1980 re-election bid did worse, winning a plurality of 45 percent in a three-candidate race.

Do Obama’s numbers in the AJC matchups, all in the 51-59 percent range, portend trouble for him? Not necessarily. Approximately 20 percent of the respondents said they were undecided or unsure about whether to vote for Obama or for any of the named Republicans. To be sure, there is still a year to go before the next presidential election. Much could happen to change the electoral calculus both in the Jewish community and outside it, whether on the domestic economic front, in the Middle East or elsewhere. Also, other candidates could conceivably enter the race.

Clearly the president faces challenges in attracting Jewish voters, especially the Orthodox. Some are identical to those confronting him with regard to all voters, others specific to the Jewish community.

It is far too early to tell if 2012 will be the year that Republicans finally fulfill their long-held aspiration to draw a large chunk of the Jewish vote or if, despite serious misgivings, the tradition of overwhelming Jewish allegiance to the Democrats continues.

Lawrence Grossman is the American Jewish Committee’s director of publications and former editor of the American Jewish Year Book.

With debt deal, Jews’ fight and worries shift to new ‘super committee’


Even before the debt deal was signed Tuesday in Washington, U.S. Jewish groups and recipients of government largesse were asking the same question: Who’s going to get cut?

It’s still too early to say. But the new “super committee” created to hash out the details of $1.2 trillion to $1.5 trillion in spending cuts by the end of the year, and the arguments that surely will arise from the committee’s work, will provide the clearest sign yet of which government grants or programs are on the chopping block.

In the Jewish community, the areas of concern range from funding for elderly care to environmental issues to democracy promotion overseas. Federal funding makes up a significant chunk of the budgets of many of the groups that operate in those fields.

Joyce Garver Keller, the executive director of Ohio Jewish Communities, which lobbies state lawmakers for Ohio’s Jewish federations, said Ohio Jewish service providers already are reeling from cuts mandated last month in the state budget. That included up to 14 percent in cuts for nursing homes and 3 percent cuts for home- and community-based providers.

The largest Jewish facility for the elderly in the state, in the Cleveland area, already is dealing with $2 million in cuts on the state level even without any cuts at the federal level.

Keller said the homes for the elderly were examining solutions including freezing salaries and retirement benefits for staff, and cutting back on utilities such as electricity. Others are considering opening up in-house medical practices to outsiders to create revenue.

“You can maybe make up 1, 2 or if you’re really savvy 3 percent, but we can’t make up 14 percent,” Keller said. “You can’t make up something that large.”

The National Council for Jewish Women expressed concern particularly about cuts that could affect women and children.

“The deal does require deep cuts in government spending, cuts that will likely affect Head Start, K-12 education, Title X family planning, job training, domestic violence prevention, meals on wheels and other services for vulnerable people,” NCJW said in a statement.

Mark Olshan, the associate executive vice president for B’nai B’rith International, which runs 38 homes for the elderly across the country, said federal cuts would burden a system coping with a growing number of retirement-age baby boomers.

“The reality is we’re probably not going to be building a lot more buildings, but there will be more people who need these kinds of programs,” he said.

Jewish groups are also closely watching cuts in areas where they do not receive direct assistance. Jason Isaacson, the director of governmental and international affairs for the American Jewish Committee, anticipated cuts in programs promoting energy alternatives and democracy overseas.

Isaacson said cuts in democracy promotion would be especially unfortunate just as reform was sweeping the Arab world, noting the upcoming elections in Tunisia in October as an example.

“We need to lower the deficit, but we have big opportunities and responsibilities around the world,” Isaacson said.

The key to preserving funding is to intensify lobbying between now and when the new super committee votes in November on proposed cuts, said William Daroff, the Washington director of the Jewish Federations for North America.

“We will be lobbying heavily to ensure that the $550 billion in immediate nondiscretionary domestic cuts do not come from the programs that fund key Jewish federation services to the vulnerable,” Daroff said. “No decisions have been made yet on the Hill as to where those cuts will come from.”

Under the deal struck over the weekend and passed by both houses of Congress—in the House of Representatives on Monday and the Senate the next day—about half the cuts are to come from the defense sector and the other half from domestic programs, with some cuts designated for foreign assistance.

Funding for Israel is one of the few exemptions; it remains at $3 billion a year.

If the committee cannot reach an agreement—or if the Congress rejects its recommendations—it will trigger automatic across-the-board cuts of at least $1.2 trillion.

The first thing to watch for, said Rachel Goldberg, the director of advocacy for B’nai B’rith International, is whom congressional leaders name to the super committee. That will happen over the next two weeks.

“The composition of the committee will give an indication of what the leadership is expecting and the likelihood of getting a deal or using the trigger,” she said.

Goldberg and other observers say their choices will reveal two things: First, whether the leaders are serious about reaching a deal by the end of the year, and then their priorities. If the lawmakers appointed to the committee are chosen from among the stalwarts in each party who opposed a deal to raise the debt ceiling, it would indicate a lack of seriousness, analysts say.

A top Democratic aide on Capitol Hill who deals with budget matters said the party was watching closely to see if Republicans would name those who opposed any tax hikes at all. Republicans are watching to see whether appointments include Democrats who opposed any deal or voted against the plan because it did not involve tax increases to help meet a revenue gap.

In comments after the deal was approved, congressional leaders suggested that they were seeking problem solvers, not ideologues.

“Both parties got us in this mess, both parties are going to have to work together to get us out,” Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the chairman of the House Budget Committee and an architect of the deal, was quoted as saying by Bloomberg News.

The next characteristic to watch for is expertise, Goldberg said. Congress members with a known expertise in an area—health care, housing, foreign assistance and transportation, among others—are likelier to advocate for more nuanced cuts. Special interests without representation on the committee can expect the cuts to be more brutal.

“They need people who know that if cuts will be made how you make that operational,” Goldberg said.

Nervousness persists over whether major entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid—which respectively cover medical assistance for the elderly and poor—will be on the chopping block.

They are mostly spared for now and, according to the agreement, will be spared again, paradoxically, if the committee defaults on its mission and fails to reach an agreement. The programs could face cuts, however, should the committee recommend them.

Survey aims to measure the changing Jewish vote


An online Jewish voter survey has been launched to measure the changing Jewish vote and Jewish political interests.

The 2011 Jewish Voter Survey, for Jewish voters aged 18 and over, is being conducted by Steven Windmueller, the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles.

The anonymous survey, which takes about 10 minutes to complete, will examine the political priorities of Jews and where they allocate their financial resources with regard to their support of political causes, both Jewish and mainstream. It will look at variables including income, geographical region, age, religious affiliation and education.

The study also seeks to discover how and where Jews acquire their political ideas and knowledge, and analyze how they define themselves with regard to specific political labels. The research also will focus on understanding the level and depth of engagement that Jews have with the State of Israel and other core social and policy issues.

“I am particularly interested in seeing if we are in the midst of a political sea-change within the American Jewish community,” Windmueller said in a statement.

The survey can be taken until April 1. To participate click here.

Second-class Conservative citizens


When I first read that there would be a vote by the Conservative movement’s Committee on Law and Standards regarding homosexuality and Jewish law, I was of
course interested.

I’m a gay man, and I have had both personal and professional ties to the Conservative movement since I was a child. In fact, some of my closest friends (and colleagues) are avowed Conservative Jews.

I grew up in the late ’60s and ’70s in a Conservative synagogue in northern New Jersey. It was a dying synagogue due to shifting demographics. My religious school class was made up of about eight students. My venerable, grandfatherly rabbi and the young, well-groomed cantor knew all of us by name. Having always been drawn to Jewish ritual, one year I volunteered my house for the religious school sukkah (much to my parents’ chagrin). My seventh-grade class, along with my teacher, Rabbi Zitter, a 20-something guy sporting tzitzit, built a sukkah in my backyard. The Sunday of Sukkot the rabbi, cantor and religious school principal all visited the synagogue’s “satellite” sukkah. I felt so honored. (And for years after that my family built a sukkah.)

As a middle school and high school student I often attended services at my Conservative synagogue and likely brought the average age of the congregants down to 65. The only other young congregant was a handsome, strapping young college-aged guy who was often called on to lift the Torah. This was the time when I first began to feel the stirrings of same-sex attraction. I didn’t understand it but knew that something was different for me. I imagine that neither the rabbi nor the cantor had a clue that any of his students was beginning to come to terms with anything other than a heterosexual identity. If “gay” was on their radar, I imagine it was “out there,” outside the austere stone building in Paterson, N.J.

I was an active, practicing Conservative Jew. I belonged to USY for a time, I went to USY Summer Encampment, and I went to Israel for the first time with USY’s Israel Pilgrimage. During my college years, I regularly davened with the Conservative minyan at Brandeis University, and upon graduating taught at a Conservative Jewish day school in the Boston area. When I moved to Los Angeles, I began teaching at Adat Ari El in the day school and also taught b’nai mitzvah students there for many years; in addition, I taught at L.A. Hebrew High School. I am currently on the professional staff of Temple Aliyah. My Conservative movement ties run deep.

Honestly, I’m glad that the recent vote of the Conservative movement has opened the door a bit toward acceptance of gay and lesbian Jews. Now that this teshuvah, or legal interpretation, was one of two that received a majority vote, I know that this helps some of my gay “friends and family” squeeze sideways through the now partially open door. I nevertheless remain sad and disappointed that the door has only opened a little, and the idea that it is a qualified acceptance is troubling to me. (Let alone that it rests side by side with a standing ruling of nonacceptance, or that a third accepted teshuvah purports that individuals — I assume “straight” people too — can control their sexual orientation.)

I understand the notion of baby steps, and I understand the notion of compromise in the name of baby steps. But I don’t have to like it. I think this decision perpetuates a system in which gays and lesbians continue to be second-class citizens. It also perpetuates one specific interpretation of a biblical text, which has been interpreted in other ways. Take me for who I am or don’t take me at all. I too am created in God’s holy image.

When I came out I never felt an incompatibility between my Jewish identity and my sexual identity.

Perhaps I was lucky, perhaps naïve. Who knows? I never doubted that God loves me for who I am. I am a Jewish educator and a Jewish communal professional. And I am gay. I hope that my students have experienced me as someone who is caring, compassionate and dedicated. I hope they have seen me as a role model. And I believe that I am these things not despite the fact that I am gay, but in large part because I am gay. My identity as a gay man has helped me to learn to be more empathic, to embrace differences and to overcome my own prejudices.

While I am pleased that the Conservative movement has inched forward in the direction of inclusivity, I find it difficult to rejoice. When I am allowed to sit in the front of the Conservative bus (without being singled out to pass a litmus test; without being subjected to the whim of the driver of that particular bus), then I shall surely rejoice, and I will be at the front of the line chanting the “Shehecheyanu” blessing.

Jeff Bernhardt is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. He works as a teacher, social worker and Jewish communal service professional with Reform, Conservative and trans-denominational Jewish organizations.