Candidates Eye the Jewish Vote

Now that it’s down to John Kerry versus George W. Bush, American Jews — prominent in swing states in what could be a close election — can expect plenty of attention.

"Anything that moves a few hundred or a few thousand voters one way or another in any state can cause a seismic shift," said John Zogby, a pollster who says the closeness of this election is leading opinion-gatherers to focus more than ever on small groups like Jews.

The fight will mirror the larger battle for the election, where Kerry will emphasize domestic issues and President Bush will stress his foreign policy and security record.

Among Jews, Democratic strategists say they will stress health care, the economy and the proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Republicans say they will stress Bush’s strong pro-Israel record and his war against terrorism.

Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.), Kerry’s only serious rival, was expected to announce his withdrawal from the race on Wednesday. Edwards did not win any primaries Tuesday.

Jewish activists in both parties already are targeting swing communities.

"There’s probably going to be about 10 real battleground states and in a number of those places there’s a large Jewish community," said Matt Brooks, the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, making note of Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, and Missouri.

Marc Racicot, the former Montana governor who chairs the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign, said he was optimistic that Bush would do better than the 19 percent he earned from Jews in 2000, because of the president’s strong pro-Israel record.

"We understand they have been inclined to support Democrats," Racicot said of Jewish voters in an interview with the JTA. "But we feel the president’s policies and his values in regards to the Middle East lead to the possibility to be much more successful in the Jewish community."

Bring it on, say the Democrats.

"Things have not looked as good for Democrats in the Jewish community for a number of years," said Ira Forman, the executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council.

Kerry’s strength among Jews was reflected in exit polls on Tuesday, where he polled better among Jews than among non-Jews in four out of five states with reliable Jewish exit poll data.

Forman said his party would emphasize what all pro-Israel activists agree is Kerry’s exemplary voting record in 19 years in the Senate. He suggested that the Democrats’ strategy would be first to say that Bush and Kerry were equals on Israel, "and then we pivot to all the major domestic issues."

Hannah Rosenthal, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an umbrella organization of local Jewish community relations councils and national groups, agreed that Jews are likelier to vote this year on domestic issues.

"On issues specific to Israel, we’re talking about a win-win situation," said Rosenthal, one of 40 Jewish organizational leaders who met with Kerry over the weekend in New York. "Jews will be looking at protection of privacy, at civil liberties protections, at health care, women’s rights."

Forman said the party also would emphasize Bush’s backing for the amendment banning gay marriage.

"Every time they play to their conservative base — and they’ll have to play a lot this year — they totally alienate the Jewish community," Forman said.

Republicans agreed that Kerry was strong on Israel but suggested that Bush was stronger and that Kerry could be vulnerable on national security, where Bush has aggressively advocated tougher measures in the USA Patriot Act.

Frank Luntz, a Republican pollster who will publish his own survey of American Jews next week, said this election season promises to be an interesting one.

"For the first time in my lifetime, a significant segment of the Jewish vote is up for grabs," he said in an interview. "The Jewish community is the most interested in national security of any voter sub-group, and that plays to Bush’s advantage. The Jewish community is still liberal on social issues and that plays to Kerry’s advantage."

Luntz said his polling suggested Kerry would perform well among Reform and Reconstructionist Jews and "those who say they are just Jewish." Bush will make gains among Orthodox and Conservative Jews and those Jews who are more active in the community, he predicted.

In a survey of American Jews published in January by the American Jewish Committee, 51 percent identified themselves as Democrats, 31 percent as Independent and 16 percent as Republican.

Fervent Political

How does a Jewish community journalist cover such a non-Jewish election?

Non-Jewish, I mean, in the sense that the recall battle isn’t being fought over issues that are especially important to Jews. Nor does there seem to be many Jews involved, except as potential voters and as contributors.

When I came to Los Angeles in 1970, politics seemed much more Jewish, even though the issues were not directly relevant to the community.

Jewish politics were largely Democratic and involved much more than raising money. Politics were a game played by street Jews, as well as by the Hillcrest crowd. Rich, poor, working class and middle class loved the intrigue, the meetings, the resolutions, the camaraderie, the endless cups of coffee, the drinks — the life of politics.

There were big street rallies on Fairfax Avenue. Los Angeles Jews got into shouting arguments over what was happening in Sacramento. On the Westside and in the West Valley, the Berman brothers and Henry Waxman organized the community block by block, synagogue by synagogue, club by club.

Roz Wyman had risen from such clubs, all filled with Jews, to become a member of the Los Angeles City Council in 1953 at the age of 22. "We were involved all over the place," Wyman, still active in Democratic politics, told me recently.

Today, Israel draws much of the community’s political energy. And while "the Jewish community is very attuned to social issues, it is not as much as before," she said. "There is active participation, not as great but still participation."

I discussed this the other day with Paul Kujawsky, president of Democrats for Israel of Los Angeles, as we sat in the sunshine at the Starbucks at Santa Monica Boulevard and Beverly Glen, just north and west of the flatland Westside neighborhoods, where middle-class Jews once spent many hours walking precincts, stuffing envelopes and getting ready for a trip to Sacramento or Fresno for the state party or California Democratic Council convention.

"I think the passion for politics is lessening, not only among Jews but every one else, after the ’60s, Watergate and the whole litany, there is a great cynicism," he said

Kujawsky made an intriguing point: Jews once strongly identified with the Democratic Party because of "self-interest. The Democrats were an urban liberal party, and that was us. We no longer identify with a party that is interested in handing out goodies to interest groups."

I think there’s more to the story:

The "Jewish vote" is shrinking. Secularization means that fewer young people identify themselves strongly with the religion or with issues that energized their parents and grandparents.

In addition, the issues that drove Jewish politics have lost their steam. Jewish politics were shaped by left-wing activism, the Depression, World War II and Franklin Roosevelt. Jews retained memories of the Depression, the war and the GI Bill that sent them through college and made possible the purchase of their first home. A commitment to public education was also a factor, diminished by Jewish abandonment of public schools.

The civil rights movement shaped the old Jewish politics. Fresh from the virulent anti-Semitism of the ’30s and ’40s, Jews were enthusiastic participants in the African American drive against housing and job discrimination and for voting rights. The collapse of the coalition left many Jewish activists embittered.

As the old civil rights coalition collapsed, Jewish political thought became sharply divided. The neoconservative movement drew much of its energy from Jewish intellectuals. Neoconservatives scorned those who favored the old liberal and economic policies. And they excoriated anyone who did not agree with their hard-line policies on the Mideast.

Finally, there is the evolution of politics from mass participation to mass media. Grass-roots organizing — door-to-door visits, rallies, coffees — once dominated politics and required a lot of volunteers, like Wyman, to run the show.

How will this impact the Jewish community’s impact on the recall?

With Jewish interest in politics, particularly state politics, declining, Gov. Gray Davis can’t waste a vote. He needs a huge Jewish turnout. He’s been going at it from the top down, a chilly presence smiling his way through Jewish contributors’ events. But, like a white politician trying to sing gospel songs in a black church or attempting Spanish in Boyle Heights, he just doesn’t have the rhythm.

Davis’ fight is an uphill effort, and tracking it is a great job for a Jewish community journalist. True, there are no directly Jewish issues. But what Jews do in the recall, while possibly not decisive to the outcome, is an important chapter in the political evolution of our community.

Bill Boyarsky’s column on Jews and civic life appears on the first Friday of
each month. Until leaving the Los Angeles Times in 2001, Boyarsky worked as a
political correspondent, a metro columnist for nine years and as city editor for
three years. You can reach him at