GOP Sees Israel as Way to Woo Democratic Jews

For two decades, Nathan Hochman voted exclusively Democratic: Mondale, Dukakis, Clinton, Clinton, Gore — the 42-year-old former assistant U.S. attorney cast his ballots for them all. To Hochman the Republican Party represented a right-wing amalgam of pro-business, anti-abortion and pro-prayer-in-school interests.

Sept. 11 changed everything. National security and Israel moved to the top of Hochman’s political priorities, and on both counts he felt the Democrats fell short. Hochman felt that the Republicans, by contrast, seemed to see that peace through strength is the only option in this new era. He was also drawn to the fact that the Bush administration has made Israel’s security a “foremost concern” and consistently sent “the message to the world that Israel’s survival is not a debatable question.”

So two years ago, for the 2004 presidential election, Hochman did the once unthinkable: He switched parties and voted for Bush. Since then, he’s been preaching to friends and family about what he considers the Republicans’ big tent and the party’s unshakeable commitment to Israel.

“I’ve opened up people’s eyes to the possibilities of what the Republican Party can represent,” he said. “At the very least, they’re listening to me.”

At a time when Israel faces a dual threat from Hezbollah and Hamas — groups classified by the U.S. Department of State as terrorist organizations — an increasing number of Jews have become more receptive to the Republican Party’s message of blanket support for Israel and its foreign policy. Put off by what they characterize as a string of anti-Israel positions taken in recent years by Democratic Party grandees, they worry that the Democrat’s often anti-Israel progressive wing will continue its ascendancy. And if it does so, many Jewish Democrats might think about quitting the party entirely. At the very least, they have become more amenable to voting for moderate Republicans, according to Joel Kotkin, Irvine Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation.

“It’s going to be harder and harder to be on the left and be pro-Israel,” Kotkin said. “I think many Jews are going to have to choose between their leftism and their Judaism.”

At the same time, Democrats argue that they remain among Israel’s staunchest supporters. Former Rep. Mel Levine, for example, is a stalwart Israel partisan: “Democratic support for Israel remains solid and strong,” he insisted. Attempts by the Republicans to suggest otherwise, Levine and others argue, is nothing less than a cynical ploy to peel away Jewish votes. Despite Republicans’ best efforts, Democrats say, the overwhelming majority of Jews will continue to vote Democratic because of the party’s steadfast support for Israel and its commitment to such core Jewish values as justice, equality and opportunity.
Among the faithful is Daniel Sokatch, executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance.

“I keep hearing from the RJC [Republican Jewish Coalition], the Republican Party and commentators that this is the election when the Republicans are going to break Jewish ties to the Democratic Party,” he said. “Well, I’m 38 years old, and it hasn’t happened yet. And I don’t think it’s going to happen.”

Recent opinion polls suggest, however, that Democratic support for Israel has slipped, a development that Republicans have wasted no time trying to capitalize on. In August, a study by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 68 percent of Republicans surveyed said they sympathize more with Israel than with the Palestinians, compared to just 45 percent of Democrats. Similarly, a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll, conducted between July 28 and Aug. 1, found that Republicans favored alignment with the Jewish state over neutrality by 64 percent to 29 percent. By contrast, only 39 percent of Democrats supported alignment, while 54 percent favored neutrality.

“I am very worried that the Democratic Party’s pro-Israel stance will continue to show cracks,” said Paul Kujawsky, vice president of the local chapter of Democrats for Israel, “and that the most [Zionistic] committed Jews will continue to flow to the Republican Party.”

Nobody is suggesting a massive defection to the Republican Party by Jewish Democrats. The historical, as well as philosophical, ties that bind Jews to the party of Truman, FDR and JFK run deep, which partly explains why an estimated three out of four Jewish voters are Democrats.

Still, the Republicans have made some inroads. Nationally, President Bush won at least 26 percent of the Jewish vote in 2004, up from 19 percent in 2000, according to the Los Angeles Times. A socially moderate Republican presidential nominee with a strong record on Israel, experts said, could pull in 40 percent to 45 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008 and sweep such key swing states as Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Closer to home, the California Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) has seen its membership more than triple, to 7,000 from just 2,000 in the past 2 1/2 years, RJC California Director Larry Greenfield said.
On the issue of Israel, Republicans now appear to be scoring higher in the battle for the hearts and minds of the Jewish voter, mostly because of perceived Democratic missteps:

  • In a recent interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, former Democratic President Jimmy Carter said Israel launched an “unjustified attack on Lebanon” and that it lacked “any legal or moral justification for their massive bombing of the entire nation of Lebanon.”
  • At a time when Hezbollah rockets sent hundreds of thousands of Jews in northern Israel fleeing into bomb shelters, the local chapter of the Progressive Democrats of America voted to recommend that the United States cut off military aid to Israel.

    “We don’t see how shipping cluster bombs to Israel, which is going to create generational hatred, is going to help peace in the Middle East,” chapter President Marcy Winograd said, adding that her group also voted to condemn Syria and Iran for supplying arms to Hezbollah. Winograd received 37 percent of the vote in her June 6 Democratic primary race against Rep. Jane Harman (D-El Segundo).

  • To most political commentators, Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) lost his bid against peace candidate Ned Lamont in the Connecticut senatorial primary “because he came off as an uncritical supporter of Iraq policy, not because of his deep commitment to Israel,” said Rep. Howard Berman (D-Van Nuys).

    Nevertheless, many Jews have lamented that an Orthodox Jew and strong Israel supporter succumbed to a political neophyte who received much of his backing from what they see as the far-left, anti-Israel blogger wing of the Democratic Party. That two controversial former Democratic presidential candidates, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton, flanked Lamont at his primary election celebration further discomfited many Jews. Jackson, in 1984, referred to New York City as “Hymietown”; Sharpton is alleged to have incited anti-Jewish violence in Crown Heights in the 1990s and to have referred to Chasidic Jews there as “diamond merchants.”

  • In 2003, Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) blamed the Jewish community for pushing the United States into Iraq. “If it were not for the strong support of the Jewish community for this war with Iraq, we would not be doing this,” Moran reportedly told the Greater Reston Interfaith Peace Coalition, according to the Reston Connection newspaper.

“There’s something terrible going on in the Democratic Party,” said Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition in Washington, D.C.
Sensing an opportunity to make political hay, the RJC in early August launched an ad campaign in more than 20 Jewish newspapers across the country, including the Jewish Journal, portraying the Democrats as soft on defense and Israel.

Below a photo of a glum looking Sen. Lieberman, the text reads: “Right now, Israel needs all the friends it can get. Sadly, the Democratic Party just took away one of Israel’s best friends.”

David Goldenberg, deputy executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council in Washington, D.C., believes that by running such spots, the Republicans are attempting to divide the Jewish community. He argued that the Republicans have no other issue that resonates with Jewish voters and, he said, have resorted to distorting the Democrat’s positions.

“As a party, the Republicans are pro-Israel when it is expedient to be pro-Israel,” Goldenberg said.

Yet there has been a long-term and genuinely heartfelt commitment to Israel among the Christian right, rebuts Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum. The single person who most reflects the Republicans’ commitment is George W. Bush, he said.

But the president’s Middle East policies have, in many ways, left Israel more vulnerable than ever, responded several high-ranking Democrats. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) said the U.S. war in Iraq has diminished America’s ability to respond to the “real threat” in the region — Iran, a country alleged to have nuclear ambitions and which has called for the destruction of Israel. An emboldened Iran, Waxman said, now feels “more able to openly use Hezbollah” forces against Israel to fight its proxy war against the United States.

“I think most thoughtful Jewish supporters of Israel are going to realize that it would be better if [Bush] loved us a little bit less, but would do things on behalf of U.S. and Israelis interests that are competent and successful,” Waxman said.

Political consultant Bill Carrick believes that in the final analysis, Democratic officialdom’s strong support of Israel will keep Jews in the party, regardless of Republican predictions to the contrary.

Indeed, in late July, the U.S. House of Representatives passed on a bipartisan 410-8 vote, a resolution that supported Israel in its confrontation with Hezbollah.

Expressions of confidence notwithstanding, at least one Democrat operative, who requested anonymity, said the party has failed to inspire an acceptable level of support for Israel among its rank-and-file.

“We have to do a better job of explaining to our constituents why the Democratic Party is pro-Israel and why that’s important,” he said.

L.A. Jewish GOP Parties, Dems Despair

Stress and disappointment gave way to jubilation at the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) of Los Angeles’ election night party as President George W. Bush piled up the electoral votes and turned the map of the United States Republican red.

The mood was far more somber at the Manhattan Beach Marriot, where Democrats gathered for a victory party that never took place. By early morning, the crowd had dwindled to a handful of true believers who looked stunned by Sen. John F. Kerry’s disappointing performance.

Things got off to a slow start at RJC’s event at Level One supper club on Wilshire Boulevard. A sense of foreboding filled the crowd of 250 Republicans as early exit polls showed Kerry in the lead.

A dispirited Allen Jacobs, 27, said he felt nervous, anxious and worried. Frustrated by the early results, he attacked newly registered young Democrats as “uneducated voters who do whatever Puffy says,” an allusion to rapper Sean “P. Diddy” Combs’ efforts to get out the vote.

But like a cyclone that suddenly shifts directions, momentum quickly swung the Jewish Republicans’ way. Fox announced that Bush held a 5 percentage point lead over Kerry in Florida with 95 percent of the vote in. Men and women let out shrieks of joy, quickly forgetting about Pennsylvania. All eyes focused on Ohio, the do-or-die state for both Bush and Kerry.

Well-groomed 20-somethings clad in black, reeking of tobacco and wine, sat side by side with rich bankers and middle-aged fallen liberals who said they had never voted Republican until now.

RJC Southern California Director Larry Greenfield smiled as he surveyed the diverse crowd of Bush supporters. He said the high turnout for the festivities reflected the political realignment now taking place among traditionally Democratic Jews. Simply put: he said the Democrats had lurched too far to the left and the Republicans had become the party of liberty and stalwart support for Israel.

“Our movement is growing, and the Jewish conversation is broadening,” said Greenfield, who participated in 40 debates around the Southland before the election.

Early Los Angeles Times exit polls confirmed this trend: In California, 80 percent of Jews voted for Kerry and 20 percent voted for Bush, compared to 2000, when 81 percent voted for Gore and 15 percent voted for Bush.

In Manhattan Beach, a dark mood permeated the ballroom. Beth Matenko, a Jewish Canadian immigrant who hopes to become a U.S. citizen and vote, said she thought Jews had helped the conservative president win re-election.

“A lot of Jewish voters are voting for Bush. It’s obvious,” she said.

Back at Level One, pandemonium broke out at 9:45 p.m. when Fox projected Bush the winner in Ohio.

Jay Hoffman, a 52-year-old retiree from Los Angeles, broke into a wide smile. Around him, friends and family hugged one another.

“I think it helps Jews everywhere to have access to the Republican Party,” he said. “Democrats can no longer take the Jewish vote for granted.”

A number of RJC revelers said they had often voted Democratic in the past, but no more. They said they changed their allegiance because Bush exhibited the strong leadership needed to successfully prosecute the war on terror. Equally important, they said he understood the folly of dealing with Yasser Arafat, a terrorist not welcome in the Bush White House.

Shirley Darvish, a 24-year-old independent, said she disagreed with the president on most social issues. For the Beverly Hills mortgage banker, foreign policy trumps domestic policy in the post-Sept. 11 world. In her view, Kerry worried too much about keeping on good terms with America’s allies and not enough about identifying U.S. interests and pursuing them.

“I don’t want somebody whose going to bow down to the U.N.,” said Darvish, alluding to Kerry’s promise to work closely with the international body. “I want somebody who will make the big decisions, regardless of what other countries think.”

Lifelong Democrat Susan Rabin said she’s a new GOP convert. An entertainment lawyer who marched against the war in Vietnam in the ’60s, Rabin said her transformation from a Mill Valley liberal to ardent Bush supporter began after Sept. 11.

Stunned by the viciousness of radical Islam, she said her friends’ reaction to the terror attacks shocked her nearly as much. Rabin’s progressive pals said U.S. policies and an unflagging support for anti-Palestinian Israel had provoked the tragedy. From then on, Rabin said she considered herself a liberal no more.

“They were blaming the victim,” she said. “I couldn’t stand that they weren’t being supportive of our country and Israel. I was completely turned off.”

David Finnigan and Tom Tugend contributed to this report.

Key Congress Races Hold Great Import

Perhaps it makes sense that Allyson Schwartz’s campaign headquarters sits above a Russian Jewish market on a small strip mall — after all, Schwartz is considered to have the best chance of any candidate to join the Jewish caucus in Congress.

The Democratic Pennsylvania state senator is running to replace Democratic Rep. Joe Hoeffel who is trying to win a Senate seat. Schwartz has received support from Jewish Democratic donors but is in one of the most competitive open seats in the country, running against Republican ophthalmologist Melissa Brown in the state’s 13th District. The two have been attacking each other with negative advertising.

Brown accuses Schwartz of having “radical views,” such as opposing the death penalty in all cases and supporting tax increases. Schwartz countercharges that Brown committed insurance fraud with her husband, when they founded a doctor-owned HMO. The race also has focused on health care and the Iraq War.

A Keystone poll taken late last month had Schwartz leading Brown 45 percent to 32 percent.

Schwartz’s race is one of the few congressional contests the U.S. Jewish community is watching intently this year. While 2002 elections saw Jews support challengers to incumbents seen as anti-Israel, this year, the community is focused more on aiding vulnerable incumbents and picking sides in a number of open Senate races.

By and large, however, attention is focused more on the tight presidential race than on the battles for the House and Senate. Yet analysts say this year’s congressional races are vitally important.

Democrats have a chance to take control of the Senate, which could help funnel through a lot of social policy programs backed by Jewish groups that have stalled in the Republican-controlled Congress. The House is likely to stay Republican, but Democratic gains there also could help the Jewish social agenda, analysts say.

The majority party has the ability to introduce legislation and chair the committees that process and mark up bills.

There always is interest in increasing the number of Jews in the Capitol. Currently, there are 26 Jewish representatives, most of whom do not face serious challenges for re-election, and 11 Jewish senators, five of whom are up for re-election this year.

Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) do not face strong challenges this year. However, Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) are in tough races.

The most closely watched race in the Jewish community involves Rep. Martin Frost (D-Texas), the second-longest serving Jewish Democrat in the House, who is up against GOP Rep. Pete Sessions in a redrawn district that heavily favors Sessions.

Jewish Democrats from across the country have been aiding Frost. Sheldon Cohen, a former IRS commissioner, hosted a fundraiser for Frost in the Washington area that attracted more than 30 people at 7:30 on a weekday morning.

“He’s been a leader of a lot of good things, certainly everything the Jewish community could want,” Cohen said of Frost who declined to state how much money was raised.

The race has been tense, with both candidates accusing the other of stealing yard signs. A recent Dallas Morning News poll showed Frost trailing Sessions by 6 percentage points.

Jewish Democrats say the former minority whip holds influence in the chamber from his role on the House Democratic Steering Committee and as the senior Democrat on the Rules Committee. He also has been a vocal advocate for Israel.

The only Jewish House member not seeking re-election this year is Rep. Peter Deutsch (D-Fla.) who unsuccessfully ran for the Democratic nomination for an open Senate seat. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who also is Jewish, is seen as Deutsch’s likely successor in a heavily Democratic district.

David Ashe’s chances in Virginia have risen since GOP Rep. Ed Schrock got out of the race amid an Internet-based rumor campaign. Ashe, a veteran of the 2003 Iraq War who is Jewish, is up against Thelma Drake, a member of Virginia’s House of Delegates.

Democrats also are looking at two other challengers. Jan Schneider faces an uphill battle to unseat Rep. Katherine Harris (R-Fla.). Harris beat Schneider in 2002. The other challenger, attorney Paul Hodes, is seeking to oust Rep. Charles Bass (R-N.H.).

In the Senate, eyes are focused on Specter who seems likely to defeat Hoeffel to win his fifth term. Specter is leading in the polls by almost 20 points. He has focused his campaign on support for the Iraq War, as well as steel tariffs, an important issue in Pennsylvania. Hoeffel has countered by discussing the Republican-backed tax cuts and his record on the environment and abortion.

Specter was able to fend off a primary challenge from the right by GOP Rep. Pat Toomey, thanks largely to support from President Bush and Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.). But while he needed to project his conservative credentials during the primary, he now is moving back to the center to pick up undecided voters.

Many Jews in the state have crossed party lines to back Specter in the past, though Hoeffel is expected to get some Jewish support. But some female Jewish voters say they’re still angry at Specter, because of his treatment of Anita Hill during Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court confirmation hearings in 1991.

The Jewish community also is watching the South Carolina race in which Inez Tenenbaum, the state’s superintendent of education, is taking on GOP Rep. Jim DeMint for a seat now being held by a Democrat.

Tenenbaum’s husband is a pro-Israel activist on the board of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). In her campaign advertisements, however, she has stressed that her parents were church elders, and she has touted conservative issues, such as the constitutional amendment against gay marriages. Tenenbaum’s election would be considered a boon for the pro-Israel community, though some polls show her 10 points behind DeMint.

Not all races of interest to the Jewish community involve Jewish candidates: One of the most closely watched Senate contests this year involves a candidate who beat out a Jewish challenger in the primary. Betty Castor, a former Florida state education commissioner, won her Democratic primary despite being attacked by Deutsch, who suggested that Castor allowed an Islamic jihad ally to operate a front for the terrorist group at the University of South Florida when Castor was the school’s president.

Jewish Democrats now are trying to restore Castor’s image in the community as polls show a dead-even race. Castor has reached out to the AIPAC and other Jewish groups. Supporters say she expects to win a large portion of Florida’s Jewish vote.

A Democratic Senate staffer who follows Florida politics said many of the Jews backing Castor’s opponent, Mel Martinez, a former U.S. secretary of housing and urban development, also are supporting Bush.

The staffer went on to say that Castor would have been vulnerable on the Islamic jihad issue even if she hadn’t faced Deutsch’s accusations in the primary.

Jews also are watching Senate races in Oklahoma and Colorado. Democrats believe those states may be the best places to pick up Senate seats currently in Republican hands, and Israel activists from both sides of the aisle are looking for candidates that will support Israel.

In Oklahoma, pro-Israel activists have been supporting Democratic Rep. Brad Carson against physician Tom Coburn, a former congressman. The race is considered close, with recent polls divided as to who is ahead.

“We’ve helped him,” Morris Amitay, treasurer of the Washington Political Action Committee, said of Carson. “He has a good record.”

Some Jewish leaders are concerned about Coburn’s pro-life platform. Coburn also has been plagued by charges that he sterilized a woman without her consent and for recent comments suggesting lesbianism is rampant in state schools.

In Colorado, concerns about conservative positions from beer magnate and Republican candidate Pete Coors have led Jews to support Democratic candidate Ken Salazar, the state attorney general. The race has focused on national issues, such as the Iraq War and the Patriot Act. Polls show Salazar with a small lead.

Republican Jews have been focusing their attention on unseating Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and have been giving money to his challenger, former Rep. John Thune, in a tight race. Recent polls are divided as to who is ahead.

Daschle has been a strong proponent of Israel and Jewish domestic policy concerns. Thune also is considered strong on Israel. The race has focused primarily on Social Security and health care, as well as Daschle’s record opposing Republican initiatives in the Senate.

Republicans also are backing North Carolina Rep. Richard Burr who is running against former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles for an open Senate seat. Polls show the race has tightened in recent weeks, with Bowles’ lead down to only one to two percentage points.

The race has focused on national security issues, with Burr accusing Bowles of being weak on terrorism, when he served in the Clinton administration. Hugh Shelton, a former chairman of the military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, has defended Bowles.

Republicans and pro-Israel activists have aided Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), who was appointed to the Senate two years ago by her father, when he became governor. Murkowski has developed a solid pro-Israel record, Amitay said, but she faces a strong challenge from Tony Knowles, a former governor, who is up 3 percentage points in the polls. The hot issue in the state is drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Some are also watching Wisconsin, where Feingold holds a solid lead over Republican challenger Tim Michels. But as a liberal lawmaker in a state that is growing more conservative — and which is considered a tossup in the presidential race — Feingold will have to work hard right up until election day, Jewish advocates say. The latest poll shows Feingold, the only senator to oppose the Patriot Act, more than 20 points ahead of Michels.

There also is disappointment in the Jewish community that Rep. Cynthia McKinney almost certainly will return to Congress. McKinney was unseated by Rep. Denise Majette (D-Ga.) in 2002, with the American Jewish community heavily backing Majette, because of McKinney’s strong anti-Israel positions.

Majette shocked many earlier this year, giving up her House position to run for an open Senate seat that many assume will go Republican next month.

McKinney won a primary for her old seat and does not face a strong challenge in the predominantly Democratic district. Yet, Jewish leaders suggest McKinney may curtail her anti-Israel rhetoric if she returns to the Capitol in January, a hope shared by House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.).

“Frankly I have not had any discussions with Cynthia for some period of time, so I don’t know whether she has modified her views,” Hoyer said last month. “But they are not shared by anybody I know of that is in the Democratic Caucus today.”