Aggressive Courtship

Jews may be the most conflicted voters in America.

Hawkish pro-Israel Jews are deeply grateful to President Bush for his staunch support of Israel. Bush has taken steps none of his predecessors took—refusing, for example, to deal with Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat and rejecting the Palestinians' claim of a "right of return" to Israel.

On May 18, Bush's address to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the nation's leading pro-Israel lobby, was interrupted by more than 20 standing ovations. He especially pleased his audience by declaring, "Israel is a democracy and a friend and has every right to defend itself from terror."

Many Jews here and abroad also applaud Bush's resolute leadership in the war on terror. At the White House last month, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon proclaimed, "In all these years, I have never met a leader as committed as you are, Mr. President, to the struggle for freedom and the need to confront terrorism wherever it exists."

At the same time, U.S. Jewish voters have been part of the Democratic Party's base for more than 70 years. Many are intensely hostile to Bush's domestic policies and are critical of the war in Iraq. "They're Democrats," says Janine Zacharia, Washington correspondent of The Jerusalem Post. "They disagree with George Bush on every domestic issue. But they support Israel and really don't know which way to go."

In the 1970s and '80s, exit polls showed that about a third of Jews regularly voted for the Republican presidential nominee. In 1980, Ronald Reagan got nearly 40 percent of the Jewish vote because many Jews felt that President Carter was too critical of Israel. But in the 1990s, Jewish support for Republicans collapsed. Fewer than 20 percent of Jews voted for GOP presidential nominees in 1992, 1996, and 2000.

President George H.W. Bush angered Jewish voters by confronting Israel. In 1991, he asked Congress to defer consideration of Israel's request for $10 billion in loan guarantees in order to pressure Israel on the settlements issue. Many Jews were outraged when the president expressed resentment of the Israel lobby, saying, "I heard today there were something like a thousand lobbyists on the Hill, working the other side of the question. We've got one lonely little guy down here doing it."

Jews were also alienated by the 1992 GOP National Convention, which showcased divisive conservatives. Moreover, President Clinton was wildly popular among Jews—in Israel as well as in the United States. That was particularly true after he spoke at the funeral of Israel's assassinated leader, Yitzhak Rabin, and closed his eulogy by saying, Shalom, chaver.

According to Zacharia, "When he said, Shalom, chaver—'Goodbye, friend'—the next day, it was on bumper stickers all over Israel. When Clinton left office and there was a mock poll in Israeli newspapers asking, 'Who do you want to be the next leader of Israel?' Clinton fared very well."

The current president might regain the one-third support that Republicans used to get from Jewish voters. Maybe he'll get even more. Exit polling in the 2002 midterm elections indicated that 35 percent of Jews voted for Republican House candidates. The GOP House vote among Jews had averaged 25 percent in exit polls from 1980 through 2000.

Republicans are aggressively courting Jewish support. The question is, why? Republicans don't really need Jewish money, but Democrats do. Zacharia has reported stories of Jews who had been very close to Bill Clinton and Al Gore now giving large contributions to the GOP. "The Bush campaign is trying to prevent Jews from giving to Kerry," Zacharia said.

Does the Jewish vote really matter? Jews are only 4 percent of the national electorate. A lot of the Jewish vote is concentrated in states Democrats shouldn't have to worry about, such as New York and California. But Democrats do have to worry that small gains among Jewish voters could help Republicans in tightly competitive states, including Pennsylvania and, especially, Florida. Republicans are forcing Kerry to prove himself with Jewish voters. "I'm proud that my commitment to a secure Jewish state has been unwavering," Kerry told the Anti-Defamation League.

After Bush endorsed Sharon's unilateral plan for separation between Israel and the Palestinians, many observers were surprised that Kerry allowed no distance between himself and Bush.

"Do you support President Bush" on the Sharon plan? interviewer Tim Russert asked the presumptive Democratic nominee on Meet the Press on April 18.

"Yes," Kerry replied.

"Completely?" Russert asked.


In fact, after Kerry suggested that he might name Carter or former Secretary of State James Baker as his special Middle East envoy, he backtracked under pressure from Jewish leaders. "The names obviously need to be acceptable to everybody within the community," Kerry explained. "Subsequent to those names being floated, obviously, some people had different views."

An observer once said of Jewish Americans, "Jews have the wealth and status of Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans."

Jewish voters tend to have conservative interests and liberal values. For decades, Jews have been voting their values. That tendency will really be put to the test in this year's election.