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Dems fear Bush's gains with Jewish voters

Anxiety voiced here in Boston this week at the Democratic National Convention by Jewish Democrats is worth paying attention to. Tom Curry reports.

If this November’s election ends up being as close as many pundits and politicians think it is now, then slivers of the electorate — for instance, church-going African-Americans in Milwaukee, or Miami Jews who support Israel — will play a decisive role.

A few thousand or even a few hundred votes cast for John Kerry or George Bush in key states such as Wisconsin and Florida — or votes not cast at all in a stay-at-home protest — could determine the winner Nov. 2.

That is why the anxiety voiced here in Boston this week at the Democratic National Convention by Jewish Democrats is worth paying attention to.

The source of that unease: the sense that Bush, due to his removal of Saddam Hussein, his resolve in fighting Islamic terrorists, and his robust support for Israel’s government led by Ariel Sharon, is gaining ground among those Jewish voters who place their highest priority on Israel’s survival.

After 9/11, America 'much more' like Israel
Jonathan Sarna, professor of Jewish history at Brandeis University and an expert on Jewish voting patterns, said, “In the years since Sept. 11, paradoxically, America has become much more like Israel in the world. Israelis used to be the only ones worried about terror. Now Americans worry about terror. Whenever I go to Washington, it reminds me, when I get searched, of what it is like in Jerusalem. Even anti-Americanism sounds suspiciously like anti-Semitism in terms of the language being used. … There is a real identity between America and Israel, and, in some ways, traditional Jews, especially, like that identity.”

Kerry has argued that U.S. policy needs to be more attentive to and respectful of European leaders.

But, Sarna said, Jews are “a little concerned about this notion of ‘We’re going to make friends again with Europe.’ A lot of Jews wonder whether those are the kinds of friends we want, when you listen to what’s going on in much of Europe, and how they stigmatize Israel.”

He added, “It is in Israel’s interest to have American troops in Iraq,” but noted that the Democratic Party is divided on that issue, with Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich supporters urging rapid withdrawal.

In Miami Dade County in Florida, traditionally a heavily Democratic area, former Democratic congressional candidate Elaine Bloom said she repeatedly hears from some fellow Jews the phrase, “George Bush is the best thing that ever happened for Israel.”

Bloom urged the Kerry campaign to counter this perception by getting the word out to Jews that Kerry strongly supports Israel.

Although many of America’s Jewish voters live in New York and California, which are likely to end up being easy wins for Kerry, there are significant Jewish voting populations in crucial battlegrounds, especially Florida, but also Pennsylvania, Missouri and Michigan.

Most American Jews are Democrats. In the 1992, 1996, and 2000 presidential elections, 80 percent of Jewish voters cast their ballots for the Democratic candidate, according to exit poll interviews.

The only Democratic candidate in recent decades not to win at least two-thirds of the Jewish vote was Jimmy Carter in 1980. Jewish voters saw Carter as hostile to Israel and excessively sympathetic to Arabs.

In the eyes of some Jewish voters, Kerry erred earlier in the campaign by suggesting that he might choose Carter as his Middle East envoy.

Jewish Democrats allied with Kerry see a clever GOP plan to sap Jewish support for him.

A question for Karl Rove
“The question is, can Karl Rove and others in the Bush administration turn Israel into an issue where they siphon off some Jewish votes?” said Democrat Mel Levine, former congressman from Southern California who is now an adviser on Middle East policy to Kerry.

“There is little doubt that that’s their agenda. ... I do believe as of today, late July, there are people in the (Jewish) community who are wrestling with this issue. … The question is: Is Bush so good for Israel now that Jewish Americans for whom Israel is the highest priority are voting for Bush?”

Levine said, “John Kerry has a fabulous record with regard to Israel. It’s something that for some reason is not as well-known as it needs to be, not as well-known as it ought to be, and not as well-known as will be.” Levine said in 20 years of votes in the Senate on issues of concern to Israel, Kerry’s record “is 100 percent, it’s not 95 percent. When the Jewish community, particularly those who care about Israel, learn John Kerry’s record, they will not only be comforted, they will be very impressed.”

Mark Mellman, the pollster for Kerry, said, “Most of us recognize that probably the most important long-term threat to a strong U.S.-Israel relationship is America’s dependence on Middle East oil. Needless to say, the Bush administration has done nothing on this issue.”

Mellman did not mention Bush’s vigorous support for opening a portion of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, which would reduce U.S. dependence on Middle East imports. Kerry led a Senate filibuster in 2002 that defeated ANWR drilling. Kerry has announced a proposal for research and development on non-oil energy sources that is aimed at reducing U.S. dependence on imports.

Of course, the survival of Israel and more particularly the success of the Sharon government, is not the top priority for all Jewish voters. For some, abortion rights or the environment are the top priority, and they’ll not vote for Bush. And Mellman said, “Even people who think they’re single-issue voters, aren’t.”

Democratic operative Ann Lewis said most Jews believe in an activist government that works for liberal social change and they know that Republicans do not share this view.

Jews were on the front lines of the civil rights, anti-war and feminist movements in the 1960s — not places where large numbers of Republicans were found, so there has been a natural discord between Jews and Republicans.

Comparing the 1896 election to this year, Mellman said, “The split in the country in 1896 as it is today was fundamentally cultural in nature.” Issues such as same-sex marriage, abortion, and the death penalty are key indicators.

Jewish voters, with the important exception of orthodox Jews, tend to be on the liberal and cosmopolitan side of this cultural split, while most Republicans, whether Catholic, Protestant or Jewish, are on the conservative side of it.

And Levine said Jews are concerned about preserving a separation between church and state, a separation that some feel Bush has not maintained. “Whether it is church-state separation or a host of other issues, this administration’s views and actions on domestic issues are frankly nothing short of anathema to the activist Jewish community,” said Levine.

Tossing the wedge back
At the panel discussion in Boston this week sponsored by the National Jewish Democratic Council where Sarna, Lewis, Levine and Bloom spoke, one member of the audience said sardonically, if Bush seeks to use Israel as a “wedge issue,” Kerry could “easily throw the wedge right back at Bush by saying, ‘George Bush is an evangelical who only wants a strong Israel because of the second coming of Christ.’ It is easy enough to throw it back it in his face.”

Yet while there may be some persuasive reasons why 80 percent of Jews will again vote Democratic this fall, if even a few thousand of them go against this norm it could decisively help Bush.