Jews and the GOP

The Christian right's passionate embrace of Israel has raised Republican hopes that Jewish voters will abandon the Democrats.

Published May 14, 2002 9:29PM (EDT)

The Anti-Defamation League, one of the country's foremost Jewish advocacy groups, has spent years battling the theocratic initiatives of the Christian right. So Ralph Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition, was "happily surprised" when he got a call from the ADL asking permission to reprint his essay "We People of Faith Stand Firmly With Israel," which explained Christian support for the country in both geopolitical and evangelical terms. "For many, there is no greater proof of God's sovereignty in the world today than the survival of the Jews and the existence of Israel," Reed's piece said. Two weeks ago, the ADL published it in a half-page New York Times ad.

The ad was one of the most visible examples of the new pro-Israel alliance between liberal Jews and the Christian right, but it was far from the only one. That same week, former presidential candidate Gary Bauer -- an evangelical to the right of President Bush -- was invited to address a breakfast meeting at the Israeli embassy, something he says he couldn't have imagined happening five years ago. At last month's pro-Israel rally in Washington, the crowd welcomed Christian right-wingers including Dick Armey and Janet Parshall, head of the National Religious Broadcasters Association. Less than a week later, Tom DeLay addressed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference, and a week after that, John Ashcroft was invited to speak to the ADL -- despite a statement the group released last January criticizing Ashcroft's statement that in America, "We have no king but Jesus."

Hardcore Christian conservatives were once the major force distancing Jews from the Republican Party. Suddenly, they're the chosen people's closest friends, on Israel at least. Thus while the political fallout from the Middle East stalemate is still unpredictable, Republicans are tantalized by the idea that right-wing support for Israeli Prime Minster Ariel Sharon's hawkish policies will win Bush the lasting fealty of large number of American Jews. The same week that DeLay spoke to AIPAC, New York Times pundit William Safire tried to parlay conservatives' new concord with Jews into a lasting political realignment, summoning his overwhelmingly Democratic-voting Jewish brethren to join the Zionist GOP in a column called "Democrats vs. Israel."

Reed, currently chairman of the Georgia Republican Party, says he predicts "historic levels" of Jewish support for Bush in the 2004 vote, higher even than the 39 percent Reagan received during his first presidential election. The Republican Jewish Coalition, already salivating at the prospect of new recruits, has released a poll by Frank Luntz showing that, if the election were held today, 42 percent of Jews said they would vote for Bush. Matt Brooks, the coalition's executive director, reports a "huge" increase in membership and fundraising, and the Washington-based group has recently opened offices in South Florida and Los Angeles. "I'd go so far as to say this president has the potential to realign the political landscape in the Jewish community for generations to come much in the same that FDR did in the aftermath of World War II," Brooks says.

But taking the long view is crucial when talking about the Middle East as well as about American electoral politics. After all, Republicans have been predicting an imminent Jewish exodus from the Democratic Party for the last three decades. In 1972, Roland Evans and Robert Novak speculated in the Washington Post about "a massive pro-Nixon swing among Jewish voters." In 1980, a story in the Christian Science Monitor announced that "the traditional [Jewish] alliance with the Democratic Party has eroded." And in 1991, the year before 80 percent of Jews voted for Bill Clinton, an article in the Forward said, "[Matt] Brooks sees an 'incremental shift' among Jewish voters as the GOP gains a few percentage points each election."

But in fact, Jewish support for Republicans presidential candidates has actually been in decline since the '80s. In 1980, Reagan took 39 percent of the Jewish vote, and in 1988, Vice President George Bush garnered 35 percent. But in 1996, Bob Dole got a mere 16 percent and George W. Bush received only 19 percent. Bush's administration is more closely aligned with the religious right, traditionally anathema to mainstream Jews, than any in history. Despite the ADL's current cooperation with Ralph Reed, executive director Abraham Foxman still says, "The religious right, its dream is to have a Christian America that would make us second-class citizens."

That's why Ira Foreman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, says, "You're not going to see a dramatic shift" in Jewish voting patterns. "I'm willing to put money on it," he continues. "So much of the Jewish community's agenda" -- which includes support for abortion rights, separation of church and state and other civil liberties issues -- "is dramatically opposed by the Republican agenda as it exists today."

Yet a dramatic shift among Jews isn't necessary to tip the electoral balance. Even a small change in the Jewish vote could make a huge difference in states like Florida and New York, and many leaders see that as a distinct possibility. According to a Washington Post story, Jews made up 14 percent of all New York voters in the 2000 election, and they've shown their willingness to go GOP before, supporting Gov. Pataki and Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg in large numbers. In Florida, Jews make up almost 5 percent of the electorate -- far larger than the margin between Gore and Bush in the last election. A Jewish swing to the right in either state could be decisive in keeping Bush in the White House.

Brooks' numbers aren't wholly reliable -- after all, the 42 percent support for Bush the Luntz poll measured was without a Democratic opponent, and at the height of Bush's popularity. But Bush's dismal showing among Jews in the 2000 election may be misleading as well -- he garnered 3 percent more of the Jewish vote than Bob Dole did, even though he was running against the first Jewish vice presidential candidate in history. "One would have thought that with that historic event, the Jewish vote would have been even less," says Foxman. "There is something of a shift in the votes of the Jewish community. They are not automatically Democratic."

Though by and large Jews, as the quip goes, still earn like Episcopalians but vote like Puerto Ricans, small numbers of them have been drifting to the right for decades. "There's been a 30-year-old voting pattern that began in the late '60s and early '70s with Jews voting less 'liberal,'" notes Foreman. "Of course the rest of the country was too. Instead of voting three or four to one for Democrats, they began voting more like two to one." The neo-conservative movement, led by Jewish intellectuals like Irving Kristol and Norman Podhoretz, was indicative of the shift, though Bauer says that in the past "there wasn't much evidence that neo-conservatism had legs at the grass-roots level. That may in fact be changing now."

The hope in Republican circles is that GOP hawkishness on Israel will speed the trickle of Democratic defectors. Conservative leaders, including Bauer, Reed, Dick Armey and William Bennett, have been skillfully positioning themselves as Ariel Sharon's most ardent supporters, earning the gratitude of erstwhile opponents like Foxman.

"I think there are issues that Jews and Christians can make common cause on," says Bauer. "Certainly Israel is one of those issues, and in my view it's very important because I think that Israel is another frontline in this clash of civilizations that we're seeing." Bauer acknowledges that for secular Jews, "there is much in the Democratic platform that they're attracted to on social justice issues and so forth." But he adds, "On the other hand, even a relatively small movement of American Jews to the Republican Party could make a big difference, given how evenly the country was divided in the last presidential election."

Of course, attempts to tar Democratic leaders as insufficiently pro-Israel are largely dishonest. In his "Democrats vs. Israel" column, Safire blasted Sen. Tom Daschle, and by extension his whole party, for supposedly blocking a resolution designating the PLO as a terrorist group. Yet the resolution was co-sponsored by Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and Daschle said he was questioning its timing, not its intent. Sen. Joe Lieberman and Sen. Charles Schumer have been critical of Bush for not supporting Sharon enough.

"There's been a long-standing connection between Jews and the Democratic Party, and with all due respect to Mr. Safire, there's nothing to indicate that there's been any kind of weakening of Democratic support for Israel and its right to defend itself," says Dan Gerstein, Lieberman's communication director.

Indeed, by promoting the idea that the Bush administration is defending Israel in the face of Democratic opposition, Safire's column worked as a brilliant piece of rhetorical duplicity, shifting the debate away from what many saw as Bush's waffling on the Middle East. After all, it was just a month ago that the L.A. Times wrote, "The escalating violence in the Middle East has given some Democrats an opening to criticize Bush on grounds on which he has been untouchable of late: his conduct of foreign policy."

Yet at a time when Jews are sickeningly aware of the vulnerability of their people abroad, perceptions matter at least as much as policy. "There's no question that American Jews view the religious right with great suspicion and great hostility, but they have been pleasantly surprised by the strong level of support that the right has shown toward Israel," says Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. "Right now the American Jewish community feels very beset and besieged, and they welcome a hand of friendship wherever they can get it."

Meanwhile, during the May 2 congressional votes on resolutions of solidarity with Israel, most of those voting "nay" or merely "present" were Democrats. Their reluctance to endorse all of Ariel Sharon's actions doesn't necessarily mean that those Democrats are anti-Israel, much less that the party is. But Republicans are trying to spin it that way.

And a new, subtle change in the outlook of American Jews is helping them do it. Not long ago, as the ADL's Foxman says, most visible anti-Semitism came from the right. It existed on the left as well, but "fascism and Nazism were the greater threat," he says. "There was a worldview of the right as being anti-Semitic." Now that the right has teamed up with Jews, while Palestinian liberation has become a cause célèbre in universities and in the global justice movement, the left is perceived as the new locus of Western anti-Semitism.

In the New York Observer last week, Ron Rosenbaum wrote of a "crisis of the American left in its frightened and fearful refusal to speak out against the anti-Semitism ... that is pouring out of the mouths and the pens of the left in the U.K. and Europe and on U.S. campuses." Writing in In These Times, "No Logo" author Naomi Klein noted that the latest anti-globalization protests in Washington morphed into "what organizers described as the largest Palestinian solidarity demonstration in U.S. history, 75,000 people by some estimates." Klein applauds the march, but warns that the left risks discrediting itself if it doesn't confront anti-Semitism head-on.

Clearly, the American left, anti-Semitic or not, is not the same entity as the Democratic Party. Still, it's good news for Republicans that, with Pat Buchanan in exile, the debate about anti-Semitism has moved to the other end of the ideological spectrum. "Since American Jews are frightened, and with good reason, both by the anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiment that has become so virulent all over the world -- and especially on the left -- one would expect a weakening of the Jewish community's stubborn attachment to liberalism in general and the Democrats in particular, and a concomitant rise in support for conservatives and Republicans," Norman Podhoretz wrote via e-mail.

Bauer says that whenever he talks about Israel on television, he gets "dozens and dozens" of e-mails from Jews who say they are "reevaluating everything." He reports messages saying, "I never did like the religious right, but now I see people like you defending Jews in Israel and I see many liberal politicians not saying anything."

That doesn't mean Jews have simply forgotten where people like Tom DeLay are coming from. It was just a month ago that he told a group of Texas evangelicals, "Only Christianity offers a way to live in response to the realities that we find in this world -- only Christianity." That's why Jews, says pollster Mark Mellman, "remain very suspicious of [conservative Christians'] motives. They have nothing to do with support for Israel and everything to do with prophesies about the end of the world."

Mellman is referring to dispensationalism, an end-time eschatology that's prevalent on the evangelical right. Dispensationalism informs Tim Lahaye and Jerry B. Jenkins' wildly popular "Left Behind" novels, which turned prophesies from the Book of Revelations into contemporary thrillers, as well as the preaching of people like Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell.

Dispensationalists believe the return of Jews to Israel is a necessary precondition to the longed-for rapture. "Evangelicals who hold this belief have been very strong in supporting the Israeli expansion into the West Bank, because this is part of the promised land," says Peter Boyer, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and the author of "When Time Shall Be No More: Prophecy Belief in Modern American Culture." Such thinking coincides with the views of the ruling Likud party -- which Sunday voted to oppose the creation of a Palestinian state, making for a convenient alliance. Where these views diverge is over the Jews themselves, who dispensationalists believe must either eventually convert to Christianity or, well, go to hell.

Reed says that such talk caricatures the beliefs of pro-Israel Christians, adding, "My support for Israel has little or nothing to do with theology of the end times." Whether that's true or not, it doesn't change the fact that many Jews are likely to remain skeptical of their new friends.

Yet while Jewish groups say they'll continue policing the wall between church and state, with so much attention focused on fighting the perception of renewed anti-Semitism, whether in the Middle East, Europe or college campuses, there are fewer resources left to defend against the right-wing's domestic excesses. The ADL, usually extremely vigilant about religious chauvinism in public life, let DeLay's statements about Christianity pass without comment, for instance.

Still, Foxman insists that the ADL's cooperation with the Christian right doesn't extend beyond Israel. In fact, he rejects the term "alliance." "'Alliance' is a strong word," he says. "I don't see any alliance. I see a joint interest, I see expressions of support for Israel, which are welcomed by the Jewish community." Beyond that, he says, there are no negotiations or quid pro quos.

"The majority of the Jewish community disagrees with them on issues of abortion and on church-state issues, and we will continue to disagree. We will meet them in debate and meet them in the court when and if necessary. At the same time, if they reach out in support of Israel we will not reject it. We will appreciate it and we will thank them."

By Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

MORE FROM Michelle Goldberg

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Democratic Party Middle East Republican Party