The Jewish Vote

by Jeff Fleischer

(Mother Jones, August 3, 2004)


Jewish voters historically have sided with Democrats by overwhelming margins, and some of John Kerry’s supporters are planning to remind them why.

A group of Jewish Kerry backers will speak to Jewish audiences in battleground states in the final three months before the election. The team includes Cameron Kerry, who converted to Judaism two decades ago and who, like his brother John, is one-quarter Jewish by way of a paternal grandparent. The Kerrys, who learned about their father’s Jewish roots from the Boston Globe last year, also learned that their great-aunt and great-uncle were killed in the Terezin concentration camp during the Holocaust. Cameron Kerry, who recently returned from a trip to Israel, discusses these elements of the Kerry family history when addressing Jewish audiences.

While the speakers will highlight Kerry’s personal connection to Judaism, they will also discuss the candidate’s long voting record in support of Israel. Karl Rove has spent years now trying to drum up Jewish votes based on the Bush Administration’s record on Israel, so it becomes important for Democrats to stress Kerry’s stance. As former Congressman Mel Levine told MSNBC:

“The question is: Is Bush so good for Israel now that Jewish Americans for whom Israel is the highest priority are voting for Bush? 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. [His voting record on Israel] 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.”

The Kerry camp’s efforts seek to undermine perceived gains Bush has made with Jewish voters – but the key word there is “perceived.” Bush was already touting a hard “I’m gonna stand by Israel” line during the 2000 election, when he received 19 percent of the Jewish vote (higher than Bob Dole in 1996 or the original President Bush in 1992).

The catch, as the Philadelphia Inquirer explained in June, is that “nobody has decent – as in recent – poll numbers” for how Jews will vote in this election. A January poll found 31 percent of Jews planning to vote for Bush, but Kerry was off the media radar at that point, and then-frontrunner Howard Dean was the biggest critic of the Sharon government among the top candidates.

As pollster John Zogby told the Inquirer, a 30 percent figure for Bush is a “stretch” because the president’s social views contrast with the vast majority of American Jews. As Steve Grossman, former chairman of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, told the Globe:

“A significant focus throughout the Jewish community around the country at the moment is this battle and how it is going to play out. Bush offers very little on every important social issue, but his perceived support for Israel has the Republicans extraordinarily optimistic about cutting into what has been usually rock solid support for the Democratic nominee in key battleground states. It will fail, but the fact the battle has been joined shows the competitiveness of this race.”

Rove hopes even a small swing in the Jewish vote can help Bush clinch a swing state, but most Jews are well to Bush’s left on economics, abortion, gay marriage, social programs, public education and the separation of church and state. Even the one issue where the administration sides with most Jewish voters – support of Israel – is couched in an evangelical belief of Armageddon that requires complete Jewish control of the Holy Land as a precursor to a Second Coming in which Jews would convert or die. Kerry’s track record lets those single-issue voters support Israel without forming an unholy alliance with the likes of Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed.

For all the GOP hype, there’s no hard evidence yet of success in swinging the Jewish vote. As Democratic strategist Steve Rabinowitz told the Philadelphia Inquirer, the attempt to convert Jewish voters is a long-running story that never seems to play out:

“Every four years, my Republican friends say that this will be the election when the Jews go Republican, and, every time, the election results prove them wrong. They’re like the boy who cried wolf. It makes me crazy. You want to say, ‘Little boy, there’s no wolf!’ Enough already!”

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