Pro-israel Republican Incumbents Pose Dilemma for Jewish Democrats

Should Jewish Democrats support pro-Israel Republicans seeking re-election to Congress or back their Democratic challengers?

That was one of the thornier questions discussed here this week by some 200 delegates attending the two-day summer conference of the newly formed National Jewish Democratic Council.

The support of pro-Israel incumbents against pro-Israel challengers has long been a smoldering issue within the Jewish political community.

In the last few congressional elections, major Jewish political contributors have told potential Democratic challengers to pro-Israel Republican senators that they would not receive any financial support. In many of these cases, the challengers, some of them Jewish, have decided not to run.

Good congressional candidates who want to challenge pro-Israel incumbents have been “simply cut out of access to the organized structure” of the Jewish community, Rabbi David Saperstein, co-director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, maintained Monday at a session on Jewish involvement in American politics.

Esther Leah Ritz of Milwaukee, who chaired the session, said she could never vote for one of her state’s senators, Republican Robert Kasten, because of his conservative views, despite his overwhelming support of Israel.

But Thomas Dine, executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, said that while he has no doubt that persons considering running against Kasten will be pro-Israel, the incumbent’s importance has to be considered.

The senator from Wisconsin “is at the center of everything good that takes place in the U.S.-Israel relationship,” Dine said.

Together with Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), Kasten has agreed to co-sponsor the bill to provide Israel with U.S. guarantees for $10 billion in commercial loans to help resettle Soviet and Ethiopian Jews.

GOOD PEOPLE BEING ‘SHUT OUT’

Saperstein said he is not bothered that there is pro-Israel support for Kasten, despite the Jewish community’s tendency to support Democratic candidates. But he said he does regret that good people are being “shut out” of this support.

Hyman Bookbinder, former Washington representative of the American Jewish Committee and a founder of the new Jewish Democratic group, said he also is not concerned about Jewish support for Kasten and other Republicans.

But he said when the “incumbency rule” was invoked last year to support conservative Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) because he cast a few pro-Israel votes, “that is nothing less than obscene.”

Morton Mandel of Cleveland, chairman of the National Jewish Democratic Council, stressed that while individual members are free to act on their own, the new council will only support Democrats.

The two-day conference here featured addresses by a number of prominent Democrats, including Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, House Speaker Thomas Foley, Democratic National Committee Chairman Ron Brown, Texas Gov. Ann Richards, several members of the Senate and House, as well as the leading prospective Democratic presidential candidates.

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