American Jews from across the political spectrum overwhelmingly backed Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton over President Bush in Tuesday’s presidential election.
An exit poll conducted by the American Jewish Congress placed Clinton’s support among Jews at 86 percent, versus 10 percent for Bush and 4 percent for independent candidate Ross Perot.
Observers said the vote reflected Jewish anger over Bush’s harsh tone toward Israel, fear of the Republican embrace of the religious right and concern over eroding abortion rights, as well as the general issues of change and the economy that brought his Democratic challenger to victory.
“It is an incredibly important moment for the Jewish community,” said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.
“It’s very important, very good news for the American Jewish community,” said Ann Lewis, a Democratic activist and chair of the Commission for Women’s Equality of the American Jewish Congress.
“The advocates of religious wars lost and lost decisively. A strong message was sent to the political system that that kind of politics is self-defeating,” she said.
“Everyone who has yearned for a more prosperous, compassionate America and a stronger U.S.-Israel relationship should regard the Clinton-Gore victory as a moment of triumph and joy,” said Morton Mandel, a veteran Jewish communal activist who chairs the partisan National Jewish Democratic Council.
Given the hostility aroused by such Bush actions as withholding $10 billion in loan guarantees from Israel until it changed its settlement policy and the overwhelmingly liberal nature of the American Jewish community, even Republican activists did not expect Bush to attain 30 percent of the Jewish vote, as he did in 1988.
The dismal Jewish vote received by Bush, whether the 10 percent reported by the AJCongress poll or the 15 percent given by other, broader surveys, reflects the lowest received by a Republican since 1976, when Jimmy Carter defeated Republican incumbent Gerald Ford.
“There has to be some element of punishing Bush,” said Milton Himmelfarb, retired longtime director of research at the American Jewish Committee, referring to the defection of those Jews who previously voted Republican.
However, the votes for Clinton also reflect the Jewish community’s real sense of comfort with the president-elect.
Jews have been among Clinton’s earliest financial backers, closest advisers and top campaign officials.
And Jews were among the most supportive ethnic groups for Clinton, possibly even exceeding support among blacks, according to polls cited by Saperstein.
Among the record turnout generated by the election across the country, were a quarter of a million new Jewish voters, said Rabbi Gerald Zelizer, president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly.
“That is dramatic evidence that Jews are still very much a part of the American civic process,” he said.
The activism was evident at the Clinton campaign’s Boston headquarters, for example. In a room full of young people watching the returns, the biggest cheer came when commentators talked about the Jewish vote, said Saperstein.
“There’s a real pride in their being Jewish, far higher rates of kids volunteering for campaigns and causes than we’ve seen in a while,” he said.
Lewis agreed that this election has gotten young Jews back into the political process, “and that’s good for the community.”
She pointed to the particular impact of the abortion-rights debate as an “explosive, energizing” issue among young Jewish women.
Himmelfarb agreed that abortion played a major role in the community’s decision.
“I wouldn’t be surprised that if you sat down to speak with a focus group of Jews, that the pro-abortion passion moved them as much as the pro-Israel passion.
“The Jewish voters classically have not voted on Jewish issues, but on liberal ideology. The Israel thing is secondary,” said Himmelfarb.
“The Israel element is very important,” said David Singer, who succeeded Himmelfarb at the AJCommittee. “But in most elections, it tends to be a washout. You’ve never had a candidate who was actively anti-Israel.”
Bush backers, pointing to his support for the free emigration of Soviet and Ethiopian Jews and his role in arranging the peace process, said it was only the president’s tone that was responsible for the perception that he was anti- Israel.
“There was a great sense of people, in our community being unsure about the next four years with President Bush,”‘ said George Klein, general chairman of the Bush-Quayle Jewish Campaign Committee. But “it was more tone than substance,” he added.
He said the tone was set by Bush’s attack on Jewish lobbyists in September 1991, for which he subsequently apologized, and comments disparaging the value of the Jewish vote attributed to, and denied by, former Secretary of State James Baker, who is now White House chief of staff.
Klein complained that these incidents overshadowed the administration’s real accomplishments on issues of concern to the American Jewish community.
Some American Jews rejoicing in the Clinton victory, particularly those who agreed with Bush’s opposition to Israeli policy in the administered territories, echoed Klein’s assessment.
The result of this broad Jewish coalition uniting behind Clinton is a strong split in the advice being given the new administration by its Jewish supporters.
Observed Michael Lerner, editor of the liberal magazine Tikkun: “Clinton had among his supporters both leaders of Jews who support the Israeli peace movement and Jews who have been in the Shamir camp in Israel.”
“So there’s an intense struggle that will continue in the Clinton administration, between those who think the Clinton administration should do its best to support the peace process and those who think the administration should tilt toward the hawks within the Rabin coalition.”
Lerner, who is among those praising the Bush line on Israel and urging continuity from Clinton, noted that both camps have access to the Clinton administration.
On the other side of the political spectrum, Rabbi Pinchas Stolper, executive vice president of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, praised Clinton as “a true friend of Israel,” but worried whether he understood the Jewish attachment to “all the land of Israel.”