WASHINGTON (Oct. 13)
Set against the backdrop of a historic year of peacemaking in the Middle East and the strongest U.S.-Israel relationship in recent memory, next month’s congressional elections are focusing Jewish interest on local races and domestic issues.
For the first time in years, many analysts are suggesting that this is an election season with no defining Jewish issues.
For the pro-Israel community, in particular, “this election is not a real grabber,” according to Morris Amitay, an officer of Washington PAC, a pro-Israel political action committee, and a former executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
“With peace breaking out in the Middle East, an administration friendly to Israel and no problems with foreign aid, this is not one of the more exciting cycles,” Amitay said.
Without the traditional Jewish concerns over Israel’s security, Jewish attention is focused along with the rest of the nation on domestic issues such as the economy, crime and health care.
At the same time, however, many Jews are keeping a close watch on the growing political strength of the religious right, with issues such as school prayer and abortion rights high on the Jewish domestic agenda.
With Democratic control over the Senate in jeopardy and significant Republican gains in the House all but assured, Jews across the political spectrum have remained active, despite a decline in campaign contributions.
Officials from major pro-Israel political action committees estimate contributions are down about 20 percent this year.
“Jewish fundraising has always been predicated on crises,” said Chuck Brooks, executive director of the National PAC.
Brooks attributed the slower pace of donations to a national environment of “political negativism.” He also said that the Jewish community as a whole is re-evaluating its activism in light of a changing Middle East.
Among the largest of the pro-Israel PACs, NatPAC expects to give over $250,000 to candidates this election cycle, Brooks said. Federal law allows candidates to accept up to $5,000 from an individual PAC for the primary and $5,000 for the general election.
HIGH TURNOVER POSES NEW CHALLENGES
Although some stalwart friends of Israel are retiring from Congress and others are in jeopardy of losing election bids, Jewish activists, encouraged by their success in pushing their agenda in the 103rd Congress, are confident that their influence will continue.
When 124 new members were elected to Congress in 1992, many in the Jewish community had feared that the U.S.-Israel relationship, in general, and foreign aid, in particular, were in jeopardy.
These fears proved unfounded, however, as the foreign aid package, including $3 billion to Israel, passed Congress this year with record support and new allies. Although Israel’s interests appear to be on solid ground on Capitol Hill, Jewish activists are not complacent.
The continuing high turnover expected in Congress is posing new challenges to Jewish groups such as AIPAC, the pro-Israel lobby which sees as one of its primary missions the education of members of Congress on issues related to Israel and the Middle East.
By 1996, more than 50 percent of Congress will have been elected in the 1990s.
AIPAC plans to redouble its education ef- forts this season to continue developing relationships with members of Congress, according to an AIPAC spokeswoman, who added that officials across the country have already met with nearly every candidate running for Congress this year.
The November election “will dramatically redefine Congress,” the spokeswoman, Toby Dershowitz, said. “Our community is, and must continue to be, energized and positioned to ensure the new Congress, including its many new leaders, is well-educated on key U.S.-Israel issues on the legislative agenda.”
In addition to foreign aid, pro-Israel activists are focused on monitoring arms sales to the Middle East, expanding U.S.-Israel cooperation and promoting the peace process.
On the domestic front, with Democratic losses almost certain and some even predicting a Republican takeover in the Senate, Jewish Republican and Democratic activists are facing off over what each perceive as the best course for the country.
Matthew Brooks, executive director of the National Jewish Coalition, a Republican organization, said, “A large segment of the Jewish population feels that the programs of the Democratic Party don’t address their concerns.”
JEWS TRADITIONALLY BACK DEMOCRATS
Brooks predicted that Republican candidates will “do very well” at attracting Jewish support “precisely because they have viable working solutions.”
Not surprisingly, Steve Gutow, Brooks’ counterpart at the National Jewish Democratic Council, disagreed.
“The apocalyptic predictions for Democratic candidates I’ve heard before, and the demise of the party I’ve heard before, but President Clinton has been reasonably steadfast to his set of goals, and the economy is good,” Gutow said.
Traditionally, a large majority of Jews has supported Democratic candidates both financially and at the polls.
Marcia Balonick, executive director of the Joint Action Committee for Political Affairs, a multi-issue Jewish PAC, said her group overwhelmingly directs campaign contributions to Democratic candidates.
Although the major litmus test for contributions remains a candidate’s support for Israel, domestic concerns such as reproductive rights and the religious right stand high on the group’s agenda, she said.
Beyond the PACS, most Jewish organizations are prevented from taking positions on candidates and political parties because of their non-profit status with the Internal Revenue Service.
But they, too, are closely watching the races.
Most Jewish organizations in Washington tend to have a liberal bent and have been relatively pleased with the Clinton administration’s social policy agenda.
Since Clinton’s election, Jewish groups have lauded the administration’s push for gay rights, reproductive rights, the Family Medical Leave Act and health care reform.
With the next Congress virtually certain to include more politically conservative members, some are fearing tough battles ahead on church-state and other social issues.
Mark Pelavin, American Jewish Congress’ Washington representative, predicted that a more Republican and conservative Congress threatens those in the organized Jewish community who have opposed school prayer and fought for reproductive rights, health care and welfare reform.
“Many of the victories that we have had, especially on social issues, have been quite narrow, and we have not had significant support of Republicans,” Pelavin said. “This will be a very long two years for those who care about these issues if those being elected support different approaches to social problems.”
RELIGIOUS RIGHT A CONCERN
Another concern among many Jewish activists is the growing power of the religious right.
“The strength of the religious right should be of deep concern to Jewish voters,” Gutow said, referring specifically to its “attack on pluralism and civil rights.”
But not everyone agrees.
A group of conservative Jews have joined forces with the Christian right in an effort to woo the American Jewish community into the conservative camp.
The group, Toward Tradition, argues that the religious right does not pose a threat to American Jews, and instead is a natural ally.
Founder and chairman of the group, Rabbi Daniel Lapin, embraces the religious right’s message as a way to return to a value-driven society.
Some Jewish Republicans also are arguing that the religious right does not pose a threat to Jewish interests.
“Some candidates might be enjoying support of religious conservatives much in the same way others enjoy support from the Jewish community,” said the activist, who requested anonymity.
The activist cautioned that shunning candidates is not the solution.
“We’re not going to agree with the evangelical community on every issue,” he said.
But Jewish involvement with that community is important, he added, because “it will ensure that you’ll have a seat at the table to make your case.”
While the Orthodox community has also found common cause with the religious right in certain areas such as school vouchers, “that does not mean that we pledge our eternal loyalty,” according to Betty Ehrenberg, director of the Institute for Public Affairs of the Orthodox Union of Jewish Congregations of America.
“We try to work together, but the Orthodox Union is vigilant that there are many aspects of the religious right’s agenda that we will fight,” she said.
Ehrenberg cited her group’s opposition to the religious right’s campaign to bring Christian prayer into the public schools and to promote a Christian nation.
Whether opposed to or supportive of such efforts by the religious right, Jewish groups recognize that this election season has solidified the movement’s presence on the national political scene.
Whatever its ultimate success, the rise of the religious right is one more phenomenon, along with a guaranteed high turnover in the 104th Congress, that is sure to change the political landscape.