At the 1982 World Fair’s in Knoxville, Tenn., Saudi Arabia drew the ire of the Tennessee Jewish community when it handed out maps of the Middle East that conveniently omitted Israel.
Then-Gov. Lamar Alexander, standing alongside Jewish leaders, issued a harsh rebuke, saying, “That isn’t my view of Israel and isn’t the view of most Tennesseeans.”
Now, as a leading candidate for the nation’s highest office – many view him as the only viable opponent to Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole – Alexander has many supporters who talk about the strong relationship he has developed with Tennessee’s Jewish community.
The Jews he befriended during his tenure as governor from 1980 to 1988 agree that he made strides in reaching out to the community.
They cite as examples his creation of a state Holocaust commission and his trip to a Nashville high school to lecture on the Holocaust himself.
Despite the support, however, some view his record as governor and his current stances on Jewish issues as a mixed bag.
In 1982, Alexander signed a bill permitting a moment of silence in Tennessee public schools. The measure was later struck down as unconstitutional.
A self-described conservative activist who served as education secretary in the Bush administration and favors school choice, Alexander remains a proud advocate of prayer in the public schools, a position opposed by many American Jews.
But in his message to Tennessee lawmakers upon signing the moment-of-silence bill, he said the measure would not require prayer in schools, but would provide for a minute of silence, prayer or meditation.
“The bill accommodates religious beliefs, but does not advance them,” he said at the time, adding that he signed it despite his belief that such matters should be left up to local school boards.
Lewis Lavine, a 20-year-old acquaintance who served for three years as Alexander’s chief of staff when he was governor, believes that Jews can feel comfortable about Alexander’s stance on religion and church-state separation.
“He is very religious without wearing religion on his sleeve,” Lavine said in a telephone interview from Nashville. “He doesn’t have to make a show of being a religious person or an ethical person, and he understands other religious and appreciates people who practice those religions.”
Officials at Alexander’s campaign said the candidate had no reaction to the latest move by Tennessee lawmakers to introduce religion into the state.
The Tennessee Senate last week overwhelmingly passed a resolution urging homes, business, places of worship and schools to post and observe the Ten Commandments.
Jewish and civil liberties groups, along with the state’s attorney general and a lone dissenting Jewish legislator, criticized the vote as an unconstitutional move toward state sponsorship of religion.
Frank Boehm, who chairs the Nashville Jewish Community Relations Council and has known Alexander since they went to college together at Vanderbilt University, said Alexander has long been committed to tolerance and nondiscrimination.
He was the kind of guy who admonished Vanderbilt for not putting more African Americans into the schools,” Boehm said. “He was always for the underdog or the person who needed help.”
Supporters say similar themes run through his positions on other issues.
Although Alexander favors a crackdown on illegal immigration and strict border enforcement, he opposes congressional efforts to cut back on the number of legal immigrants admitted to the United States.
At the same time, he opposes attempts to deny welfare benefits to legal immigrants, saying that it is un-American to single out a specific group of law-abiding people to treat “as an election-year punching bag by Washington politicians looking for an easy target.”
On the issue of welfare, however, some Jewish leaders have sounded alarms over Alexander’s proposal to “replace Washington welfare with neighborhood charity” because “private faith-based charities work better than government agencies.”
Under his plan, states would raise money for food stamps and cash assistance and give it to private charitable foundations, which would distribute it to private, nonprofit organizations that aid the poor.
Some involved with Jewish social service agencies say such a plan could create a patchwork of services that leave many poor people without aid.
Jews who favor abortion rights, meanwhile, view Alexander’s stance as the lesser among evils advanced by GOP candidates. Alexander is pro-life, but opposes a constitutional amendment banning abortions, saying that the decision to enact restrictions should be left to the states.
Alexander’s wife, Honey, once served on an advisory board of Planned Parenthood.
When it comes to Israel, Alexander calls himself a strong and committed supporter. He traveled to Israel in December 1994 on a fact-finding trip with his old mentor, former Sen. Howard Baker, and former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger – both of whom are advisers to his campaign.
Alexander supports Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital, as well as the move to relocate the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.
But he remains vague on more complex issues, including the conditions under which he would support peace with Syria, or whether U.S. peacekeeping troops should be deployed on the Golan Heights in the event of an Israeli-Syrian peace agreement.
At the same time that Alexander’s supporters tout him as the only candidates who can defeat President Clinton, his Jewish supporters tout him as the only Republican candidate who stands a chance of carrying a significant portion of the Jewish vote.
Between 70 percent and 80 percent of Jews typically support Democratic presidential candidates.
“He has had a lot of support from the Jewish community because of his moderate stand on issues that have surfaced from time to time,” Boehm said.
For that reason, he added, Alexander “is more palatable to Jews who traditionally vote Democratic.”
He predicted that “it would be a real interesting dilemma for Jews in Tennessee if it’s Lamar against Bill Clinton.”
Martin Sir, a Democrat who served in the Tennessee Legislature when Alexander was governor and is now treasurer of Jewish Family Services in Nashville, sees it differently.
“I think that people will still support Clinton,” Sir said. “We’ve got [Tennessee native] Al Gore here as vice president and Jews feel real good about him.”
Ed Miller, research director of the Washington, D.C.-based Polling Company, a Republican concern, believes that if Alexander makes it to the general election, he has the potential to garner the highest level of Jewish support of any Republican candidate in recent years, perhaps exceeding the approximate 30 percent level of support sustained by Presidents Reagan and Bush in their races in the 1980s.
Miller believes that Alexander, as a moderate, stands the best chance of appealing nationally to younger Jewish voters, who tend to be more conservative.
Jewish supporters, meanwhile, downplayed Alexander’s recent overture to the Christian Coalition in which said he would consider coalition founder Pat Robertson as a possible running mate.
Daniel Casse, a Jew who serves as director of policy for the Alexander campaign, said, “He hasn’t counted anybody in or counted anybody out.”
Although his campaign has yet to take hold, Alexander may be ideally poised to make a run for president, say his supporters, especially since GOP leaders are denouncing Pat Buchanan, and Dole is failing to energize voters.
“In the final analysis, it’s not going to be Pat Buchanan because of his extreme ideas,” said Melvin Sembler, a national finance co-chairman for the Alexander campaign who also serves on the board of the National Jewish Coalition, the Republican Jewish group.
“It’s not going to be Bob Dole because at 70-plus, he looks tired, he’s exhausted, he’s slurring his words and he’s reading his statements.”
Sembler believes that if voters hear Alexander’s message, he will emerge as a candidate with whom everyone, Jews included, can be comfortable.
“I don’t think you’d ever find a telegram from Vladimir Zhirinovsky coming for Lamar Alexander,” Sembler said, referring to the Russian ultranationalist’s recent embrace of Buchanan.