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On the Campaign Trail: Kemp’s Record Inspires New Hope for Republican Outreach to Jews

As a congressman, he gave hope to desperate refuseniks struggling to gain their freedom.

As a senior Republican leader, he defended Israel when many were attacking the Jewish state’s policies.

As a Cabinet official in the Bush administration, he found new Jewish admirers as he fought to improve America’s poorest cities.

Now, Republican Jews hope that their favorite son, Jack Kemp, can help propel the GOP back into the White House.

The excitement that the newly announced vice presidential nominee has breathed into the Republican Party’s rank and file was clearly evident this week as Jewish delegates converged on San Diego for the Republican National Convention.

Kemp brought down the house at a Jewish-sponsored reception Sunday night just one day after being tapped to join the Republican ticket.

It was one of the Republican vice presidential candidate’s first public appearances after arriving with presidential nominee Bob Dole.

Kemp had disappointed many Republican Jews when he decided last year not to seek the presidential nomination.

With the former professional football player now on the ticket, the usually festive kick-off celebrations turned jubilant in this oceanside city.

Flanked by his wife, Joanne, Kemp told more than 500 cheering Jewish activists at a local restaurant that was koshered especially for the event, that he and his wife “will never forget who was there when the going was tough.”

“Tonight with you, we feel like mishpachah,” Kemp said, repeating a line he uses frequently when addressing Jewish audiences.

A lone activist shouted back: “You are” to the man who grew up in a largely Jewish neighborhood of Los Angeles.

Best known for his embrace of supply-side economics, Kemp, 61, has garnered Jewish support since he began his political career in the House of Representatives in 1970.

Jewish Republicans are now looking to Kemp to reach out past the party’s traditional base to independent and Jewish voters by matching his tax-cutting ideology with his compassion for immigrants, the poor and minorities.

His support for affirmative action without racial quotas, his solid pro-Israel record and his personal involvement in the Soviet Jewry movement, they say, all translate into Jewish votes for the Dole-Kemp ticket in November.

Whether these issues can trump his support for school prayer and for banning abortions in the minds of Jewish voters has yet to be seen.

Kemp serves on the board of the Center for Jewish and Christian Values, which was founded by the politically conservative Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), for one, does not believe these positions will affect Kemp’s standing in the Jewish community.

“Kemp is pro-life, but he does not wear it on his sleeve,” the senator said in an interview at the Jewish reception, which was co-sponsored by the National Jewish Coalition, a Republican organization, and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby.

“He supports school prayer, but does not pursue it,” Specter said. “These positions will not translate into government action in a Dole-Kemp administration.”

Frequently at odds with his own party on immigration and other social issues, Kemp’s moderate positions in these areas date back to his early support for Soviet Jews.

Kemp is “one of the true giants of the Soviet Jewry advocacy movement,” said Mark Levin, executive director of the National Conference on Soviet Jewry, one of many Jewish organizations to honor Kemp for his efforts.

Just last year, he was honored by HIAS with its Liberty Award in tribute to his contributions to furthering peace and freedom.

During his nine terms as a congressman from Buffalo, N.Y., Kemp traveled frequently to the former Soviet Union, often meeting with refuseniks and pushing the Communist regime to allow emigration.

In 1982, Kemp, who served as co-chair of the Congressional Coalition for Soviet Jews, teamed up with Dole to stage a mock wedding ceremony at the Capitol building to pressure the Soviet authorities to release the wife of a refusenik living in the United States.

Edward Lozansky had been struggling for six years to bring his wife, Tatiana, to the United States.

Lozansky was a Republican activist with ties to both Dole, who served as his best man at the mock ceremony, and Kemp, who served as a witness.

“Without those two guys, I don’t know if we ever would have seen each other,” Lozansky said in a telephone interview this week from his office in Washington.

Tatiana received permission to leave the Soviet Union a month later. She became a U.S. citizen in 1985, and Dole and Kemp were both on hand to congratulate her during an emotional ceremony.

Lozansky recalled making a speech saying it would be tough if Dole and Kemp both ran for president because he and his wife would have a difficult time deciding whom to support.

“We love both of you,” he recalled saying at the time, “and we would like you both to be on the same ticket.”

With his wish now true, Lozansky, who now heads a consulting firm to promote American-Russian relations, said he plans to launch a drive to win support for the Dole-Kemp ticket among Soviet Jewish emigres in the United States.

Kemp also gets high marks for his pro-Israel record, a record that is so strong that some Jewish Republicans skeptical of Dole’s mixed relations with the Jewish state now plan to stay with the ticket.

“People who were leaving the party over Israel will now stay,” said Rosalie Zalis, a senior policy adviser to California Gov. Pete Wilson.

Zalis said she had met seven couples at a Shabbat dinner over the weekend who had planned to cross party lines because of their concern over Dole’s record on Israel.

But after Dole tapped Kemp to be his running mate, Zalis said, “six have already committed to come back.”

Dole was on the receiving end of Kemp’s ire when he slammed Israel for the 1988 kidnapping of Sheik Abdel Karim Obeid, leader of the fundamentalist Hezbollah movement.

A year later, when an American soldier in Lebanon, Colonel William Higgins was killed, presumably in retaliation for Obeid’s abduction, Dole took to the Senate floor, saying: “Perhaps a little more responsibility on the part of the Israelis one of these days would be refreshing.”

Kemp, then secretary of housing and urban development in the Bush administration, fired back at Dole.

Dole should stop this “blame Israel first mentality,” he was quoted saying at the time.

And when the rest of the world slammed Israel for bombing Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981, Kemp praised the Jewish state.

Kemp also was one of a few voices in the U.S. government to defend Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon.

The move is “not only inevitable but justified,” he said at the time.

Today Kemp continues to strongly support Israel.

Israel’s security “is not a Republican cause. It’s an American cause,” Kemp said Sunday night.

Kemp informed the gathering that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whom he called a longtime friend, had called to wish him a “mazel tov.”

“With Bibi as prime minister of Israel and Bob Dole and Jack Kemp in the U.S., this is going to be a really exciting time for the world and our nation,” Kemp said to rousing cheers.

Republicans say Kemp means Jewish votes, but Democrats, who were prepared to pounce on whomever Dole chose as his running mate, say there is nothing the GOP can do to increase its support in the Jewish community.

“Bob Dole could have picked Herzl and he would lose in the Jewish community,” said Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council.

“This might help Bob Dole squeeze some more money out of the Jews on his finance committee, but it won’t get him one more Jewish vote.”

But Zalis argues that Kemp’s addition to the ticket will not only “bring Jewish Republicans home,” it could also force the so-called Reagan Democrats to consider the Republican party once again.

Both Republicans and Democrats agree that support for Israel is not enough to win Jewish support in November.

Positions on domestic economic and social issues could prove even more critical.

Jewish activists concerned about Republican-led cuts in welfare and immigration assistance say they are hopeful that Kemp, a self-described “bleeding heart conservative,” would be a voice for their concerns.

For Jewish Republicans, Kemp’s selection has renewed hopes that Dole can conquer Clinton’s commanding lead.

“This has got to be the Democrats worst nightmare,” said Matt Brooks, executive director of the National Jewish Coalition.

“The Democrats won’t know how to campaign against a man who has slept in public housing complexes,” said Brooks, an unabashed Kemp supporter.

(JTA correspondent Daniel Kurtzman in Washington contributed to this report.)

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