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On the Campaign Trail: Perot; Still an Enigma to the Jewish Electorate

Four years after Ross Perot ventured into the political fray, the Texas billionaire remains a largely unknown quantity on issues important to the American Jewish electorate.

Perot’s Reform Party has yet to adopt a platform or elaborate on its “Principles of Reform,” a one-page outline that calls for a balanced budget amendment, term limits for members of Congress, the creation of a new tax system, campaign finance and lobbying reform, and changes in government entitlement programs, but offers few specifics.

Beyond that, Perot himself has given little indication of the policies and positions he would advance as president.

“It’s hard for him to have positions that are attractive to the Jewish community when he doesn’t have positions,” said Mark Mellman, who heads the Washington-based Mellman Group, a Democratic polling firm.

What Perot does have is a record of mixed messages relating to Jews and Jewish interests that many in the community are still trying to decipher.

And of new concern this time around is his recent embrace of the New Alliance Party, whose leadership is widely perceived as anti-Semitic.

In his first address to a Jewish audience after becoming a presidential candidate in 1992, Perot affirmed his support for Israel, saying that “you stand by your friends and it’s just that simple.”

Perot, however, opposed the Persian Gulf War — a position troubling to Jews who saw the war as important for both American interests and Israel’s safety.

Some observers and activists continue to see Perot, as they did four years ago, as naive and unsophisticated in his understanding of Israel and the Middle East.

In 1992, James Zogby, president of the Arab-American Institute, was invited to Dallas to brief Perot on the Middle East. Instead, Zogby said in a recent interview with The New York Times, Perot talked for 45 minutes straight.

“I don’t know those people,” Zogby recalled Perot saying. “I know the Japanese. But I don’t know the Arabs and the Jews. The Arabs, they’ve got money. The Jews, they know how to use it. You put them together, you’ve got business. And that’s what I understand: business.”

Perot is also known to hold special admiration for Ariel Sharon, Israel’s hard- line minister of infrastructure, whose tough style Perot respects, according to his friends.

He met with Sharon, along with other Israeli officials, during a visit to Israel in the late 1960s.

In 1987, Perot became the first recipient of the Raoul Wallenberg Award for a lifetime of public service embodying “the spirit, courage and dedication” of the Swedish diplomat who saved more than 100,000 Jews from the Nazis in World War II.

The award was given by the Raoul Wallenberg Committee of the United States and the American Committee for the Shaare Zedek Medical Center.

In particular, Perot was honored for the 1969 international campaign he organized for the release of American prisoners of war in Vietnam, as well as the 1979 rescue he orchestrated of two of his company’s employees jailed in revolutionary Iran.

“The things he did were just incredible,” Perot said of Wallenberg upon receiving the award.

“He had to go up against [Adolf] Eichmann,” but “he had nothing but gall, bluff, brains, wits, creative ability,” Perot said.

Jewish leaders from Perot’s hometown of Dallas, meanwhile, were unable to recall specific instances of Perot reaching out to the local Jewish community.

Some, however, have pointed to Perot’s close relationship with Morton Meyerson, a Jew who has long been Perot’s right-hand man.

Meyerson is the former president of Electronic Data Systems, Inc., the company Perot founded, and now heads Perot Systems. Perot has frequently hailed him as “the great builder of my company.”

In his recent speech accepting the nomination of the Reform Party he founded and has financed, Perot invoked Meyerson’s family history — his grandfather had to flee Russia because he was Jewish — as a symbol of the opportunities available in the American melting-pot.

Meyerson could not be reached for comment.

Perot and Meyerson, however, both came under fire in 1992 when it was revealed that Perot’s company fired an Orthodox Jew for wearing a beard in the early 1980s. At the time, Perot and Meyerson said they had no knowledge of the case.

In another instance, an Orthodox Jewish woman was fired in 1985 from EDS after she failed to show up at work on Sukkot.

Both incidents were publicized during the 1992 campaign and roundly rebuked by Jewish officials.

In a 1992 interview about the beard incident with Peter Jennings on ABC television, Perot said, “In terms of your inference of discrimination, please don’t lose sight of the fact that the great builder of EDS happened to be a Jew, Mort Meyerson.”

However, when Perot’s daughter was engaged to a Jewish man several years ago, that was a different story.

An anonymous source quoted in a 1992 article in the New Republic magazine recalled Perot saying in conversation: “You don’t think that I’d let my daughter marry a Jew?”

Recently, Perot and his Reform Party have come under a barrage of criticism for working with supporters of the now defunct New Alliance Party, a party best known for running Lenora Fulani for president in 1988 and 1992.

Fulani has described herself as “militantly anti-Zionist” and has publicly allied herself with Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.

She once said black anti-Semitism could be attributed to “the very backward and reactionary role that many Jewish people have played, I think, under the guise and politics of Zionism.”

“I do not believe it is insignificant that a slumlord is Jewish,” she was quoted as saying on another occasion.

The New Alliance’s founder, Fred Newman, has also reportedly voiced anti- Semitic views.

Newman, who was born Jewish, has been quoted as saying that Jews as a people have “sold their souls to the devil,” by making themselves “the storm troopers of decadent capitalism against people of color the world over.”

Throwing their full weight behind the Reform Party, Newman and Fulani have organized their followers to work for Perot by distributing literature and collecting the signatures needed to put him on the ballot in as many states as possible.

In a recent appearance with Newman and Fulani on Fulani’s public-access talk show, Russell Verney, the Reform Party’s national coordinator, toasted their “common interests, common goals,” and thanked them for their efforts on behalf of the Reform Party.

Perot communications director Sharon Holman would not comment on how the campaign is reconciling Fulani’s and Newman’s anti-Semitic overtones, saying only, “We’re an inclusive campaign.”

The Perot campaign, meanwhile, has yet to make any significant efforts to reach out to Jewish voters.

Asked to cite reasons for Jews to back Perot over Clinton or Dole, Holman said, “We’re talking about restoring trust in our government and we’re talking about a sound fiscal policy.

“I think that message resonates with all Americans no matter what their nationality, religion or race.”

Whether Jews will back the messenger is, of course, another question.

Perot’s “isolationist orientation is frankly somewhat off-putting to a lot of Jews,” said Mellman of the Mellman Group.

The Reform Party movement “is a grass-roots populism with an authoritarian demeanor, which probably scares more Jews than it attracts,” said Ed Millet, research director of the Washington-based Polling Company, a conservative research center.

Current polls show Perot with less than 10 percent of the vote, well short of the 19 percent he captured in 1992.

Perot received 9 percent of the Jewish vote in 1992, while Clinton received 80 and Bush 11.

Still an enigma to most Jewish voters four years later, pollsters expect that Perot will garner even less Jewish support this time around.

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