WASHINGTON, Nov. 15 (JTA) — When Bill Bradley first ran for the Senate in New Jersey in 1978, many Jewish activists backed his Republican opponent, who was seen as a strong supporter of Israel and a friend to the Jewish community.
At the time, Bradley, who had retired a year earlier from a star-studded career with the New York Knicks, said he understood the Jews’ decision to support the incumbent, but stressed that he, too, would be a good friend to the Jewish community and expected the same support once he was in office.
He was right. He won that year and went on to serve three terms in the Senate — with strong Jewish support — before retiring in 1996.
Now, as Bradley takes on Vice President Al Gore for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, Jews, who make up one of the most consistent voting blocs within the party, are taking stock of Bradley’s career and his relationship with the Jewish community.
Many longtime Jewish activists in Washington say that although Bradley was always supportive on issues such as Israel and the plight of Soviet Jewry, he never took a leading role in sponsoring legislation.
They say this contrasts with Gore, who they describe as a leader on Jewish issues during his 16 years in the House and Senate and during his seven years as vice president of an administration strongly supported by many Jews.
Morris Amitay, who served as executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee from 1974 to 1980 and now heads a pro-Israel political action committee, said that while Bradley was “not particularly a Middle East maven,” officials at the pro-Israel lobby “always considered Bradley a good friend of Israel — a solid supporter” on issues such as foreign aid to Israel.
Several Jewish activists who worked with Bradley over the years said he tended to devote more of his interest and time to issues such as tax policy.
Still, Bradley has built up considerable Jewish financial and political support. And several of his top aides are Jews: Doug Berman, his campaign chairman; Gina Glantz, his campaign manager; spokesman Eric Hauser; and Marcia Aronoff, a top adviser who worked as an aide to Bradley while he was a senator and now is working out of his West Orange, N.J., campaign headquarters.
Indeed, Aronoff disputes the view that Bradley was not a leader on issues important to Jews. In a recent telephone interview, she detailed his successful efforts to pass legislation during the oil crisis — which stretched through the 1970s — that directed the Carter administration to fill U.S. petroleum reserves as a way to wean it from its dependence on oil from the Arab countries.
There was “nothing more important at that time then being willing to stand firm and free U.S. foreign policy from being hostage to OPEC,” Aronoff said.
“I don’t think Bradley takes a back seat to anyone in terms of what he accomplished,” added Aronoff.
She said Bradley strongly opposed the sale of AWACS, a sophisticated radar plane, to Saudi Arabia; was an early co-sponsor of 1995 legislation aimed at moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; and opposed a 1986 tax reform bill that would have taxed scholarships, including those some Orthodox institutions give their students.
In a speech last month to the Orthodox Union — the first to a major Jewish group since declaring his candidacy — Bradley indicated that he would be a friend to Jewish voters on key issues: Israel and religious freedom.
Bradley avoided direct political campaigning during the event held to honor retiring Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) for his decades of service defending Israel and promoting Jewish causes.
But Bradley, in recalling Moynihan’s ideals and accomplishments, seemed to imply his own goodness by association with the veteran New York senator, who had just weeks before endorsed Bradley’s campaign.
Bradley touched on Moynihan’s history as a statesman and as American ambassador to the United Nations, including his support for Soviet Jewry and his vehement defense of Israel against the 1975 United Nations resolution equating Zionism with racism.
Alluding to Moynihan’s sponsorship of the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Relocation Act, which requires the U.S. to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Bradley praised Moynihan’s support of Israel’s right to choose “the capital of its choice” as the recognition of “a simple truth translated to the law of the land.”
Bradley also stressed in his remarks the need for more legislation to protect religious freedom in America.
“Americans should never have to choose between their career and their conscience,” he said.
The remark seemed to be a nod to the Orthodox community, which has been taking the lead in lobbying Congress to pass legislation known as the Workplace Religious Freedom Act, which would give employers less latitude in deciding whether to accommodate a worker’s religious needs.
Rabbi Menachem Genack, head of the kashrut division of the Orthodox Union and a New Jersey Democratic Party activist close to both President Clinton and Gore, said both Bradley and Gore would make good presidents, but he thinks Gore would be better.
“I know where his heart is,” Genack said of Gore, expressing the view of many Jewish Democratic activists. He added that he believes that “there is no comparison” between Gore and Bradley’s leadership on Israel and other key issues.
While many of those who have worked with Bradley said he often left “Jewish issues” to his fellow Democrat from New Jersey, Sen. Frank Lautenberg, Aronoff, Bradley’s adviser, disputed that view.
Other Bradley activists said they are supporting him because he addresses social and domestic issues dear to many Jews.
June Fischer, a longtime Jewish and Democratic activist from Scotch Plains, N.J., said Bradley “addresses the pluralistic issues I was weaned on,” noting that he opposes school prayer, backs reproductive freedom and supports minority and gay rights.
“Bill Bradley is just a comforting factor,” said Fischer, who is active on the campaign. “He is all- inclusive.”
Although Bradley as a senator supported various experimental programs that would give money or tax credits to parents who send their children to private or parochial schools — a position long anathema in most Jewish Democratic circles — his aides have said he does not believe vouchers are the “answer to curing public schools.”
However, Aronoff said Bradley is “willing to look at any reasonable ideas” that will help students learn.
Nancy Beren, a longtime Jewish and Democratic activist in Houston who raised money for Clinton and Gore in the past, said this time she is backing Bradley.
“My support of Bradley is not against Gore,” she said. “I am for Bradley.”
Rep. Jerold Nadler, (D-N.Y.), a Jewish legislator who represents parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn, said that he believes both Bradley and Gore are good on issues of Jewish concern. But he is supporting Bradley because he believes he is a “much more electable candidate” against the eventual Republican nominee, who at this point appears to be Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
Recent polls show Bush easily beating either Gore or Bradley in a two-person race.
Nadler said in a recent interview with JTA that he thinks Bradley “is articulating a more progressive and forward-looking vision than anyone else in the campaign.” He cited Bradley’s proposals for universal heath-care coverage and public financing of political campaigns.
“I think Bradley will have a lot of support” from Jews, Nadler said in a recent interview.
Some other prominent Jews who have thrown their support behind Bradley include Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.); Abe Pollin, owner of the Washington Wizards; Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks; and Louis Susman of Solomon Brothers.
It is difficult to assess Jewish financial giving to Bradley because he does not accept political action committee contributions or “bundled” contributions, which is money that is given to a group that in turn passes the money to the candidate earmarked by the contributor.
But Ira Forman, the executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Coalition, said Bradley “has gotten very significant support from the Jewish community.”
And although Gore easily leads Bradley in various national polls, recent polling of the Jewish Democratic vote in New York — where Jewish voters make up 25 percent of Democratic voters — indicates that the two candidates will be battling for the Jewish vote there.
In surveying 375 Jewish Democrats over the course of seven to eight months, pollster John Zogby’s numbers show Bradley leading Gore 40.5 percent to 32.4 percent. Those figures fell within the margin of error for the poll, which was plus or minus 5 percent.