PHILADELPHIA, July 31 (JTA) — Clifford May, director of communications for the Republican National Committee, jokes that there is a common bond between being Jewish and being Republican: Both are hard to explain to the outside world.
Vivian Young, a Jewish communal activist in Philadelphia, agrees, with one exception: She often avoids the explanation.
“I’m definitely in the minority” as a Jewish Republican, Young says, sipping a drink at a Jewish community-sponsored event on the eve of the Republican National Convention here.
As a result, she says, “I tend not to discuss politics with people.”
The hundreds of Jewish delegates and supporters gathered for this week’s convention are well aware they represent a minority in the political fabric of American Jewry.
But despite their minority status, they are passionate advocates of a party they believe best serves the interests of their families, their community and their country.
“If you don’t have a prejudice” against the Republican Party and “you’re listening and looking, you’ll find a strong awareness of Jewish concerns within the party,” says Cheryl Halpern, national chairman of the Republican Jewish Coalition, which hosted a series of convention-related events this week.
Fully three separate Jewish-sponsored events on Sunday preceded the convention’s Monday night opening, though at least one of those events — a community celebration co-sponsored by the United Jewish Communities and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — featured arguably as many non- Jews and Democrats active in the Jewish community as there were Jewish Republicans.
One attendee, Kendal Unruh of Colorado — who dressed in a long skirt fashioned after the American flag and identified herself as part of a contingent from the Christian Coalition — expressed bewilderment that so many Jews vote Democratic when the Republican Party, and particularly its evangelical Christian component, is so supportive of Israel.
Indeed, it is common knowledge that Jews vote overwhelmingly Democratic, particularly in presidential elections.
While most Republican Jews foster no illusions that the 2000 presidential race between Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore will deviate from that tradition, many express optimism that shifts in the Jewish and political landscape bode well for a future link between Jews and the Republican Party.
And some suggest that that link already has appeared in state and local races, where Jews have thrown their support in recent years behind, for example, Republican mayoral candidates in New York, Philadelphia and Los Angeles.
They also believe that Bush, with his slogan of “compassionate conservatism,” can speak to American Jews in ways that the old, harsher message of the Republican Party often didn’t.
“The word Republican still tends to scare the hell out of American Jews,” said Murray Friedman, a historian and the mid-Atlantic regional director of the American Jewish Committee, which also hosted several events on the sidelines of the convention.
The word conservatism, in contrast, rolls a little easier off the tongue, Friedman said, speaking at a pre-convention forum sponsored by the AJCommittee on “The Republican Party and the Jewish Community.”
Summarizing a case he made in a recent article in Commentary magazine, “Are Jews Moving to the Right?” Friedman said the idea of “compassionate conservatism” can be very attractive to Jews.
Still, Friedman said, Jews are largely put off by the Christian right, and the issues such as abortion and school prayer, on which they seek to influence the Republican Party.
To the degree that evangelical leaders Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell are seen as “part of the arsenal of Republican ideas and supporters,” Friedman said, “Jews will have difficulty making a final move to the right.”
Indeed, many Jewish delegates at the convention sought to distance themselves from some of the social issues espoused by the party platform.
“I’m a pro-choice Republican” who doesn’t support the Republican platform on the abortion issue, Pennsylvania state Sen. Robert Jubelirer said at the AJCommittee event.
But that should not be an issue on which to base one’s vote, he said, echoing the view of many of the Jewish delegates who said they were pro- choice.
Several also said they did not believe that Bush was seeking to overturn Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion, and they took him at his word that the abortion issue would not be a litmus test for any potential appointee to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Instead, the delegates here focused on the economic and foreign policy issues being touted by Bush and his party.
In the area of church-state separation, some Jewish Republicans see a gradual shift in what one called the “absolutist” position on issues such as vouchers and faith-based domestic programs.
“Just as we are reassessing the role of religion in American Jewish life, we also have to look again at the role of religion in American life,” said Elliott Abrams, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a Washington-based think tank.
Abrams, who led a round-table discussion about public policy issues of concern to the Jewish and Hispanic community, said the Jewish community is rightly beginning to reassess the issue of vouchers, funds that parents can use at public, private or parochial schools.
To continue to support public schools as an absolute value is “not a moral position,” Abrams said in an interview, when the public schools that Jews can choose are in affluent areas, as opposed to the failing inner city public schools many nonwhites are forced to attend.
Thomas Schatz points to his hometown of Washington as a good example where school choice, the option to send your child to any school in the district, works.
“Minority parents want vouchers,” said Schatz, president of a group called Citizens Against Government Waste.
Schatz, a 47-year-old who says he turned Republican some five years ago and is a new board member of the RJC, represents what veteran Jewish Republicans see as an encouraging shift among younger Jews.
“A predetermination to be a Democrat tends to resonate with the older Jewish voter” that doesn’t exist among younger Jews, Halpern said.
Acknowledging that Bush is unlikely to garner more than a quarter of the Jewish vote, if that, some say that the Jewish voices in the Republican Party — and the Jewish money — in the end is more important than Jewish votes.
Jewish ideas may be “more consequential than Jewish votes in the long run,” May said at an AJCommittee forum.
He cited Jewish thinkers in the neoconservative movement and listed as key Bush advisers Ari Fleischer, the candidate’s spokesman; Josh Boltun, a general policy adviser and Stephen Goldsmith, the former mayor of Indianapolis and a domestic policy adviser.