WASHINGTON (JTA) – The first day of the upcoming Democratic convention presents a classic Jewish conundrum: Chew over ideas or nosh?
A planned get-together at a Denver Jewish deli organized by top Jewish Democrats clashes with a keynote speech by a leading rabbi across town.
The conflict encapsulates the political convention experience – like minds socializing beneath the roar of soaring rhetoric.
Every four years, the conventions provide an opportunity for Jewish politicos and communal figures to flex some political muscle and mingle among the political elite. The Democrats are meeting in Denver from Aug. 24 to 29. The Republicans are in St. Paul, Minn., from Aug. 31 to Sept. 4.
Susan Turnbull, a vice chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, issued a Facebook invitation to Jewish friends to attend a “nosh” at Zaidy’s delicatessen in Denver at 2 p.m. Aug. 24, the convention’s first day.
Across town, the DNC is launching the convention at the same time with an interfaith gathering featuring Jewish, Roman Catholic, Protestant and Muslim clerics. The Jewish speaker is Rabbi Tzvi Weinreb, the executive vice president of the Orthodox Union.
“We really wanted to kick off the week in a spirit of unity and inclusion,” said Damon Jones, a DNC spokesman. “There’s no better way to do that than to bring people from multiple faiths together.”
The theme is in keeping with efforts by the presumptive Democratic candidate, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), to build bridges to faith communities, addressing a perceived gap between Democrats and believing Americans.
Obama has pledged to keep open President Bush’s faith-based office, funneling funds to faith groups to supplement government social service programs.
The platform committee, which last weekend finalized the party’s manifesto to be presented for approval at the convention, refers to that pledge, carefully hewing to Obama’s caveats: The program must carefully observe church-state separations. Critics say Bush has blurred those lines by giving money to programs that include proselytizing.
“We will empower grass-roots faith-based and community groups to help meet challenges like poverty, ex-offender re-entry and illiteracy,” according to a draft of the platform obtained by Working Life, a labor research group. “At the same time, we can ensure that these partnerships do not endanger First Amendment protections and that public funds are not used to proselytize or discriminate.”
The presence of a prominent Orthodox rabbi helps Obama’s efforts to reach out to conservative Jewish groups. Obama is acquainted with Nathan Diament, who heads the O.U.’s Washington office. They met at Harvard Law School in the early 1990s.
“I am honored to participate in the Democratic Convention’s interfaith gathering because this gathering is, in my view, the Democratic Party’s ‘endorsement’ of the critical role religious faiths play in American life,” Weinreb said in a statement.
The O.U. spokesman, Howie Beigelman, said Weinreb’s appearance was not an endorsement of Obama.
“We’ll be at both conventions, obviously,” Beigelman said. “It’s an event about the place of religion in the public square. It’s amazing that we are in a country like America where we can be doing this.”
The draft platform also strikes notes that should please the pro-Israel community across the political spectrum, while hewing closely to Obama’s emphasis on diplomacy in getting Iran to end its suspected nuclear program and intensified U.S. engagement in bringing about an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“The world must prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons,” the platform says. “That starts with tougher sanctions and aggressive, principled and direct high- level diplomacy, without preconditions.”
It concludes: “By going the extra diplomatic mile, while keeping all options on the table, we make it more likely the rest of the world will stand with us to increase pressure on Iran, if diplomacy is failing.”
The phrase “all options on the table” is a nod to groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby that wants it made clear to Iran that the United States is not counting out a military option. That position has been emphasized by Bush and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), the presumptive Republican nominee.
The Israel section of the platform is longer than most, running two long paragraphs.
“Our starting point must always be our special relationship with Israel,” it begins, and recommits Democrats to “a qualitative edge for its national security and its right to self-defense.”
If that sounds familiar, it’s because the section was lifted from previous Democratic platforms, including in 2004, when Democrats won 75 percent of the Jewish vote against Bush, who is widely considered the president friendliest to Israel.
Maintaining that continuity was the message that Ira Forman, the executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, brought when he delivered testimony to the platform committee Aug. 1.
“The Middle East planks of previous platforms have been carefully crafted and have served us well as a party and a country,” he said at the time. “We urge the Platform Committee to stick closely to the 2004 platform language.”
Darren Mackoff, an AIPAC spokesman, said: “The Democratic platform as approved by the Platform Committee in Pittsburgh last weekend reaffirms the party’s historic and special relationship between the United States and Israel.”
J Street, a pro-Israel group that presses for intensified negotiations in the Middle East, described the platform’s pledge to recommit to an active U.S. role as “nice” but suggested that it fell short.
“With time running out on the two-state solution, it’s not enough for the next president to commit again to trying,” Jeremy Ben-Ami, J Street’s director, said in an e-mail interview. “He will have to muster the political will for an intensive effort that brings the parties together, hammers out their differences and brings about an agreement.”
Conventions always have featured last-minute elements but this year, after an especially long primary season, the organizers are less than organized.
With just weeks to go, it’s still hard to pin down schedules at either event.
Neither the platform nor schedules are available from the Republicans yet, either. But a Republican National Committee spokeswoman told JTA to expect a focus on faith issues.
“Faith-based initiatives and family values are at the heart of our party,” said Yohana De La Torre.
The Republican Jewish Coalition, however, has published an event schedule.
It offers a telling contrast with the NJDC schedule, which emphasizes tributes to Jewish lawmakers.
Thirty Jewish Democrats serve in the U.S. House of Representatives and nine in the Senate. There is only one Jewish Republican in the House, Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), and two in the Senate. Instead, the RJC will honor governors and “pro-Israel” Republican lawmakers.
Still, don’t underestimate the Jewish presence at the Republican convention: Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), who was Al Gore’s running mate on the 2000 Democratic ticket, has endorsed McCain and will explain why. Lieberman and Cantor are under consideration for McCain’s vice presidential slot, although both are considered long-shots.
Lieberman’s wife, Hadassah, will address the RJC’s women’s luncheon, where the emphasis will be on policy – and other things as well. It’s taking place at the local Neiman Marcus and will feature a benefit fashion show for the Susan G. Komen Foundation, which funds research into a cure for breast cancer.
McCain is hoping to make inroads into the traditional Jewish tendency to vote Democratic. In fact, the Jewish vote will figure prominently into the Jewish programming, with both the NJDC and the RJC planning sessions on the subject at their respective conventions.
The Israel Project, a pro-Israel advocacy group, meanwhile, will host sessions about the broader vote as it relates to Mideast issues.
Missing this year is the traditional Jewish gala at each convention, jointly hosted in the past by AIPAC and the United Jewish Communities. Both organizations will have representatives at the conventions, but declined to say why they have opted out of the big party.