Looking at why Orthodox Jews have gone GOP

John McCain’s overwhelming 78-13 percent lead over Barack Obama among Orthodox Jews in this week’s American Jewish Committee poll was just the latest example of how Orthodox Jews – at least at the presidential level – have become strong backers of the GOP.

The reason? For Orthodox Jews, Israel is far and away the most important issue – and they have supported President George W. Bush’s handling of it, according to four Orthodox Jewish Democrats on a panel this week at the National Jewish Democratic Council’s Washington Conference. The panel also agreed, however, that Democrats could win some of them back.

“The Orthodox community is dramatically more concerned about Israel” than the rest of the Jewish community,” said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. “They’re almost united in having Israel as a preeminent concern,” compared to other Jewish voters for whom Israel is one of a number of issues.

Kean University political science professor Gil Kahn added that for the modern Orthodox community, Israel takes on greater importance because many of them have childen and other family members who have made aliyah.

That emphasis on Israel has combined with other factors to create the Republican surge. Kahn noted that a high percentage of Orthodox Jews have decided to back McCain because they’re listiening to Israeli Orthodox Jews, many of whom have said they are more comfortable with a president they’ve known for many years than a relative newcomer like Obama.

There’s also been a change in the last decade in Republican language on Israel. After Newt Gingrich was elected Speaker of the House , Republicans “began speaking about Israel in eschatological terms,” said Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO and rabbinic administrator of OU Kosher.

Mellman noted that Orthodox Jews also fit into the general shift in political party alignment in recent years – from being dictated by a voter’s economic situation (richer generally meant Republican) to based on cultural issues such as attendance at religious services (more religious means more Republican).

The panelists downplayed abortion specifically as a major factor in the Orthodox shift to the right, but said the differences in tone the two parties strike on values – a “sense of moral absolutism versus a sense of moral relativism” – was important. Democratic rhetoric such as “no one should tell you what to do with your body” is not language to which Orthodox Jews can relate, said Mellman.

No one thought the Orthodox community was a lost cause for Democrats, though. First of all, Kahn noted that Orthodox Jews still support plenty of Democratic candidates below the presidential level.

Another panelist offered some tips to the party. Democrats “need to have a big enough tent,” said Rabbi Yeruchim Silber, vice president of community affairs for the Metropolitan Jewish Health System, to make those who don’t agree with them on social issues more comfortable. He praised the party for allowing the anti-abortion Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) to speak at this year’s Democratic convention.

He also suggested the Democrats look at their stance on school choice. “It’s a crushing burden” paying for Jewish day school for multiple children, and whether it is vouchers, tuition tax credits or some other solution, the issue is a crucial one in the Orthodox community, Silber said. He added that emphasizing areas in which Democrats are in tune with the Orthodox community – such as backing for more affordable housing and increased funding for higher education – would also be effective.

He pointed out that Orthodox voters can change – recalling that Hillary Clinton didn’t receive much Orthodox support in her first Senate race in 2000, but had completely reversed that six years later.

Mellman agreed. “No one should give up on the Orthodox community” among Democrats, he said. “If we have a Democratic president like Barack Obama who is a strong supporter of Israel,” then “Democrats four years from now, eight years from now, will be in a much better position with the Orthodox community than we are today.”

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