The Mormons’ Joe Lieberman Moment


Tampa — A member of the Mormon faith compared Mitt Romney’s acceptance of the Republican presidential nomination here to Joe Lieberman’s acceptance of the Democratic Party’s nomination as vice president in 2000.

“Much like Joe Lieberman’s nomination was unique in the sense that it made the Jewish community proud, we see the same thing,” explained Gregory Smith, a former pro-Israel activist at Brigham Young University, referring to Romney’s Mormon faith. “We feel emboldened as Mormons. We don’t care which political party he is. … Whenever members of our faith do something spectacular, we are proud. … We are very proud a Mormon is on the ticket. It is something I am proud of on a personal level, and feel that America at large is more accepting of my faith.”

Smith, who works for the American Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC), stressed that he was speaking as an individual and was not endorsing any candidate.

He spoke at a roundtable discussion about Mormon-Jewish relations sponsored by the American Jewish Committee shortly before the Republican convention kicked off Tuesday’s session. Joining him for the discussion was Abraham Peck, executive director of the Center for Catholic-Jewish Studies at St. Leo University in Florida. Peck pointed out that while the Jewish community has worked hard in its outreach to the Catholic and Protestant churches, the Mormon Church “has stood on the sidelines of the dialogue.”

He pointed out that the Mormons believe “that the people Israel … have never lost their original covenantal relationship to God.”

It is, he said, “a religious community that has always hoped and prayed for a Jewish return to the Land of Israel, not so that the ingathering of Jews will result in their conversion to Christianity, but because it is part of God’s plan and eternal covenant with the people Israel. The American Jewish community is just beginning to discover what it has in common with the church, while for the past few decades it has discovered what it does not — an unfortunate disagreement over the question of the baptism of Jewish dead into the Mormon Church, especially in the case of Holocaust victims.”

But, Peck went on to say, Rabbi Noam Marans, director of the AJC’s interreligious and intergroup affairs, just returned from a meeting with members of the Mormon Church hierarchy in Salt Lake City, and came away convinced that the “controversy is largely over and settled.”

He said the church has provided assurances that this practice will not happen again and that it even put in place electronic safeguards to prevent a member of the church from doing this on his own.

Smith agreed that the Mormon historical practice of posthumously baptizing Holocaust victims is “very upsetting.” He said the purpose had not been to “make them Mormons” but rather to give them “the opportunity to accept the Gospel we teach in the afterlife.”

The two men stressed that Judaism and Mormonism have much in common and that future dialogues should concentrate on the commonalities rather than dealing immediately with the theological differences.

The 4,400 delegates and alternates were anxious to get to the Tampa Bay Times Forum for the start of the convention Tuesday, which began with the invocation by Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, who is director of Yeshiva University’s Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought, and is also associate rabbi of Kehilath Jeshurun in Manhattan. The threat of Hurricane Isaac resulted in the cancellation of convention activities Monday and delegates wanted to get out and begin the roll call to officially nominate Romney for president. Many grumbled about Monday’s cancellation because the hurricane didn’t come here but rather veered away towards New Orleans. The most that the delegates saw of the hurricane was a lot of rain and some wind.

While it was clear in speaking with delegates and elected officials that the dominant theme of this convention will be the anemic economy, the subject of Israel wasn’t far from people’s minds.

Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina revealed here that he is rounding up support for a Senate resolution that would concretize what President Barack Obama meant when he said in March that the U.S. is firmly committed to Israel and added: “I have Israel’s back.”

“I’m trying to get a broad-based bipartisan resolution that we will roll out in September,” he told The Jewish Week. In response to a question, Graham said that Independent Sen. Joe Lieberman supports the resolution. “Having your back has to be concrete,” Graham said. “It cannot create a mystery; it needs clarity. We have to preserve the Jewish state from the existential threat of a nuclear-capable Iran.”

Asked if it means the U.S. would provide planes to refuel Israeli jets that might be called upon to fly to Iran to destroy its nuclear development sites, Graham replied: “It means a robust assistance program of military, political and economic aid to Israel.”

He said he had not discussed this yet with Romney but that he believes Romney “would certainly embrace the idea that having your back means complete support to Israel at a time they need critical economic, military and political support the most.”

Other Republicans took aim at Obama as well on the Israel front.

Rep. Peter King of Long Island said there is a perception among American Jews that “Obama has not shown unyielding support for Israel. … And that translates into not being supportive of Jews. … It’s not having a sense of simpatico with the Jewish community.”

Rep. Bob Turner of Queens and Brooklyn agreed that there are serious doubts about Obama’s Middle East policies and promised support for Israel.

“I think for most people there is a legitimate question of his commitment and how strong it will be after Nov. 6,” he said.

For the GOP, of course, the convention provides a chance for both Romney and his vice presidential running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, to introduce themselves to the nation.

“If you are going to be president of the United States, people have to understand what you are all about,” said Edward Cox, chairman of the New York State Republican Committee.

He said the recent attention Romney has been devoting to explaining his Mormon religion — both in television interviews and at the convention itself — is to be expected because “religion is a big part of who he is; he has been a bishop in his church.”

“He is a man who has had a very successful family life … he was governor of Massachusetts and in the quasi-private world he made the winter Olympics in Salt Lake City [in 2002] something to be proud of. If people don’t understand about you, it’s hard from them to vote for you. … He does believe in our creator; he is a religious person. He has very deep roots as a person with values.”

In conversations with delegates and others here in hotel halls, at parties and elsewhere, there was a real conviction that Romney would defeat Obama. As one man observed, “Obama has lost a lot of the support he had when he galvanized the country four years ago; which new group of voters has Obama picked up?”

John Canning, a former Nassau County legislator, said he has heard “a lot of Democrats and independents who voted for Obama four years ago say they are not going to vote for him again and would be voting for the Romney team.”

But others said they have spoken with those who voted for Obama last time and are now so disenchanted that they plan to sit out the election. They said it is the job of the Romney-Ryan team to convince them that their vote is more important than ever this year.

A man from Wisconsin, the home state of Romney’s running-mate Rep. Paul Ryan, said he has known Ryan for years and likes him very much for his ability to grasp numbers and understand budgets.

“He is authentic — what you see is what you get,” said Walter Frohboese of suburban Milwaukee, adding that Obama is simply fooling the public by speaking about “tax neutral” plans to save Medicare.

Rep. Turner picked up the Medicare theme.

He said also that Obama has no plan to protect Medicare and Social Security and that “the Republicans put forth a plan that tells us how we can save it for this generation and the next generations. What [Obama] is essentially saying is, ‘Vote for me and I will take care of it,’ without telling us how. And he has no plan to end deficit spending. His solutions so far are slogans like ‘tax the top 1 percent’ [of income earners]. Mathematically that doesn’t work. So we have to ask ourselves, what is his plan?”

Asked about the gender gap and Romney’s apparent difficulty connecting with women, Cox, the chair of New York’s Republican Committee, replied: “Women are just as concerned as men about jobs, because a large number of them work. They are concerned about the deficit, because they are worried about their family budget and understand that they have to spend less. The average family has lost 40 percent of its net worth primarily because of home prices. … Families are hurting, and women understand that average income is down by $4,000 under Obama. They are worrying because their children are graduating from college and coming home because they have no job — and Obama has ignored that problem.”