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America Decides 2004 Kerry Reaches out to Jews As Campaign Gains Momentum

March 2, 2004
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Now that he’s proven he’s electable, John Kerry is ready to tell Americans why he should be elected.

Only in recent days has the Massachusetts senator started to outline detailed policy positions. Some of these having to do with foreign policy and terrorism have been of particular interest to Jewish voters.

One measure of his new seriousness was a New York meeting Sunday with about 40 Jewish organizational leaders, where Kerry elaborated at great length on his Middle East policies.

All participants interviewed by JTA described the closed-door meeting as successful.

“It would be impossible for anyone to leave that meeting not impressed,” said Hannah Rosenthal, the executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

Until now, Kerry’s campaign says, the candidate has had little breathing room for such explanatory encounters because of the grueling primary schedule and because his energies were devoted to his come-from-behind triumphs.

“We had one path to win, and that path went through Iowa,” Cameron Kerry, the candidate’s brother and one of his closest advisers, told JTA last week when asked why it took so long for the campaign to engage Jews and other constituencies. “We pulled down most of the campaign in the rest of the country to follow that path.”

That effort gave Kerry a late start in other states, including those with major Jewish populations, like New York and California, which were among the 10 states voting in Super Tuesday.

“It’s been a whirlwind five weeks in which we’ve been trying to stay a half-step ahead of the next stage,” Cameron Kerry said. “It’s hard in the context of 10 states in two weeks to run as intensive and localized a campaign as we’d like to.”

The campaign has hired a Jewish coordinator for New York, Lisa Gertsman. But Cameron Kerry, who converted to Judaism 20 years ago when he married a Jewish women, is key to the campaign’s Jewish outreach effort.

Kerry spent the days leading up to Super Tuesday in New York, attending Friday-evening services at Ramath Orah, an Orthodox synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

Cameron Kerry says he also has reached out to friends in Boston’s Jewish community for campaign support.

The Kerry brothers’ own Jewish background — their paternal grandparents were born Jewish in the former Austro-Hungarian empire — gained a further wrinkle over the weekend when an Austrian genealogist revealed that two Kerry relatives died in Nazi concentration camps.

Participants at the New York meeting said they were surprised by how long Kerry had taken to reach out to Jews. But they accepted his explanation, noting that recent changes to the primary schedule — front-loading contests to the first three months of the year — had created a “crushing” campaign.

“It was the first time we’ve had to test these issues and it was an important exchange,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

A come-from-behind victory on Jan. 19 in Iowa propelled Kerry — who as o late as November was subject to “when will he drop out” speculation — to 18 of 20 victories.

Confident that he would sweep the primaries this week — including New York and California, the states with the country’s largest Jewish communities — Kerry is more confident about speaking out against President Bush’s views.

Last week, he forcefully defended Israel’s right to build its West Bank security barrier after a Palestinian suicide bomber killed eight people in Jerusalem.

“Israel’s security fence is a legitimate act of self defense,” Kerry said, a salve to Jews who had been concerned after Kerry described the fence to an Arab American audience in the fall as a “barrier to peace.”

Cameron Kerry said his brother’s positions were consistent, and that in the remarks to Arab Americans, Kerry was referring to doubts at the time about the route of the fence.

Israel’s recent negotiations with the United States about the route of the fence have alleviated those concerns, the campaign said.

Another important policy statement was Kerry’s speech on terrorism, delivered last Friday at the University of California at Los Angeles. He emphasized the need to reinforce alliances he says Bush has neglected in order to track down terrorists and cut off their funding.

Participants at Sunday’s meeting said the candidate went into unprecedented detail on how a Kerry presidency would deal with the Middle East.

“He was able to talk to the complexity,” said Judith Stern Peck, president of the Israel Policy Forum, which promotes greater U.S. engagement in the region. “He knows Israel; he’s been going there for years.”

Kerry displayed a wide-ranging command of the issues, participants said, addressing the failure of the Oslo Accords, the collapse of accountable authority in the Palestinian Authority, the role of neighboring Arab regimes and demographic threats to Israel’s future as a Jewish state.

Peck said Kerry managed to reach everyone in the room, which represented the spectrum of American Jewish opinion.

“He was able to address everyone in the room, and there were people in the room on all points of the continuum,” she said.

One feature of Kerry’s outlook was using U.S. leverage with Arab allies to end incitement and pressure the Palestinians into making peace.

He recounted an incident in which he called Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to account for anti-Semitism in the Egyptian media; Mubarak protested that he did not control the media, and Kerry countered that he knew that Mubarak indeed did exercise some control.

Such relationships with long-standing Middle East players stood Kerry in good stead with those attending the meeting.

“He painted a picture that a Kerry presidency would be more engaged” on Israeli-Palestinian peace, “and build on the relationships he has and would hold others accountable,” Rosenthal said.

Abraham Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s national director, said the meeting helped lay to rest a nagging concern — that relentless Democratic criticism of Bush’s foreign policy implied criticism of Bush’s closeness to Israel.

“He tried to exempt Israel from the critique of Bush’s foreign policy,” Foxman said, saying Kerry agreed with administration policy on isolating Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, supporting Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s plan for unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and on the security fence.

“Politically, it’s very smart,” Foxman said of the strategy.

Kerry also implicitly backed away from earlier remarks touting former President Jimmy Carter and former Secretary of State James Baker as potential envoys to the region.

This time, he named figures regarded as much more favorable to U.S. Jews, including former top Middle East envoy Dennis Ross and Sandy Berger, Clinton’s national security adviser.

Kerry said he would more aggressively pursue disarming Iran of its nuclear capability, saying the Bush administration has not done enough.

Some participants said they wanted to hear more. Jack Rosen, president of the American Jewish Congress, said an hour wasn’t long enough to get the whole story.

“President Bush’s support for Israel has been exceptional,” Rosen said. “That doesn’t mean that Sen. Kerry’s can’t be as exceptional,” but “it’s fair to hear out all the details, and that couldn’t be done in just a one hour session.”

Rosen, a longtime Democrat who has been very supportive of Bush, wanted to know more about the multilateralism Kerry advocates in the Middle East, noting that Israel has not favored bringing outsiders into the process.

Republican strategists suggested that Kerry’s vulnerabilities in the Jewish community would have more to do with terrorism than with Israel.

“He hasn’t been strong in the defense functions of this country,” former Montana Gov. Marc Racicot, the chairman of Bush’s re-election campaign, said. “He certainly has not addressed the issues with the bright-line devotion and clarity that the president has. We feel there is an opportunity to secure a larger share of the Jewish vote because of the president’s positions on these issues.”

Cameron Kerry said that the Kerry campaign would emphasize his brother’s leadership record as far back as his heroism as a Vietnam War lieutenant and his central role in protesting the war after his return.

“In a fight situation, there’s no one I’d want more on my side than John,” he said during an interview at JTA’s headquarters.

Some participants at the Jewish leadership meeting also expressed disappointment that Kerry never got around to discussing domestic issues of concern to Jews.

“Surely the community’s fundamental value of taking care of the vulnerable populations should have been up there on top of the agenda,” Rosenthal said.

Cameron Kerry said that he believed his brother — like his party — was in lockstep with U.S. Jews on domestic issues. Of particular concern, he said, was the Bush’s administration’s appointment of hard-line conservative judges to appeals courts.

“It makes me heartsick,” he said. “I have every reason to believe they are going to undermine civil rights in this country.”

Ultimately, Cameron Kerry said, his brother would continue to be his own best council.

“He’s somebody who really sifts through all sides, he likes to have the facts, he’s got an inquiring mind,” he said. “He doesn’t accept ideas filtered for him. He tests, challenges, is a devil’s advocate, but in the end — once he’s made up his mind — it’s full speed ahead.”

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