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America Decides 2004 Whither the Jewish Vote? Ask a Group of Activist Jews

March 25, 2004
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“This is so hard,” fretted Stephanie Grossman after listening to a friendly Jewish debate over the merits of George W. Bush vs. John Kerry as president.

President Bush, for now, appeared to trump Sen. Kerry on Israel, said the Atlanta doctor, who was attending this week’s United Jewish Communities young leadership conference.

“I’m a true-blue Democrat and I really see the Republican administration as more supportive of Israel, and I see a lot of Democrats support the Palestinians unfairly, and I don’t know what Kerry’s stand is,” she said. “It even crossed my mind to vote for Bush despite how horrible he is on the other issues.”

It was a common dilemma expressed by Jews from across the country, ages 25 to 40, who were gathered this week for three days of workshops on issues of concern to the Jewish community. The conference was capped by a morning of lobbying in Congress.

In this heated election year, when the Jewish vote is a major topic of discussion, the gathering provided an opportunity to take the political pulse of a self-selected group of some 1,800 Jews interested enough in Jewish affairs to make the trek to Washington.

Their political views balance a commitment to Israel with the bread-and-butter issues that make up the day-to-day lives of all Americans.

“For me it’s domestic,” said Emily Buchsbaum, a fund-raiser for a non-profit health-care organization in Baltimore. “I know the unseen victims of domestic violence, the elderly who need to be taken care of with respect.”

The combination of domestic and foreign concerns was reflected in the four lobbying issues the delegates brought to Capitol Hill and their lawmakers on Tuesday: emergency funds for Medicaid; money to help secure Jewish buildings from terrorist attacks; support for Israel’s West Bank security barrier, and concern about Iran’s weapons of mass destruction.

The conference’s keynote speaker, Rabbi David Saperstein of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, attempted to place the four issues under a single rubric: social justice.

“Conservative and liberal, Democratic and Republican — Jewish values and interests are best served when they are heard across the political spectrum,” Saperstein said.

It was a message that resounded with some.

“They’re all social justice issues,” said David Perla, the vice president of an employment company in Boston.

Susan Kardos, a project leader at Harvard University’s graduate school of education, said she didn’t draw a particular Jewish line through her political thinking.

“The issues of interest to the Jewish community are the issues of interest to American society,” Kardos said.

Mark Rubenstein, the executive director of New Orleans’ historic Touro Synagogue, said Israel would not trump his concern for other issues, especially the stagnant economy.

“Both of the candidates are pro-Israel, and even if one of the candidates was stronger or weaker, you can’t only focus on Israel policies,” Rubenstein said, adding that he would vote Kerry in November.

Rubenstein appeared to reflect the conference’s majority.

Howard Brown, who runs a Jewish out of San Francisco, said Jewish views coincided with wider American views on some issues, and split with most Americans on others.

For some Jews in San Francisco, Brown said, Bush’s proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage would overwhelm Israel considerations.

Other Jews might part with their liberal friends who are angry over the Iraq war and the perception that the president misled the country on the reasons for going to war.

“For me, the fact that Saddam Hussein isn’t sending $20,000 to suicide bombers’ families is important,” Brown said.

Tracey Rubenstein, Mark Rubenstein’s wife, said the issues that concerned her — preserving reproductive rights and promoting gay rights — were Jewish issues because she saw them as human rights issues.

Eric Hamerman of Dallas said it was a stretch to believe one could unify Jews under issues that do not directly relate to supporting Israel or combating anti-Semitism.

“The challenge facing the Jewish community is that 10 years ago, when I was in college, the Jewish community spoke in one voice on many issues,” he said. “At this point Israel is the only thing we agree on.”

As an example he cited the plan to lobby on Medicaid. He said he would have preferred to focus on job creation, saying that increasing unemployment would likely lead him to vote for Kerry in November.

Despite the universal concerns of many American Jews, concern about specific Jewish issues is increasing among them, said Ellen Cannon, a political scientist from Northeastern Illinois University who tracks Jewish voting patterns.

The majority of U.S. Jews still emphasize universal issues in their political concerns, but two growing subgroups lean to more Jewish concerns.

Outlining the two, Cannon told a conference workshop that Orthodox Jews emphasize their concern for Israel’s survival above all, and would tend to support Bush. Another subgroup, he said, worries about Bush’s economic policies because they link an increase in poverty and the demise of the middle class to an increase in anti-Semitism.

Sharon Kirshenbaum, who moved to Omaha, Neb., from New York City 12 years ago, cited another factor in sharpening her Jewish identity: being a distinct minority.

“In Omaha, you have to work every day to be Jewish,” she said.

The Jewish issue she was bringing to the voting booth was extra funds to secure Jewish institutions, Kirshenbaum said — something Clinton also highlighted.

Kirshenbaum worried that Republicans would resist earmarking $100 million for security support for Jewish community institutions, which Clinton proposed. The legislation, expected to be introduced in the Senate soon, would provide federal grants to help high-risk institutions shore up security measures.

“In Omaha, we used to think we were safe,” she said. “Now, nobody thinks they’re safe.”

Cannon says she sees Jewish particularism as positive because of the increased threat to Israel and to Jews abroad.

“Not since the Shoah has the issue of American Jews standing up for Jewish survival been as pivotal as it is today,” she said.

“Making sure our people were never in a position of powerlessness again — this is why I ran for Congress,” she said. “Our clout far exceeds our numbers. The secret is going to be how to keep it that way.”

She advised Jews to choose a candidate, then “walk a precinct, do a coffee for them, make phone calls.”

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