Even before he officially became the Democratic National Committee’s new chairman, Howard Dean was a source of contention. Questions about Dean’s support for Israel, which first made headlines during his run for the Democratic presidential nomination last year, resurfaced this week, just before he was elected leader of the Democratic Party, and have been exacerbated by advertisements from the Republican Jewish Coalition.
The criticism was expected. Some Democrats had worried that Dean would be a lightning rod for Republican attacks. But at a time when Democrats are trying to shore up their standing among Jewish voters, the presence of a national chairman whose support for the Jewish state is questionable could be a stumbling block.
“It certainly doesn’t help,” one Jewish Democratic operative said. “He suffers from the same bad perception. The same way the party got tainted, he got tainted.”
Dean, a former Vermont governor, was the subject of an e-mail smear campaign during the Democratic primaries last year after he made several off-the-cuff remarks suggesting the United States should take a more “even-handed” approach to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. The term is often understood in the Jewish community as a code word for being less supportive of Israel.
Dean was criticized at the time by other Democratic presidential candidates, including Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and other party leaders. Now those quotes have resurfaced in RJC ads that appeared this week in Roll Call, a Capitol Hill newspaper, and in Jewish newspapers across the country.
The ads feature Lieberman saying Dean’s comments “break a 50-year record in which presidents, Republican and Democrat, members of Congress of both parties have supported our relationship with Israel based on shared values.”
Jay Footlik, the Jewish liaison for Sen. John Kerry’s presidential campaign last year, also is quoted suggesting that centrist Jewish Democrats would be turned off by Dean as party chairman.
Lieberman said the ads don’t tell the full story.
“Gov. Dean responded to me and others by calling his comments a mistake,” Lieberman told JTA in a statement Tuesday. “I’m confident that as party chairman, Howard will uphold the Democratic Party’s historic commitment to support and strengthen our democratic ally Israel.”
The ads are being criticized by the Anti-Defamation League, in part because they feature an image of several men covered in white sheets with explosive vests, fawning over a young boy dressed to emulate a suicide bomber.
Democrats said the picture was too much, but the RJC’s executive director, Matt Brooks, defended it.
“I think we are all outraged by the photo, but unfortunately, that’s the reality of the world today,” Brooks said. “When he says it’s not our place to take sides, what he is saying is Israel should be forced to negotiate under the threat of terror.”
Brooks said the organization considered using a different photo, of Dean wearing a keffiyeh, a traditional Arab head covering.
Aside from the photo controversy, the ad raises questions about how Dean and the party he leads will be perceived among Jews. While his campaign fought against the criticism last year — and the National Jewish Democratic Council has circulated pro-Israel statements Dean made on the campaign trail — Dean suffers from the stigma of being seen as anti-Jewish, at least in some Jewish circles.
Jewish Democrats worked hard last year to quell the perception that the Bush administration and Republicans were stronger supporters of Israel than the Democrats were. While any shift of Jewish support to the Republicans was small, it was significant enough in some key swing states to effect outcomes.
Democratic operatives worry that Jews who are unsure about the party’s support for Israel — including traditional Democrats who backed Bush last year — might be turned off by Dean.
“The little comments and the questions they raise, you don’t have to have a seismic impact for it to matter,” said Dan Gerstein, a Democratic strategist. “Dean dug himself into a real hole with Jews concerned about U.S. support for Israel and who are wary of the Democrats for this.”
Ira Forman, the NJDC’s executive director, said he understood that such criticism of Dean was legitimate “from an attack-dog perspective.”
“It is incumbent on all of us to show all of what he has said,” Forman said. “I’m confident he is going to work with the Jewish community.”
Jewish Democrats say they welcome the opportunity to showcase Dean’s full record on Israel.
“What we want to talk about is not what Howard Dean may or may not have said, but what he’s going to say,” said Susan Turnbull, a Democratic activist in the Jewish community who was elected Saturday as the DNC vice chairwoman. “These attacks are unfounded, and what Howard Dean has said is he will never abandon Israel.”
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee issued a press release Monday congratulating Dean on his election.
“AIPAC has a long-standing relationship with Governor Dean,” said the statement by AIPAC President Bernice Manocherian and Executive Director Howard Kohr. “We are confident that as chair of the Democratic Party, Governor Dean will carry on the party’s deep and abiding commitment to a strong and unshakable relationship between the United States and Israel.”
Dean did receive some support from the Jewish community during his presidential campaign. He also often cited the fact that his wife, Judith Steinberg, is Jewish, and that his children chose to practice Judaism.
Dean participated in Chanukah celebrations with staffers on the campaign trail in New Hampshire, even reciting Hebrew prayers over the menorah.
Dean continued his Jewish acclamation Thursday at a party honoring his ascension to the DNC chairmanship. Presented with a shofar by the NJDC, Dean lifted it pressed it to his lips and blew.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.