When Fred Zeidman raised money in the Jewish community for George W. Bush’s presidential run in 2000, several Jewish supporters asked to give their donations in cash, afraid of having a public record of their transaction.
But this time around, Zeidman is not encountering timid Jews. He said many Jewish donors are eager to leap onto the Bush-Cheney bandwagon.
“The difference is night and day,” said Zeidman, whom Bush appointed as chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council in 2002. “You can’t believe how easy it is.”
Zeidman, a Houston resident who bills himself as a coordinator of Bush support in the Jewish community, said he and other Jewish fund-raisers for Bush say they have had little trouble raising the $200,000 needed to join the “Rangers club” — the top ranking of Bush’s financial backers.
More Jewish money is expected to be sent Bush’s way when Zeidman and other prominent Jews host Vice President Dick Cheney at a $2000-a-plate New York fund-raiser slated for Oct. 24. The event is geared toward the Jewish community; the invitation notes that “dietary laws will be observed.”
While all accounts seem to suggest that Bush is getting unprecedented financial support in the Jewish community, it is still unclear whether that financial support will translate into votes come November 2004.
Jews traditionally have voted largely for Democratic candidates in national elections, but Republicans are hoping that support for Bush’s foreign policy will mean a much stronger showing than the 19 percent he garnered in 2000.
In the fund raising realm, several big Republican donors, who contributed millions of dollars in “soft money” before new campaign finance laws were put into effect, also were leaders of the organized Jewish community.
This time around, Bush is raising funds outside the normal Republican Jewish circle, finding a new crop of donors willing to contribute to a candidate they see as fervently pro-Israel.
“I think that Israel, the war on terrorism and homeland defense are all coming together right now,” said Matthew Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition. He said Jewish donors “see leadership from this president in waging the war on terrorism as a critical thing.”
Already, the RJC says, Jewish donors are poised to give more to Bush coffers than three years ago. Brooks estimated that RJC leadership contributed or raised more than $7 million in 2000, and he expects that number to increase significantly this time around.
While much of that money is coming from Jews who backed Bush in 2000, some of the money is from Democratic converts and new donors.
The Bush fund-raising machine is riding a wave of support within segments of the American Jewish community for Bush’s policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Supporters point to his decision to disassociate from Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat as a defining moment for U.S. policy in the Middle East.
At a time of intense conflict in the region, some observers believe that foreign policy will play a greater role in picking a president.
While American Jews predominantly vote based on domestic issues and largely have a predisposition to vote Democratic, Middle East policy could be a larger factor than normal in 2004, said Ken Goldstein, a professor of political science and Jewish studies at the University of Wisconsin.
“We are at a time when there is a lot of uncertainty in the Middle East,” he said. “American Jews are feeling under attack because of Israel as well.”
He compared current times to 1980, when some Jewish support went to President Reagan because of concern about President Carter and the Iran hostage crisis.
“Everything we are doing is to give evidence to the president that the Jewish community is supportive of his policies on Israel,” Zeidman said.
Ever since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks transformed Bush into a wartime president — and coincided with an intensification of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — Republicans have been stressing what they say is a growing trend of support for Bush in the American Jewish community.
It’s a perception that Jewish Democrats combat fiercely.
Exit polls from the 2002 congressional elections showed that 35 percent of American Jews voted Republican, an increase from the 19 percent Bush received in 2000. But Democrats contest the exit polls — which were delayed almost a year because of data problems — and also suggested that they might not accurately predict support for Bush in 2004.
But while it is nearly impossible to tell whether there is indeed a new trend in Jewish politics, it is hard to ignore the anecdotal evidence that shows at least some big Jewish Democrats writing checks for Bush.
Jack Rosen, president of American Jewish Congress, has been backing Democratic presidential contenders for more than 20 years, but he said he recently cut a check for the president.
“I think basically what I am saying is we need to recognize what this president has done for Israel,” Rosen said.
He said that some of the Democratic candidates for president have been good on Israel — including some with long track records of support for the Jewish state — but it is impossible to be sure they will always side with the Jewish state when things get difficult.
Bush, he said, has proven himself.
“Until these candidates come out with a clear policy on the Israeli-Palestinian situation and Yasser Arafat, I’ve got to look at the president, who has set out a policy and been firm on that policy,” Rosen said.
While Democratic Jews have been trying to show that all of the would-be nominees are strong on the Middle East, they may be hurt by recent remarks by Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean.
The former Vermont governor recently suggested that the United States should have a more even-handed policy in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, raising the ire of some American Jews. Dean has since clarified his remarks and met with representatives of the Jewish community.
“The only possible way for Bush to make really significant gains in the Jewish community in 2004 is for the Democratic nominees to be perceived, rightfully or not rightfully, as anti-Israel,” said Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council. “And that is a phenomenon that will not happen.”
Forman is skeptical of the recent polling numbers touted by the RJC and said that support for Bush from the Jewish community is coming mostly from the organizational leadership, not voters.
“In the central core of some of these organizations in the Jewish community there is a pro-Bush chorus,” Forman said. “But if you look at the general electorate, it isn’t happening.”
Zeidman said that while Republicans are at an advantage right now, a Democratic nominee with a pro-Israel platform could balance Bush’s support in the Jewish community.
If that happens, Jews may look at social policy to break the tie, and that may bring more liberal, pro-Israel Jewish voters back into the embrace of the Democratic Party.
“A year from now, people are going to be focused on social issues,” he said. “That’s going to have a major influence on how people vote, and the campaign is well aware of that.”
That’s one of the reasons Zeidman and others are doing so much fund raising now. But he is confident that Bush’s support will not dissipate.
“People vote for or against an incumbent, not the people running against them,” he said. “It’s about support for the president or dissatisfaction with him.”
It doesn’t hurt that Bush has been heavily courting the Jewish community.
Aside from his Middle East policy, Bush has held numerous events geared toward a Jewish audience. He met during the High Holidays with a group of rabbis, and he welcomed the opening of an Anne Frank exhibit at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum with a reception for a wide spectrum of Jewish figures from across the country.
Bush and his advisers have reached out in subtler ways as well, including asking rabbis to give invocations at fund raisers.
Zeidman contends these actions are not direct pleas for votes, just acknowledgments of a continued relationship between the Republican administration and like-minded Jews.
“They have never courted the Jewish vote,” he said. “They understand too well the social issues and have no expectation of the Jewish vote.”
Goldstein says the Bush administration’s aim should not be to court the Jewish vote en masse, but to appeal to just enough Jewish voters to help sway key states, such as Florida and Pennsylvania.
“If he can get 30 percent of the Jewish vote and maintain Jewish financial support in key states, that can be crucial,” said Goldstein. “You don’t need 100 percent.”
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.