When President Bush sat down to dinner with about 120 Jews at the White House recently, many familiar faces in the organized American Jewish community ate at home.
Instead of Jewish organizational leaders, the guest list for the dinner, which honored the opening of an Anne Frank exhibit at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, included Jewish friends of the president, political supporters, rabbis and Jewish White House staffers.
Just two leaders of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations were chosen to represent the entire organized Jewish world.
The White House’s handpicked representation of the Jewish community was the latest in a number of events since Bush came to office two and a half years ago that have ruffled the feathers of American Jewish leaders.
Bush is seeking American Jewish support this summer for two very different agenda items — to find a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to win re-election for another four years in office.
But in seeking that support, some Jewish leaders say, this White House has sidestepped the traditionally liberal Jewish organizations because of frequent scuffles over domestic policy issues.
Instead, the administration has focused its efforts on ingratiating itself with more conservative Jewish leaders inside and outside the major policy groups, and on direct appeals to Jewish voters.
Public gestures, such as the June 11 White House dinner and Bush’s recent visit to the Auschwitz concentration camp, are seen as examples of such appeals. Instead of reaching out to the Jewish leadership, Bush used the Holocaust museum dinner to ingratiate himself with individual rabbis and Jewish leaders who support his Middle East policy and with potential donors, while sidelining those who have voiced opposition to some of his priorities.
Some Jewish leaders say the administration’s courting of the Jewish community is similar to Bush’s efforts to win black and Latino votes with strong stances on charitable choice and the nomination of minority judges. The difference, they say, is that the appeals to the Jewish community have also been attempts to circumvent the communal Jewish leadership.
The White House liaison to the Jewish community, Adam Goldman, and others at the White House did not respond to requests for on-the-record interviews.
White House officials privately defend their record, saying the Jewish community has been treated fairly and that inroads were made to most, if not all, Jewish organizations.
Logistical reasons have caused some Jewish leaders to be shut out of meetings or events, they say.
Some analysts have, for years, predicted a rightward shift in the Jewish vote, but the White House believes that the Jewish vote is now truly in play, and that they can win over a substantial percentage of the American Jewish community in the 2004 election.
Bush received about 19 percent of the Jewish vote in the 2000 presidential election.
Administration officials and their supporters argue that American Jews across the political spectrum, even those who oppose some of Bush’s domestic policy positions, are likely to support the president — both politically and financially — because of his strong actions against terrorism and on behalf of Israel.
In courting Jewish support, the White House has actively searched for like-minded Jews and has fostered a strong relationship with them, while keeping out of the West Wing many of the more familiar representatives of the Jewish community that have been close to previous Republican administrations.
The irony of the situation, some Jewish organizational professionals say, is that Bush now finds it hard to garner full support for the “road map” peace plan among his natural allies, such as politically conservative and Orthodox Jewish groups, which tend to be more hawkish.
Now, leaders of more liberal Jewish groups — whom Bush has largely ignored — are the ones speaking out in favor of the U.S.-backed plan, which calls on Israel to make concessions for peace.
Many veteran leaders of the organized Jewish community say they have endured difficult years under the Bush White House.
Washington representatives of several mainstream Jewish organizations, all speaking on condition of anonymity, say they have experienced unprecedented intimidation and resistance to their concerns.
They complain of being left out of meetings with other religious leaders, having their calls go unreturned and being told that administration officials are unavailable to speak to them.
Several Jewish officials said that when they requested speakers, they were asked how many press releases they had issued recently praising the administration.
Of course, it’s hardly a new development that “who’s in and who’s out” changes with the occupant of the White House.
The Clinton White House also had its favorite Jewish groups, sparking occasional gripes among the Orthodox and politically conservative groups that disagreed with much of Clinton’s agenda.
With the Oslo peace process dominating much of the Clinton administration’s foreign policy agenda, those groups that did not wholeheartedly embrace the process, including the Conference of Presidents, felt slighted.
Still, veterans of the Washington scene say Jewish organizational leaders still knew they would be called on when the White House wanted to sound out the Jewish community.
The shift under Bush is not merely partisan, but represents a different approach to engaging the Jewish community, they say.
“It’s been more political: We do for you, you do for us,” one veteran Jewish official said. “They were making it clear that there is a price to be paid and a reward to be received.”
Even leaders from Jewish groups that have been favored by the Bush White House — such as the American Jewish Committee, which Bush addressed in 2001 — say this administration differs from its predecessors, and that, for some groups, an understanding of how to play the new political game has helped them.
“This administration really does insist on a certain code of behavior,” said Jason Isaacson, director of government and international affairs for the AJCommittee. “If you sneak up on them and you are unfair or unbalanced in your criticism of them, they take offense.”
Theories abound as to the rationale behind the Bush administration’s approach.
Some say it’s because Goldman, who is expected to leave for the private sector sometime this summer, has been zealously partisan. Goldman’s job at the Office of Public Liaison is overseen by Karl Rove, Bush’s main political adviser.
Others suggest it’s part of a strategy to circumvent the organized Jewish community, which tends to have more liberal professional leaders, and let the administration’s actions on issues like the Middle East speak for themselves.
David Frum, a former Bush administration staffer, said the new dynamic between the White House and the Jewish leadership is part of a movement away from the Democrats who lead most Jewish groups and toward the general Jewish population, which he believes is more supportive of Bush’s policies.
“It’s perfectly reasonable that an administration, when dealing with a community, would tend to deal with those more sympathetic to it,” Frum said.
Many Jewish officials acknowledge that the Jewish groups can be a difficult lot to handle, with outspoken views, a traditionally Democratic constituency and many demands.
Still, many feel they haven’t been given an adequate seat at the table.
“We’re looking to hear from them directly at meetings and conferences,” one Jewish official said of the White House. “We’re looking to get our questions answered.”
Jewish organizations realize that an audience with the president is unlikely to change White House policy. But the officials want to feel that they are being consulted and are part of the process, as they did under previous administrations.
They say the problem started before Bush was even inaugurated, when Rabbi Daniel Lapin, a Seattle-area Orthodox rabbi, and conservative thinker Murray Friedman were the only Jewish officials invited to a meeting of religious leaders to discuss the president-elect’s plan for faith-based initiatives.
The cold shoulder has continued to the present, they say, with several Jewish leaders complaining that they were left out of a March meeting with Bush’s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, on the road map.
Ironically, one Jewish leader said, many of the groups that would have supported the plan unconditionally were not invited.
“They treasure loyalty over and above everything,” a Jewish leader said of the current administration. “They feel that because we weren’t with them on everything, they weren’t going to bother.”
This stance has placed Orthodox groups, such as the Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel of America, on the list of preferred Jewish voices. Also commonly welcomed are the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the Conference of Presidents, neither of which delves into domestic policy issues.
In contrast, many other Jewish groups have been vocal about their dissatisfaction with Bush’s faith-based initiatives plan — which allows government funding for sectarian social welfare projects — as well as his support for school vouchers and his war on terror, which they feel has eroded civil liberties.
Marshall Breger, a liaison to the Jewish community in the Reagan White House, says the Bush administration is “cherry picking” allies from among Jewish groups.
“If you’re at odds with the administration on so many issues, from A to Z, there is less to talk to you about,” said Breger, now a professor at the Catholic University School of Law. “I find it almost a kind of unnatural complaint.”
Matthew Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, says almost all Jewish groups have had opportunities to meet with the president and other senior administration officials since Bush came to office. “I vehemently and fundamentally disagree with the notion” that some have been shut out, Brooks said. “They have opened up the White House to the entire Jewish community.”
Bush supporters speak of a deliberate plan to vary the voices the president hears, which they say is consistent with his outreach to other minority groups.
“He is trying to reach out, as he is in everything he’s doing, to a broader cross-section of the Jewish community,” said Fred Zeidman, a Bush friend from Texas whom the president appointed as chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, which oversees the Washington museum.
As the 2004 presidential election campaign heats up, outreach to Jews is expected to increase, since Jewish voters can be a pivotal group even though Jews make up only about 2 percent of the American population.
Republican circles believe Bush’s handling of the war on terrorism and the Middle East — from Iraq to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — will be rewarded with fund-raising dollars and perhaps the largest percentage of the Jewish vote a Republican presidential candidate has ever seen.
“It would be a shocking display of ingratitude if American Jews were not to support this president, after all he has done against terrorism that chooses Jews worldwide as its first victims,” Frum said.
Frum says Republicans will continue making that case to American Jewish voters directly, driving home the notion that Bush is working for them. Popular support among American Jews, he hopes, may even push community leaders to rethink their political opinions — bringing them closer to those of the administration.
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.