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U.S. Elections 2002 Disaster or Opportunity? U.S. Jews Taking Stock

November 7, 2002
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

The morning after an election in which Republicans swept both houses of Congress, many American Jews are worried.

While they praise the Republican Party and President Bush for their staunch support of Israel at a time of peril for the Jewish state, many fear that the

Republican domestic agenda may seriously threaten their own.

And with Republicans now in control of the White House, Congress and the Supreme Court, political insiders expect Republicans to push their domestic agenda, which in the past year has taken a backseat to Bush’s foreign policy focus on terror.

“It’s a disaster,” said Washington political media consultant Steve Rabinowitz, who also worked for the Clinton White House.

Jews are “newly vulnerable on policy and on the issues about which we care most,” he said, naming education, a woman’s right to choose, judgeships,

Social Security and the environment.

But not everyone is bemoaning the outcome of the elections.

At the Republican Jewish Coalition, where the hold music played Frank Sinatra, the weather was decidedly sunny.

The outcome of Tuesday’s election “means a great opportunity to see firsthand the talent and leadership and commitment that the Republican Party has and will once and for all put to bed the myth that the Republican Party is a party who is at odds with the interest of the Jewish community,” said the group’s executive director, Matthew Brooks.

While exit poll data on how Jews voted is still unavailable — except in New Jersey, where Jews voted overwhelmingly to send Frank Lautenberg to the Senate — most political observers suspect that Jews voted the way they always do: largely Democratic.

“The races that were close six years ago were close again,” said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman.

Despite the Republican sweep, the Democratic-Republican divide is still fairly evenly split among voters, he said, noting that Democrats lost two Senate seats, but gained four governorships.

“Without big change in the overall voting behavior in the country, it’s hard to imagine there was big change in Jewish voting behavior,” he said.

But Brooks said it was impossible to estimate how Jews voted. “Unfortunately, we’re sort of flying blind without the benefit of any data,” he said.

But “given the fact that we saw a tremendous surge in the amount of Jewish community fund raising on behalf of Republican candidates, the fact that we saw major Jewish newspapers endorsing Republican candidates” — Brooks referred to cases in South Florida and New York — “the fact that we elected a Jewish Republican senator in Minnesota and a Jewish Republican governor in Hawaii only supports the position that support for Republicans across the board are strengthening in the Jewish community.”

Republican candidates likely find more support among Orthodox Jews than the Jewish community in general, said Harvey Blitz, president of the Orthodox Union.

Apart from surmising that many voted to re-elect Gov. George Pataki in New York, Blitz said he did not know whether most Orthodox Jews vote Republican.

Many Orthodox Jews have found common ground with the Republican Party on domestic policies such as school vouchers — an issue that in fact divides the Jewish community.

But even Orthodox leaders were reluctant to pronounce the election a clear victory.

“Yesterday’s election is very meaningful and creates certain opportunities” like President Bush’s faith-based initiative, which allows government funding to religious groups to provides social services, said David Zwiebel, executive vice president for government and public affairs of Agudath Israel of America, a fervently Orthodox group.

But he added, “it may create certain problems as well” in the realm of civil rights, where Democrats may be more sympathetic to some of the group’s other priorities.

Zwiebel cited the Workplace Religious Freedom Act, which includes protection for Sabbath observers. It “could be on that particular issue, we’ll find less of an ability to move forward,” Zwiebel said.

Ambivalence may, in fact, characterize much of the Jewish community in the wake of Tuesday’s election.

“I think that parts of the Jewish community are quietly okay with what happened because Bush is such a friend of Israel,” said Democratic strategist Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi.

But others feel like “they’re standing in the middle of a blizzard and nobody’s offering them a coat.”

Brooks, of the Republican Jewish group, described the Republican domestic agenda as one of economic growth, protection for senior citizens, Social Security savings and prescription drug savings.

But most Jewish leaders name different priorities: church-state separation, public education and care for the poor.

And according to Mellman, total Republican control will ignite the far right to push their domestic agenda.

“The far right’s going to say we’ve given you complete and total power, what do we have to do to get our agenda through?” Mellman said.

That “creates the possibility for renewed conflict” between the Jewish community and the far right — whose relations have recently softened due to mutual support for Israel and Republican inactivity on the domestic front, he said.

But Brooks disagreed.

“Those that are preaching some sort of notion that this is going to usher in a wave of far-right political activity are doing nothing than playing to the worst fears of the Jewish community,” he said.

Furthermore, “this is not a 61-seat majority,” meaning a filibuster-proof Congress, Brooks said. “There’s going to be a need for a lot of bipartisan cooperation between Republicans and Democrats to pass legislation.”

According to Hannah Rosenthal, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and a former Clinton staffer, the domestic agenda that the Jewish community has historically favored would suffer under either party.

“Because of the economy, there’s no money to put into investment in building the social safety net,” Rosenthal said, “and that statement would not have changed dramatically” had the votes shifted to the Democrats.

In the meantime, Jews will have to position themselves within the new power structure.

“Politics can create strange bedfellows,” Mizrahi said. “Who would have thought years ago that the Christian right will be our best friend on Israel?” she asked.

And Mellman believes the Jewish community will take a wait-and-see attitude.

“I think the Jewish community is fairly outcome and policy-oriented,” he said.

Others are less hopeful.

“There’s no getting around the fact that American Jews are traditional, Democratic liberals, and Tuesday was a very bad day for us,” Rabinowitz said. “And it’s very sad and very frustrating, and worst of all, very worrisome.”

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