Jewish World Review Sept. 8, 2004 / 22 Elul 5764
Black Hat Trick
By Noam Scheiber
What Orthodox Jews will be doing for Bush and, more importantly, why it matters
http://www.jewishworldreview.com | ohn Kerry may or may not know what agita is. (It's an Italian word for indigestion appropriated by American Jews of my grandparents' generation.) But Neal Turk could give it to him. Turk is the head of Beth Israel, an Orthodox Jewish congregation of some 250 families in Miami Beach. He's visiting New York this week for two reasons. First, to drop in on his son at Yeshiva University in New York City; and second, to attend a Bush-Cheney campaign briefing for Orthodox Jews. When I approach Turk after the event, he explains that much of his congregation supported Al Gore and Joe Lieberman in 2000. Lieberman even attended services at his synagogue during the campaign. But Turk says most members are voting Republican this time around. "It's not a hard decision at all," he says. "I think that President Bush has so convinced us all of his support for Israel."
One shouldn't overstate the significance of people like Turk. "Jews remain one of the most loyal constituencies," says one Kerry adviser. "It makes many uncomfortable if not downright scared to know that this administration is so ideologically driven on so many issues." He's right. A recent poll of Jewish Americans found that 75 percent prefer Kerry, pretty much the same number that favored Gore. Bush campaign officials protest that the poll was partisan it was sponsored by a Democratic organization and skewed because it was conducted during the Democratic convention. But even strategists close to the administration concede it's unlikely Bush will perform more than five or ten points better than the poll indicates. "Seventy to seventy-five percent of the Jewish vote is off the table to Bush," admits one.
The issue, these strategists claim, is not whether Bush wins 30 percent of the national Jewish vote. It's whether he picks off five or ten percentage points in key swing states like Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania states where Jews tilted strongly toward Gore and Lieberman in 2000 and where a few thousand votes could mean the difference between a second term and a one-way ticket to Crawford. The Bush campaign run by Ken Mehlman, who grew up in a kosher household is acutely aware of this. And the Jewish outreach shows it: It is vastly more sophisticated than anything the Republicans attempted in 2000 or 1996 and in some ways more sophisticated than anything the Democrats are doing this year. "My conversations with [the Kerry people] are much more in broad terms, about broad policy issues, broad message," says an official from a large Jewish organization. "The Bush folks have their playbook. They're running plays. They want to know ... in this city, who do you recommend?" If people like Neal Turk are any indication, those plays may be working.
he obvious place for Republicans to troll for Jewish votes is the Orthodox community. Orthodox Jews are more comfortable with Republican positions on abortion and gay marriage than their Conservative, Reform, and unaffiliated Jewish counterparts. They are sympathetic to Republican programs like faith-based initiatives and school choice. (Vouchers could significantly benefit Orthodox Jews, who often send their children to private religious schools.) And they are more hawkish than other Jews on Israel. Their numbers, moreover, aren't trivial. Estimates for South Florida's Orthodox Jewish population exceed 50,000 (out of a state population typically estimated at 750,000 Jews). The Cleveland area boasts several thousand Orthodox Jews; Philadelphia and Detroit have large Orthodox populations of their own. Bush could easily win more than 50 percent of the vote in these communities, says Larry Grossman, co-editor of the American Jewish Yearbook at the American Jewish Committee. That would likely be a significant improvement from 2000, when, according to one estimate, 60 percent of Orthodox Jews voted for Gore.
This is apparently the motivation behind a trip by Republican Senators Rick Santorum and Norm Coleman (himself a Jew) to the largely Orthodox Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn on the second day of the convention. Santorum and Coleman are inside consulting with three prominent rabbis when I arrive at the Joseph Tanenbaum Torah Center at the Novominsker yeshiva. It's a private meeting that's closed to the press, so it's unlikely I'll be admitted even if I can find the right room. But it doesn't matter anyway. A scrum of teenage seminary students block the entrance, each dressed in traditional black pants, white shirts, and velvet skullcaps. Their de facto leader, a short, broad-shouldered blonde whom the others refer to as the "student mayor," demands to know what I'm doing here. Saying I'm a journalist is apparently the wrong answer because, before long, I'm in a raging political debate. Actually, "debate" is a stretch. The kids I'm talking to have no idea who Santorum is. But they know what they think of Bush and Kerry. "Bush is a man," the student mayor sums it up for me, whereas Kerry is a liberal. "And religious Jews don't go with liberals."
The political benefit of an event targeted at chareidi, or fervently-Orthodox, Jews in New York is not immediately obvious. After all, New York is a blue state, and winning every Brooklyn Orthodox vote isn't going to dent the Democratic tally here. But Jeff Ballabon, a 41-year-old Orthodox Jew and Bush Pioneer who helped organize the Brooklyn trip and the earlier briefing, argues that the events will resonate outside New York because chareidim in different parts of the country are tightly connected. "They all read the same national papers," says Ballabon. "And ninety-five percent of them are published in New York. ... The Orthodox press for many is the primary source of news." The logic applies to non-chareidi, modern Orthodox Jews as well. At the Bush campaign press briefing earlier in the day, Tevi Troy, an Orthodox Jewish campaign official, emphasizes that the assembled leaders, a mixture of chareidi and modern Orthodox Jews, are "plugged into other cities" "you know people in Detroit, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Cleveland." He encourages them to "talk to your friends in other cities and tell them what the president is about."
With a hawkish evangelical in the White House and no Lieberman on the Democratic ticket, Bush's task when it comes to Orthodox Jews is probably less a matter of changing minds than energizing the vote. Hence the much-hyped appearance at Madison Square Garden Tuesday evening of Rebbetzin Esther Jungreis, a renowned figure in the Orthodox community and perhaps the first person ever to wear a sheitel (the wig worn by Orthodox women) on a convention stage. The true swing voters, by contrast, are those secular and moderately religious Jews for whom Israel and the war on terrorism trump other issues, such as abortion. The Bush campaign believes it can make gains here as well. "The natural inroads are Jews in areas with Republican congressmen," says a Republican strategist. "The work that's going to be done is among the Reform, Conservative, and unaffiliated Jews who identify Israel as one of their top three issues."
The public face of this effort is Virginia Representative Eric Cantor, the chief deputy majority whip in the House of Representatives and the only Jewish Republican in the House. Cantor is a mild-mannered, third-generation Richmonder with a boyish grin and an easy Southern lilt. But, when he takes the microphone at a Sunday brunch at the Plaza Hotel, where American Israel Public Affairs Committee (aipac) members dominate the crowd, his rhetoric verges on the apocalyptic. "The Jewish people have a sometimes painful and tragic history," he says. "It gives us an understanding of the devastation that can be wrought by a savage ideology." At an event the following afternoon, he tells the crowd, "We aren't negotiating with the terrorists, and neither should Israel." Cantor tells me this is a message he's been taking to swing states like Ohio, Florida, and Arizona "several weekends a month."
It's a message the people who showed up at the Plaza are receptive to. Many are secular Jews who were Democrats before September 11. A stocky middle-aged man from Florida who looks like a slightly older version of Al Franken glances conspiratorially over his shoulder as he confides to me, "I think there are a lot of Jewish Democrats, including me, that support the president. ... He understands the difference between good and evil." Some of these people have probably been voting Republican for years and were just too embarrassed to admit it. September 11 and the Bush administration's support of Israel gave them a powerful public rationale. Still, there does appear to be a real shift underway, if only a small one. Jay Stein, chairman of the clothing outlet Stein Mart and previously one of the largest donors to Al Gore, told me, "After the experience of 9/11, in my view, a different criterion had to be placed on who's going to be president. ... If America is not safe, very little else matters. ... All these wonderful democratic values matter less if we're not secure in our own country."
he underbelly of the Bush campaign's pitch to these voters is the idea that, even if John Kerry, who gets a stellar rating from aipac, is a reliable supporter of Israel, and even if he says he'd prosecute the war on terrorism aggressively, there are structural forces within the Democratic Party that make a Kerry administration dangerous. At just about every Jewish-themed event I attended this week and there were multiple events each day someone has drawn attention to the rise of the antiwar, anti-Israel left within the Democratic Party. Usually, the conversation begins with Michael Moore, who has left a long trail of anti-Israel comments, continues on to MoveOn.org and former supporters of Howard Dean, and ends with the observation that, in recent years, it has been the far left of the Democratic Party, not the far right of the Republican Party, that has been awol on votes in Congress regarding Israel. "That's going to be a major theme going into the stretch run," says one Republican strategist. "The point is, who do you surround yourself with? ... [With the Kerry] campaign, the focus is on Michael Moore, Jimmy Carter." One Jewish Republican close to the White House, who occasionally serves as a Bush campaign surrogate, told me he makes this pitch explicitly. "Even if Kerry means everything he says about Israel," he tells Jewish audiences, "the question is whether his constituency today's Democratic Party would really let him go there."
There are signs this strategy is working. A leader of a major Jewish organization told me, "After the Democratic convention, they may well have driven Jews into the Republican camp.... I was there. I saw the reaction ... to seeing the whole thing revolve around Michael Moore." Others attribute the increasing willingness of young Jews to vote Republican Republican pollster Frank Luntz has data suggesting that only 60 percent of Jews under 35 vote Democratic to a reaction against campus anti-Israel and antiwar activism.
Ironically, though, the Bushies may be making their greatest inroads among a group of Jews who aren't within 5,000 miles of Madison Square Garden. Estimates suggest there are about 200,000 American citizens living in Israel, making it the fifth-largest source of American expatriates in the world. Over 100,000 are eligible to vote. Americans in Israel and Israelis in general tend to be favorably disposed to Bush thanks to his close relationship with Ariel Sharon. A Tel Aviv University poll conducted in early August found that Israelis prefer Bush to Kerry by a 49-18 margin. So a 527 organization called Republicans Abroad Israel has identified several thousand expats eligible to vote in each of the major swing states (about 25,000 in all) and is frantically trying to register them before a self-imposed deadline arrives in two weeks. Bush may not be playing well in Peoria. But, this year, he might gladly exchange Peoria for Tel Aviv.
Every weekday JewishWorldReview.com publishes what many in Washington and in the media consider "must reading." Sign up for the daily JWR update. It's free. Just click here.
require ("/home/jwreview/public_html/discovery_channel/banner.html"); ?>
© 2004, The New Republic