When President Bush talked in his acceptance speech last week about “our good friend Israel,” it did not go unnoticed, including to many Jewish voters.
That it was a huge applause line definitely did not go unnoticed, particularly to Jewish voters. This was, after all, the GOP convention, filled with Catholics, Protestants, and yes, evangelical Christians.
Most remarkable was that a candidate expressing strong support for the Middle East’s sole free society and party faithful approving enthusiastically happened at the Republicans’ convention, not the Democrats’.
At the Democratic convention in Boston, in fact, it didn’t happen at all.
John Kerry made no reference to Israel, and his running mate was—at best—slightly better, with a puzzling assertion that making friends in the world will result in a “safe and secure Israel.” Right, because the world loves Israel, and the Jewish state has no more consistent ally than the United Nations.
One of the liveliest contention-week parties was one held by the Republican Jewish Coalition. It’s hard to imagine that being the case in New Orleans for Bush Sr. in 1992. What is behind this shift? It’s tempting to credit Bush's staunch support for Israel, but that’s only part of it. At the same time, though, it also may be the root explanation.
President Bush's steadfast support for Israel sparked talk more than a year ago that Bush could make significant inroads among Jewish voters. That still seems to be the case.
But now, that sustained storyline—Bush being held in higher regard by Jewish voters—seems to be chipping away at a decades-old stigma. And the Bush campaign has been taking advantage of the changing climate with extensive grassroots outreach efforts.
Radio talk show host and syndicated columnist Dennis Prager (who is Jewish), the RJC event’s keynote speaker, captured the thinking of many Jews on voting GOP:
“I used to think that voting Republican was as bad as eating on Yom Kippur. But at least with eating on Yom Kippur, it would be between me and God, but voting Republican would harm all of society.”
On a personal note, I used to caddy at a Jewish country club south of Chicago in high school, and many of the members sounded fairly conservative. Yet, almost to a person, they voted Democrat.
Voting Democrat has always been something a Jew just does. But not anymore.
None of this is to say that Bush will clear 50% of the Jewish vote. The high water mark for Republicans in recent times was set by Ronald Reagan, garnering almost 40%. But given that Bush captured less than 20% of the Jewish vote four years ago (and his father managed just 11% in 1992), simply scoring 35% would mark a huge improvement. Especially in Florida, which has roughly 500,000 Jews.
In a state he won by 537 votes, Bush obviously doesn’t need to win a majority of Jewish votes to change the electoral calculus substantially.
Despite the long-held perception of being died-in-the-wool liberals, Jews have not been immune to the electorate’s ideological rightward shift over the years. Yet aside from Reagan, the GOP had not been able to widen its Jewish base.
Of course many deeply secular Jews will never feel comfortable in a party that is home to millions of evangelical Christians and devout Catholics. In many respects, though, that has less to do with a contempt for Christianity than an acute mistrust of religion, as evidenced by the scorn they often heap on orthodox and “ultra-orthodox” Jews. That said, many secular Jews could be swayed to vote for Bush on Israel alone.
Fear of evangelical Christians among Jews may be subsiding. House Majority Leader Tom Delay last year received the highest annual honor awarded by the Zionist Organization of America, and the crowd of secular and religious Jews gave the fiery evangelical a standing ovation.
At the packed RJC event, Dennis Prager told the hundreds of Jews in the audience, “Christians are not the enemy, they are our best friends.” That line provoked thunderous applause.
And when our devoutly Christian president addressed the annual gathering this May of AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Bush was showered with adulation and affection. Between standing ovations, the boisterous crowd chanted, “Four more years!”
If he captures a significant enough share of the Jewish vote, Bush might get just that.