January 31, 2008
So Cal Jews’ primary colors are red and blue
Michael Spitzer-Rubenstein had barely slept in days.|
A senior at Beverly Hills High School, he'd spent long hours rallying support for Barack Obama, and as the results from the Iowa caucuses poured in, as fellow Obama supporters packed the presidential candidate's California campaign office in Koreatown, Spitzer-Rubenstein turned jubilant, his enthusiasm mashing together with exhaustion into euphoria.
"Yeah!" he shouted, jumping up and down in a corner where he was hawking T-shirts, bumper stickers and buttons for the Illinois senator. "Obama! Obama! Obama!" he chanted with the crowd. "Fired up! Ready to go! Fired up! Ready to go! Let's go change the world!"
Then his cell phone rang. It was one of the many high school volunteers he oversees as the L.A. teen director.
"Hi, Amy," Spitzer-Rubenstein, 17, said. "So it looks like we did it. It's awesome. You helped make this happen. Yeah, every little bit matters."
One down, 49 to go, which means many more hours of lost sleep for Spitzer-Rubenstein. Far from alone in volunteering for the candidate he thinks holds the key to a better America, Jews are planted throughout most of the presidential front-runners' campaigns, from top advisory levels to grassroots street teams.
So much excitement hasn't surrounded a presidential primary season in 40 years, not since Bobby Kennedy was in the race. And for the first time in at least as long, California's primary will matter. Until now, only six states have cast their votes for party nominations, with Florida's vote Tuesday terminating the campaigns of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards. Maine's residents will vote Friday and then on Feb. 5, 22 states, including California, Illinois and New York, will go to the polls on what has been dubbed "Super-Duper Tuesday" and "Tsunami Tuesday." Meanwhile, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an Independent and a Jew, continues to play presidential footsie, presumably waiting to see how the field thins.
With the contest still up for grabs -- three Republicans and two Democrats still with a realistic chance of getting their party's nod -- Tuesday's race is expected to determine the ballot for the general election. And already quite a few Jews have been writing checks, working phones or simply spreading their candidate's gospel in an effort to court the deciding votes.
Julie Shapiro, a young lawyer for Universal and volunteer for Hillary Clinton, last week started an effort to get other female lawyers fired up about the New York senator. David Slomovic, a father of three, spent recent Thursday evenings opening his commercial real estate office for phone banking for Giuliani. And Dr. Joel Geiderman, co-chair of the emergency medicine department at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and vice chair of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum Council, has spent his free time encouraging lifelong Democrats to switch sides.
"The two visions of America the parties offer could not be any more different," Geiderman said.
Jews in real estate and Hollywood were quick to get involved, too -- support had been strongest for Clinton and Obama, Giuliani and John McCain -- endorsing early, opening their homes for fundraisers and crisscrossing the country in support.
"We took our family holiday in Iowa this year," said Sony Pictures Chairman and CEO Michael Lynton, who hosted Obama at his home last summer and went with his wife and kids to the Jan. 3 caucuses.
Tonight, MGM chief Harry Sloan will host his second fundraiser for McCain, a Republican senator from Arizona. Obama will attend one at the Avalon. And Hillary Clinton will be at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel for a fundraiser organized by the likes of Peter Lowy, Haim Saban, Barbra Streisand and Daphna and Richard Ziman.
"All of us believe this is an absolutely critical election," said Michael Berenbaum, an adjunct professor of theology at American Jewish University. "The last four years of the Bush administration have been disastrous. If we don't get ourselves squared away, it could be the end of the American Century and the end of the way the American Jewish community has been American in this era.
"We are voting as if our lives and futures depend upon it. Not because we fear someone is going to come out and kill us, but because we fear that if we don't get this right, our children and their children will not enjoy the privileges this generation has enjoyed as Americans -- the economic opportunity, the prosperity, the education, all of those elements that have characterized our existence and our flourishing. After Florida in 2000, everybody knows that every vote absolutely counts."
Republican or Democrat? There used to only be one real answer to that. Jews believed in three velts -- Yiddish for "world": die velt (this world), yene velt (the next world) and Roosevelt. And since the New Deal, American Jews have identified so strongly with the Democratic Party that supporting its policies, particularly its domestic agenda, has been part of being Jewish.
"Like most Brooklyn Jews, I was raised a Democrat, voted Democrat for years and years, and believed, absolutely, that Republicans were evil," screenwriter Robert J. Avrech wrote a few years ago for the Jewish Press in an article titled "Help! I'm a Hollywood Republican." "That's what we were taught from birth, right? Democrats are for the poor and the oppressed, and Republicans are for rich people and big corporations. Who questioned such sophisticated political analysis?"
An increasing number of Jews seem to be. Though the proportion voting for a Republican presidential candidate has never been as high as it was in 1956 for President Dwight D. Eisenhower -- 40 percent, according to "Jews in American Politics," (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003) -- the percentage has increased in each presidential election since 1992, going from 11 percent to 16 percent to 19 percent, until finally 24 percent of Jews voted to reelect President Bush in 2004.
"Whether it is the economy or the environment or education or healthcare, we think we are bringing new and fresh ideas to the conversation," Larry Greenfield, state director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said in opening remarks during a debate at Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay with the leader of Democrats for Israel. "There is a broadening of the Jewish conversation as some of your kids and grandkids come home from college and say, 'Mom, Dad, I'm a Republican.'" Greenfield has been traveling up and down the state trying to convince voters that Republicans really are good for the Jews. He's won some converts over the past few years, growing his membership from about 1,500 to 8,000. And the key selling point, the policy issue he repeats over and over, is that Republicans just do national defense better. That means, he argues, we will be safer, and Israel will be safer, with a Republican in the White House.
"There are obviously some lifelong Democrats who are not going to shift," he said as he sat down for an interview after the debate. "But I hear all the time that they could vote for a Republican."
"McCain is the only Republican I could vote for," Marilyn Kritzer, one of those lifelong Democrats and the organizer of the debate and luncheon, chimed in.
Certainly there has been enthusiasm in the Jewish community for McCain, a hawk on defense who has a long record of stiff support for Israel. He earned the endorsement of Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), a centrist with foreign policy views similar to his own, and quite a bit of fantasizing was indulged in December at the Orthodox Union's West Coast Torah Convention when talk show host Michael Medved entertained the possibility of a McCain-Lieberman ticket.
Other Republican Jews have gotten behind the candidacy of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, whom RJC took on a tour of Israel last year.
"Most Republicans care about shared values, and he has very strong values," Charlie Spies, CFO and general counsel for Romney for President, said of the Mormon candidate. "Whether you are an Orthodox Jew, conservative Catholic or evangelical, we have much more in common than divides us."
But the person that was being spoken of most effusively by California's Republican Jewish leadership -- though not officially because they don't endorse until after the primaries -- was Giuliani.
"I've saved the best for last," Greenfield said during the debate at Ner Tamid. "Rudy Giuliani, who has been fighting Palestinian terrorism for 30 years. He is the most hands-on, most closely aligned-with-the-Jewish-community candidate I have ever seen."
Giuliani ended his campaign Wednesday afternoon, a few hours before the Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, and threw his support behind McCain. Republican Jews were drawn to Giuliani largely because of his performance on Sept. 11, 2001, and his subsequent tough talk on terror. Of the remaining Republicans, McCain is the closest comparison and should have control of the Republican Jewish vote.
"People don't want to talk about Sept. 11, but that image is burned into my mind, and I remember what he did and what he said when all hell broke loose in New York," said David Slomovic, who changed his voter registration in December and volunteered for Giuliani's campaign. "I remember watching with my wife him speaking, staying calm, giving it to us straight. I remember him ensuring New Yorkers that New York would be there tomorrow, that they would be strong, and they would be an example to Americans and the world that they would not be defeated by terrorism. He was the voice of America to me."
Slomovic sat at his desk in an office surrounded by pictures of his family, Giuliani promotions and a poster of the movie "300." "I've got three beautiful kids, a beautiful wife, and that's why I'm here: The future."
He is exactly the type of voter the RJC was trying to convert: a guilt-filled liberal who was fiscally conservative and, above all else, shares their opinion that Islamic terror is the most important issue of our time.
Slomovic wore a light blue shirt rolled to the sleeves, with a white long-sleeve shirt running down to his wrists, and the baggy eyes of a long day. He was polite, if a bit stiff, as he dialed bit by bit through a ream of phone lists.
Once the frontrunner in California, Giuliani watched his popularity plummet. Only 13 percent of Republicans planned to vote for him, according to an L.A. Times/CNN/Politico poll released this week. McCain, who is leading the pack in California, has 39 percent support, making Slomovic's cold calls that much more frustrating.
"Hey David, what if it's 'I'm not a Republican?" a volunteer named Gary Klein asked.
"That's not a sin," Slomovic responded.
Another volunteer disagreed. "Tell him, 'F--- you,'" he said, and then left for the night.
It is an unusually personal story for politics, but it's one that indebted Daphna Ziman to then-first lady Hillary Clinton.
In the early 1990s, Ziman was touring a homeless mission when a 5-year-old girl captivated her. She had been abused, and after the girl was treated at a hospital, she was put in Ziman's foster care. But then a parental hearing was held. "The judge said he was going to give the crack mom parenting classes and then return this little girl. I said, 'Over my dead body.'"
Ziman decided to appeal to everyone she knew in Washington, and even some she didn't. One of those people was Hillary Clinton, who advised Ziman on what she should do. In a Talmudic sense, it felt to Ziman, who adopted the girl as her daughter, as if Clinton had saved the world.
"She didn't know me from a bar of soap," said Ziman, who was inspired by the process to found Children Uniting Nations. "When people ask me, 'How come you can give so much and do so much?' -- If the first lady of the United States, who is so overloaded everyday, can do that to save one child, it is the least I can do." A decade and a half later, this debt has translated into trips across the country to promote Clinton among various Jewish communities and hosting discussions at her home between members of Los Angeles' Jewish community and Madeleine Albright, former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell and Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo). (Bill Clinton is expected to make a trip out, too, Ziman said.)
"I've had to take a huge chunk of time to support Hillary, and I am happy to do that for two reasons: One is Israel and the other is children at risk," she said. "That is it. I honestly and truly to the depth of my being believe I can trust in the future of my children if Hillary is going to be in the president's office," she said. "It's the most important election, and the most indescribable and the most incomprehensible election, we've ever been through."
Clinton had a 17-point lead over Obama in the L.A. Times poll. Edwards, the former senator from North Carolina, was running in third. His support from the Jewish community had been much smaller than Clinton's and Obama's.
"The biggest problems I have with Sen. Clinton and Sen. Obama don't have to deal with their policies and positions. It's about electability," Coby King, a public affairs professional who held a fundraiser for Edwards at his West Valley home last summer, said before his candidate dropped out Wednesday.
"But should Sen. Clinton or Sen. Obama be the nominee, I will be enthusiastic about their candidacy and do whatever I can to make sure they are elected president of the United States. More than the differences between any of the Democratic candidates, the country has a huge choice between Democrats and Republicans, and we obviously need a huge change in direction."
Clinton and Obama have proven so popular among Jews because of what they represent.
Clinton is not only a Clinton -- a plus for many Jews -- she is also the first viable female candidate for the presidency. But Obama also would be a barrier-breaker, and in many ways he personifies what so many Jews fought so hard for during the Civil Rights movement. A Kenyan father and a Kansan mother, of humble means and superior education, Obama's story is a familiar one.
"The options here are unbelievably forward from where we've ever been. And that is a great thing," said Abby Leibman, a management consultant who co-founded the California Women's Law Center and is a Clinton fan. "But I don't have the same excitement about an African American man because I am not one."
Supporters of each senator have been casting the other as a bad choice for Israel. The rhetoric, however, appears to be political fear mongering.
"What I have seen with Clinton and Obama maybe more than the others -- though I don't want to say there isn't an appreciation with the others -- is a desire to see a peace process that is based on a premise that Israel can't be the one that is always taking the initiatives," said former Ambassador Dennis Ross, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who has given both candidates advice.
"Israel can't be the only one to compromise. Palestinians have to live up to the commitments they've made, and the Arab world has to assume responsibility and can't just sit on the sideline. They are both in favor of having a much more active peace process, which I am. But if you have an active peace process, it has to be grounded in reality."
Obama, though, has faced another challenge. An Internet rumor campaign has accused him of being an uncover Muslim and a veiled anti-Semite. He's taken these attacks so seriously that Monday, even after a number of Jewish organizational leaders signed an open letter condemning the smears and seven Jewish senators penned another, Obama held a conference call with reporters from Jewish publications to reiterate his support for Israel and his affinity for American Jewry.
"My strong and deep commitment and connection to the Jewish community should not be questioned," he said.
It's anybody's guess how the Jewish vote here will split between the two. But there are certainly plenty of people trying to shape it.
In November, Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) endorsed Clinton. Three weeks ago, his colleague, Rep. Adam Schiff, (D-Pasadena) opted for Obama. And former Congressman Mel Levine, who left office 15 years ago, joined Schiff at a City Hall press conference, adding his name to the growing list of supporters.
"I must confess that I have become emotionally excited about the prospect of a President Obama and what that means to America's image throughout the world," said Levine, who has been working with the senator's foreign policy team. "This man is a uniter. He reaches out, and he clearly respects the views of people on all sides of an issue, and that is critically important in intractable conflicts, such as Israel-Palestine."
"I should be a poor American and a poor Catholic alike if I injected religious discussion into a political campaign." Alfred E. Smith, the great New Yorker, wrote those words little more than 80 years ago as he campaigned for the presidency amid rumors and slanders that his Catholic worldview would imperil Americans. How the times have changed.
In 2008, presidential candidates not only inject religious language into their campaigns, but also at times seem to fully infuse their stump speeches with it, "thumpin' it," as Jacques Berlinerblau dubs the strategy in a book by that name (Westminster John Knox, 2007). While Joe Lieberman was criticized by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) in 2000 for going overboard in his references to the God of Abraham, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister who in January said we need "to amend the Constitution so it's in God's standards," certainly seems to be missing the mark with Jewish voters.
Zero percent -- that's a bagel -- of New York Jews favored Huckabee over the other Republican front-runners in a mid-January poll by Siena College. And a completely unscientific search here in Los Angeles didn't yield better results. (Huckabee's press office did not respond to a request for info on any Jewish volunteers in California; Greenfield also was unaware of any supporters.) The only prominent Jew who has backed Huckabee was Bill Kristol, the neoconservative scion and Weekly Standard editor who spoke effusively of the man from Hope in his first weekly column for The New York Times.
"Jews have been conditioned to play it close to the vest and keep their religious sentiments to themselves," said Berlinerblau, an associate professor of Jewish civilization at Georgetown University. "It is so viscerally in our cultural DNA, I don't think we are very comfortable with public faith-and-values talk. Especially when it is coming from a Christian spokesperson."
Thanks to Bush's success at monopolizing the vote of evangelical Christians by casting conservatism as God's Ol' Party, religious incantations has become an integral part of presidential campaigning. Complete with faith strategists, spiritual language this year has been mixed into the Democrats' stump speeches, resulting in newspaper profiles that focus specifically on what Methodism means to Clinton and just exactly what religion Obama practices. ("I never practiced Islam," Obama said Monday. "I was raised by my secular mother. I have been a member of the Christian religion and an active Christian."). Still, the growth in God-talk has missed the point for many liberal Jews.
"Progressives need to find a way to refocus religious issues, and what better time to do that then election season, when the whole world is watching?" Margie Klein, an editor of a new book that is designed to start a movement, "Righteous Indignation: A Jewish Call for Justice" (Jewish Lights, 2007). "We need to reframe the debate so that when people think how should they vote, they don't think, 'Morality. OK. Anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage.' Which we know is not correct."
It is clear that progressive politics don't mean as much to Jews as they did in the early days on the Lower East Side. Jewish politics have broadened, and, like most Americans, Jews are primarily worried about the economy. Really worried. Their next ranking political concerns are healthcare reform, the war in Iraq and the threat of terrorism, according to the American Jewish Committee's 2007 survey.
Jews contribute more heavily to political campaigns than other Americans on average; they vote with greater regularity and, largely by accident, are clustered in a few big states -- California and New York -- and a few crucial swing states -- Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio. That's why federal politicians often are quick to reach out to the Jewish community. Obama, Clinton, Giuliani and Romney have this connection built in by virtue of the locales they have represented or still do; McCain has a much smaller Jewish constituency in Arizona, but is appreciated for his years of supporting Israel, which is, for most, the key foreign policy issue.
More campaign talk has been directed Israel's way during the past 60 years than any other small strip of coastal desert. So it surprised Amanda Susskind, regional director of the ADL, when, at a recent campaign forum at The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, none of the candidates' representatives needed the extra time she offered them to talk about plans for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians and promises for protecting the survival of the Jewish state. They stuck to their allotted 90 seconds, giving equal time to the discussion of the future of Israel as to hate crimes and healthcare.
And that is because there really is no discussion on the campaign trail. Save each party's fringe candidate -- Dennis Kucinich on the left and Ron Paul on the right -- there is substantial support not only for Israel, but also for its right to defend itself against hostile neighbors and to negotiate a peace agreement that does not relent too much, or too prime, territory. Even the Democrats have talked tough, with Clinton saying Jerusalem should not be divided and Obama authoring the Iran Sanctions Act.
"All of the frontrunners, both Republicans and Democrats, are extremely supportive of Israel," said Howard Welinsky, former chair of The Federation's Jewish Community Relations Committee. "I don't think if you took a magnifying glass you can perceive any significant difference on the important issues of a two-state solution, supporting Israel's security, dealing with Iran -- whether it is McCain, Giuliani, Clinton, Obama or Edwards -- they are all extremely supportive of Israel. They are all very knowledgeable; they care. So then it becomes: What are the differences?"