October 21, 2004
Russian Jews Favor Bush
While American-born Jews and Russian-speaking Jews in New York have been building stronger intercommunal ties in recent years, they remain far apart when it comes to presidential politics.
A recent American Jewish Committee (AJC) poll showed American Jews favoring Democratic candidate Sen. John Kerry over President Bush by a wide margin, 69 percent to 24 percent.
But in a separate survey of Russian Jews in New York City, the AJC found that 54 percent of Jews from the former Soviet Union would vote for Bush and 14 percent for Kerry, with 25 percent undecided.
And according to a number of political observers in the Russian community, that poll may even underestimate Bush's strength among Russian speakers.
"From my conversations with a wide assortment of people in the Russian community, I would estimate that the numbers are something like 8 to 1 for Bush over Kerry," said Ari Kagan, executive director of the United Association of East European Jewry and a commentator for the Russian Forward.
"The feeling for Bush is so vociferous that I don't know of one prominent person in the Russian community who is willing to say openly he is backing Kerry," Kagan said.
Fira Stukelman, former president of the Association of Holocaust Survivors From the Former Soviet Union and one of the community's leading advocates for seniors, said that older Russians voted strongly for Al Gore over Bush in 2000.
But she said, "This time they are going overwhelmingly for Bush over Kerry. The reason is simple: Israel, Israel and Israel. Russian Jews are convinced Bush is the best friend Israel has ever had and is doing more to protect Israel's interests than any other American president."
Since their arrival in large numbers from the Soviet Union in the late 1970s and their growth to the point where they comprise an estimated 20 percent of the Jews in the five boroughs that make up New York City, the Russian-speaking community has been a classic swing constituency. In the 1980s, the community tended to vote Republican in large measure because of President Ronald Reagan, whom they adored for his characterization of their former homeland as the "Evil Empire."
In the 1990s, the Russians swung sharply into the Democratic camp because of an affection for President Bill Clinton and because the GOP-run Congress spearheaded a series of measures that cut social benefits for immigrants. In 2000, Russian Jews in New York are believed to have voted for Gore over Bush 77 to 20.
Yet all of that has changed radically over the past four years as Russian-speaking New Yorkers, traumatized by the impact of Sept. 11, have responded favorably to Bush's war on terror, including the invasion of Iraq, and his unabashed support for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in his struggle with the Palestinians.
In recent weeks, other factors have emerged that are strengthening the movement toward Bush and the Republicans:\n
• The formation of an organization known as Russian American Jews for Bush headed by community leaders, including Dr. Igor Branovan, president of Russian American Jews for Israel, and Valery Weinberg, editor of Novoye Russkoye Slovo, the Russian-speaking community's only daily newspaper. There is no similar high-profile effort in the Russian community on behalf of Kerry.\n
• A plethora of commentators in the Russian-language electronic and print media advocating on behalf of Bush and none on behalf of Kerry. All of the commentators on Russian-language television stations RTVI and RTN and radio stations Peoples' Wave and New Life are strongly, even stridently, pro-Bush, and nearly all of the community newspapers have an overtly pro-Bush position. An exception is the Russian Forward, which according to Kagan, "is covering the election in a more objective way, something that makes many people in the community angry at us."
How important the Russian surge for Bush may be in affecting the election locally and nationally is unclear.
While New York State is considered out of reach for Bush -- although polls have him cutting strongly into Kerry's lead here -- coverage of the election in the New York-based Russian media may have a spill-over impact on the sizable Russian vote in battleground states such as Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio, Michigan and even New Jersey, where Bush and Kerry are running neck and neck.
Though Russians are believed to be upward of 20 percent of the total Jewish population of New York City and about 12 percent of the Jewish population nationally, 30 percent to 40 percent of the Russian Jews are not yet citizens and therefore are unable to vote, and only about 59 percent of eligible Russian voters have voted in recent elections compared to about 79 percent of the total Jewish population.
Nevertheless, the swing of Russian Jews toward the GOP, if it continues, has the potential to make the larger Jewish community considerably less Democratic in the longer term.
Branovan, an increasingly prominent Russian community leader, said, "I decided to take a leadership role in support of Bush in our community because Bush has a proven record on fighting international terror and providing Israel with defensible borders."
Asked why he believes Russian Jews are coming down so differently on the election than American Jews, Branovan said, "The two communities have different conceptions and priorities. Israel is the most important issue for Russian Jews, in part because a higher percentage of us have close relatives in Israel than do most American Jews.
"We see Bush as the spiritual son of Ronald Reagan and have a cultural preference for strong leaders, not those who vacillate like Kerry does," he said.
According to Sam Kliger, a sociologist who directed the survey of Russian voter attitudes on behalf of the AJC, "Having seen Sept. 11 with our own eyes and having lost friends and loved ones to terrorism in Israel, Russians relate well to Bush's talk of fighting an evil enemy in Islamic fundamentalism, just as Reagan did against communism."
He said that Russians, who mainly depend on earned income, thought that receiving a $500 check in the mail thanks to Bush's tax cuts was a big deal.
In addition, he said, Russians believe strongly in family values and support Bush in his opposition to gay marriage.
"They believe strongly that abortion should be available in all circumstances, but can't really imagine that Bush or any other president could take it away. They think maybe that could happen in some other state, but not in New York," Kliger said.
Jay Lefkowitz, co-chair of the JCRC's Jewish Voter Outreach campaign and a strong supporter of Bush, believes that "in the Russian community there will clearly be a surge in voting for George Bush in recognition of his rock-solid record on Israel and the war on terror."
His co-chair, Matt Hilzig, a strong Kerry supporter, said, "The Russian community has a lot of people struggling day to day to make ends meet who badly need social services, and that should make them responsive to [the Democratic] message."
Hank Sheinkopf, a political consultant who mainly works for Democrats, is concerned about what the growth of the Russian community in New York portends for his party not only in 2004 but in the long run.
"The future of the Jewish community in New York City clearly rests with the Russians," Sheinkopf said. "There is a question as to whether they share the communal agenda, but the Jewish community needs them if we are to have any political force in the future."
Ultimately, Sheinkopf said, the political differences between Russian Jews and native-born Jews may not be as great as they are now being perceived.
"It seems to me that the overall Jewish community is moving toward the center-right," he said. "These days the Jewish agenda is less ideological and more bread-and-butter. Jews are a lot more concerned about Israel and anti-Semitism than they are about abortion and gay rights."
Kliger said that the finding among New York Jews seem to reflect the opinions of Russian Jews across the country.
Even in the liberal enclave of San Francisco, Russian Jews are "leaning toward" Bush, said Pnina Levermore, executive director for the Bay Area Council for Jewish Rescue and Renewal. "It has largely to do with Bush's position toward Israel, which is a major factor for the émigré community."
"Most of us will vote for Bush, [because he is] such a staunch supporter of Israel for one thing and the way he handles terrorism," says Denis Hiller, 19, co-owner of a Silicon Valley high-tech company.
"[The] Russian Jewish community as a whole is pretty conservative, regardless," he said.
JTA staff writer Rachel Pomerance in New York contributed to this report.