November 1, 2012
So, who are you voting for?
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In the face of the RJC’s onslaught, Democrats have been working to burnish Obama’s pro-Israel credentials on a far lower budget. At an event launching a local Jews for Obama group in September, former California Congressman Mel Levine, who has been working as an informal adviser to the Obama campaign on Middle East affairs, called Obama “as pro-Israel a president as we’ve ever had.”
Sharon Nazarian, who hosted the event in the living room of her Brentwood home, joked that as “one of six” Democratic Iranian-American Jews in Los Angeles, she often has difficulty convincing people — even members of her own family — that the president’s record is pro-Israel.
“The impression in broader American society — and especially among Iranian-American Jews — is that President Obama doesn’t like Israel, he doesn’t support Israel,” Nazarian said.
Accordingly, Levine spent most of his 30-minute presentation countering attacks on the president’s record on Israel. Obama hasn’t visited Israel? Neither did George W. Bush, until his last year in office, Levine said. Ronald Reagan never visited.
Obama has distanced himself from the Jewish state? Levine pointed out that the Obama administration has doubled the United States’ financial support for missile defense systems in Israel over that of the Bush administration. He cited top Israeli officials praising the Obama administration and pointed to joint military exercises under Obama by the U.S. and Israeli militaries.
But among Los Angeles’ Jewish Republicans, it’s clear that Obama’s Israel policy is just one in a litany of disagreements they have with the president and his backers.
Bruce Bialosky, who founded the RJC chapter in Los Angeles, invited this reporter to watch the first presidential debate on Oct. 3 with him in his home in Studio City. In the first minutes of the debate, when the Republican candidate accused the president of instituting a system of “trickle-down government,” Bialosky cheered.
“If the average American has the ability to control their own destiny, they don’t have to worry about who at the top is doing the trickling,” he said.
When Larry Greenfield, a past California director of the RJC, outlines the stakes of this election, he draws a distinction that extends far beyond the realm of foreign policy.
“It’s not just Obama versus Romney,” Greenfield said in a phone interview with the Journal in October. “It’s leftism versus pragmatism.”
Now a fellow at the Claremont Institute, Greenfield has served as an unofficial surrogate for Romney for three different Jewish audiences around Los Angeles in the past month. While his version of a pro-Romney stump speech covers international affairs, Greenfield also spends time on economic and social issues, working to allay voter concerns about the Republican nominee’s social agenda — “I’m actually pretty confident Gov. Romney has no instinct to criminalize, prosecute or regulate away abortions,” Greenfield said, in his effort to advocate for Romney’s ability to relate to Jews.
“I’ve been with Gov. Romney,” Greenfield said. “He’s expressed just incredible warmth to the Jewish community, identifying with it as a religious minority in America.”
Still, among some members of the Jewish community, foreign policy dominates political discussions.
Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom, who brought Greenfield to his synagogue for a presentation on a Shabbat afternoon in October, said his congregants know that as their rabbi he won’t talk electoral politics with them.But that doesn’t stop them from asking Feinstein what he thinks.
Feinstein said his congregants do want to talk about domestic issues — male congregants “tend to talk about economic issues, who’s going to reduce taxes, who’s going to increase business development,” while women “are interested in the government’s role in regulating women’s health” — but the question of who would be better for Israel is the one he gets asked most often, by a long shot.
“Among my people here in shul,” Feinstein said, “the No. 1 issue is protecting Israel, and, specifically, protecting Israel from Iran, and, secondarily, protecting Israel from Palestinian extremist terrorism. They want to hear what I have to say about that.”
Just as Republicans are critical of the president on a range of issues — including what they see as his hostile stance toward Israel —Jewish Democrats are supporting Obama for a similarly wide range of reasons.
Even the Jews who gathered to watch the third presidential debate at parties sponsored by J Street — an advocacy group dedicated to a single foreign-policy issue, advancing a peaceful two-state resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — appeared ready to support the president, despite their frustration that Obama hasn’t done more in his four years in office to advance their cause.
“Our disappointment is not in Obama, although we would’ve liked him to pursue a more progressive agenda,” said Richard Stein, a retired English professor who hosted in his Brentwood home one of Los Angeles’ three J Street viewing parties. “Our disappointment has more to do with the intransigence of the Republican Party.”
In talking about Republican intransigence, Stein wasn’t speaking specifically about J Street’s agenda. J Street supported the framework that Obama laid out in his May 2011 speech, in which he proposed using Israel’s pre-1967-war borders as a starting point for negotiations for a future Palestinian state. Opposition to that proposal came from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
But on many other issues — including stimulus proposals and, most notably, anything involving raising taxes — Obama’s proposals have met a wall of Republican resistance.
“There’s pretty well nothing that Obama could propose that the Republicans would pass,” Stein said, “all the more so if it looks like it would be reasonable or successful.”
In Los Angeles, a largely Democratic region, the presidential contest surely doesn’t pivot on the Jewish vote, and the national result certainly won’t hinge on the reliably blue state of California. But in the handful of swing states where the campaigns are fighting for each vote on the ground and over the airwaves, it is the nonideological, largely uncommitted voters — some of them Jewish — who will be making choices that will determine the result.
And along with the voters who will weigh multiple issues before making their decisions and those who are singularly focused on a single policy area are some Americans who will choose the next president based on something much less quantifiable — their gut feelings.
Standing near the back of the boardroom at the L.A. Federation’s Wilshire Boulevard headquarters after the close of the third presidential debate, Arman Baroukh said he hadn’t been able to glean much in the way of particular issue-based or policy differences between Obama and Romney from that evening’s exchange.
“It was a lot of bickering, and, ‘You’re a liar,’ and, ‘I’m not a liar,’ back and forth,” Baroukh said.
Still, Baroukh, an Iranian-American Jew in his 30s who works in real estate and in the medical supply business, is not a fan of Obama and was concerned that the president might win another term.
Baroukh didn’t vote for Obama in 2008 — indeed, he said he didn’t vote at all that year, and wasn’t certain that he’d cast a ballot this year, either.
“I’m going to try to make some time to vote this year, yeah,” he said. “Knowing how close it is, I’m more motivated to vote this year.”
But then there’s Judy Mayerson.
At 91, Mayerson was the oldest member of the Westside JCC Tuesday morning exercise class. She’s voted in quite a few presidential elections and bears a healthy dose of skepticism about what candidates say during campaigns.
“The issues usually are, can they really do what they promise?” Mayerson, who came to the class with her daughter-in-law, said. “And they never do, so you’re always skeptical. But you try to be broad-minded about it.”
Mayerson said she’ll vote for Obama this year but didn’t offer specifics in explaining why, beyond the simplest one of all.
“Mostly I’m a Democrat, so I follow that line,” she said. “Usually, I find that the candidates — I prefer them to the Republicans.”
The polls open at 7 a.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 6.
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