October 15, 2008
Which way will we vote? The Jewish community is split as campaign tactics intensify division
(Page 2 - Previous Page)Shelly Mandell's endorsement was a surprising one. Mandell, a Westside attorney, is the Los Angeles president of the National Organization for Women (NOW), the leader in feminist activism, and there she was at a Carson rally on Oct. 4, introducing Republican vice presidential nominee Palin.
"This," Mandell said, "is what a feminist looks like."
Booed when she identified herself as a lifelong Democrat, Mandell continued by stating that Palin "is a reformer who will break up that ol' boys network" and expressing hope that she might be able to change Palin's mind regarding Roe v. Wade.
The move was not appreciated by NOW's national office. Its political action committee had endorsed Obama a few weeks before. Mandell's endorsement, though, was indicative of the traditionally Democratic voters who aren't inspired by their party's candidate this year.
For her part, Palin really didn't need an introduction.
Few people had heard of the Alaskan governor when McCain tapped her to be his running mate Aug. 29. But she immediately became a preferred story subject, from her teenage daughter's pregnancy and conservative Christian worldview to her political experience and press-shy blunders. She also breathed new life into "Saturday Night Live," bringing her doppleganger, Tina Fey, back to that show's cast.
There has been hand-wringing since the get-go about whether she would be good for the Jews, not least because Palin is a self-styled Mrs. Joe Six-Pack.
Officials with the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) spoke glowingly of Palin, noting that the only flag in her governor's office is a small Israeli flag.
"She keeps that flag in her office because she keeps Israel in her heart," said Matthew Brooks, RJC executive director. "She, like John McCain, understands how to stand by Israel and support Israel and get a comprehensive peace agreement in the region."
But questions persisted.
Palin had been in the audience of her church only two weeks before joining McCain, when the national director of Jews for Jesus, David Brickner, said terrorist attacks in Israel were God's "judgment of unbelief."
"When a Palestinian from East Jerusalem took a bulldozer and went plowing through a score of cars, killing numbers of people," Brickner said, "judgment -- you can't miss it."
And people began to wonder about Palin's real view of the Jews. (She hasn't spoken about Jews, only Israel, though Larry Greenfield, RJC's California director, asserted the day Palin was selected that she was "close to the Frozen Chosen!")
The McCain campaign responded by saying Palin did not agree with Brickner's remarks. But that brouhaha was quickly followed by news that Palin's speech at the Republican National Convention used direct passages from the writings of the notorious anti-Semite, Westbrook Pegler, a mid-century columnist for the Hearst newspaper chain who once wished, in print, for the assassination of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Like Obama, Palin also was immediately plagued by a handful of untrue rumors: That she backed Pat Buchanan for president in 2000 (she supported Steve Forbes); that she moved to ban books from the Wasilla library (she asked "what if?"); and that she is a secret secessionist (she was never a member of the Alaskan Independent Party).
Amid all this noise, a few people also raised concerns about Palin's politics.
"Some of the hostility and mocking of Gov. Palin," Greenfield said, "is simply anti-Christian bigotry and discomfort with this common sense sort of Mrs. Palin Goes to Washington kind of leadership that she offers."
The acrimony surrounding Sen. Hillary Clinton's long goodbye from the Democratic presidential primary left a terribly sour taste in her supporters' mouths. This, in turn, led to much worrying that these folks would, in anger, vote for McCain. And that was before he picked a woman as his running mate.
One of Clinton's biggest backers, Lynn Forrester de Rothschild, made the move last month.
"I believe that Barack Obama, with MoveOn.org and Nancy Pelosi and Howard Dean, has taken the Democratic Party -- and they will continue to -- too far to the left," she told the Associated Press. "I'm not comfortable there."
Rothschild, who has resigned from the Democratic National Committee's planning committee, said she feels McCain would run a "centrist" government.
But Rothschild has been the exception to the rule. For an indication of just how difficult it's been for Clinton supporters, look to Daphna Ziman.
Ziman was one of Clinton's bundlers here in California. She and her husband, Richard, hosted several fundraisers for Clinton at their Beverly Hills home. And Ziman was terrified about what Obama might mean for her native Israel.
"I don't really know what he is going to do for Israel. It is a big question mark," she said in a January interview. "And we can't afford the risk."
But Ziman recently changed her tune, and this month she co-hosted with Clinton a fundraiser for Obama in downtown Los Angeles.
Why? Reproductive rights.
McCain has expressed a desire to see Roe v. Wade overturned; Palin is even more passionately pro-life. For Ziman, who founded the charity, Children Uniting Nations, which mentors inner-city kids, voting for a conservative who would likely replace at least three Supreme Court justices was out of the question.
"When I look at Islamofascism across the Muslim world, it is based on the lack of women's rights, and the ability to sacrifice that in an election is not an option for me," Ziman said.
As for Israel, Obama's selection of Biden as a running mate calmed, though it did not allay, those fears. Other prominent Los Angeles Jews have felt no discomfort regarding Obama and Israel.
Stanley P. Gold, chairman of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and a substantial giver to the Democratic Party, had backed Clinton. Now, he's known to be supporting Obama. (Gold declined to comment because of his role as the Federation's lay leader.)
Additionally, several luminaries in the L.A. rabbinate are among the leaders of Rabbis for Obama -- the first time rabbis have banded together to endorse a candidate. The organization's co-chair is Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector at American Jewish University.
"Sen. McCain has voted for President Bush's policies 95 percent of the time, and he promises to continue those policies if elected president," Dorff said when he introduced Obama in a conference call last month with 900 rabbis. "That, though, is disastrous. Absolutely nothing is better now for our country than it was eight years ago."
"Obama, by contrast," Dorff continued, "offers us intelligence, caring, individual rights; well thought out programs for improvement in education and health care; programs to stimulate American productivity and to develop alternative sources of energy; respect and honesty in dealing with our fellow citizens and our allies -- and, yes, wise and firm support for Israel and for peace in the Middle East."
Like many, Carmen Warschaw, a matriarch of L.A. Jewry, needed no convincing. She's been in Obama's camp all along.
Back in June, her home was filled with a coterie of Hollywood's who's who -- including Jeffrey Katzenberg, CEO of DreamWorks Animation, and Michael Lynton, chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures. The mission of the Obama Los Angeles Jewish Community Leadership Committee, organized by the campaign, was to convince Jews that Obama should get their vote.
But other well-known L.A. Jews, like Ozzie Goren, the 86-year-old former Federation president, haven't been moved by Obama's message.
"Obama is a brilliant speaker. But does he say anything? Nope," Goren said. "It's just 'hope' and 'change' and 'my time.'"
One media macher you wouldn't have found at Warschaw's Beverly Hills home is Harry Sloan.
As chairman and CEO of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, Sloan is an anomaly. It's unusual for Jews to be Republicans -- only about 17 percent of Jews identify as such, according to the American Jewish Committee -- but it's almost unheard of for a Hollywood insider.
He twice held fundraisers at his home for McCain, first in January 2007 and again last January. On Oct. 1, he introduced Cindy McCain at a fundraiser at the Century Plaza Hotel that brought in $3.5 million from business folks and a few Hollywood stars, including, Jon Voight and Kelsey Grammer.
Sloan, a lifelong Republican, said in an interview that, like most Americans, he is frustrated with where our country is now and headed in the future. He doesn't lay the blame squarely on the Bush administration but disperses it over all of Washington's insiders. And McCain's willingness to stand his ground when convinced of the correct course -- with unpopular immigration reform or the surge in Iraq, for example -- is exactly what he believes Washington needs.
"He is not Mr. Congeniality because he tries to make changes. We have a country that seems to be on the wrong course," Sloan said. "I don't really think he is afraid to take on anybody."
Certainly not with Iran. That's one distinction between the candidates that has highlighted the differences between hawks and doves, of varying degrees, in the Jewish community.
Both candidates have said Iran cannot be allowed to obtain nuclear weapons; on this there is no disagreement. But Obama seems more interested in talking softly, while McCain wants to wield a big stick.
Contrary to what is commonly repeated, Obama has said he would be willing to talk with leaders of rogue nations but never said he would meet with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who denies the Holocaust and wants to see Israel wiped off the face of the Earth. Indeed, Ayatollah Khamenei is actually the head of Iran .
Not surprisingly, both sides have spun their candidate's position as being in the best interest of Israel.
"I believe that to some degree this election is a referendum on what are the most important issues of our time," said Rabbi Isaac Jeret of Congregation Ner Tamid. "To my mind, the security of the State of Israel, the security of our own country, our financial wherewithal, are the major issues of the day."
"Who selects which Supreme Court is less my immediate issue," Jeret continued, "Is the environment our national priority, for many people it is. But I want to be around for many years to address those issues, and there are many existential issues for our country and the State of Israel that are at hand."