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Jewish Journal

Vying for Jewish hearts, minds and votes

by Tom Tugend

September 5, 2012 | 11:33 am

From left: President Barack Obama and Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney

From left: President Barack Obama and Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney

The battle for the Jewish vote is in full swing, with Democrats and Republicans deploying their most stentorian spokespersons.

As the din of the clashing rhetoric escalates during the countdown to the Nov. 6 election, it might be useful to list the Jewish outreach organizations and leaders on both sides — what military manuals call the order of battle.

To start, both parties have their in-house Jewish-focused campaign organizations, which proclaim the righteous deeds of the party candidate and defend him against the outrageous lies of his opponents.

For the Republicans, that task falls to Jewish Americans for Romney, part of the portfolio of national coalitions director Joshua Baca. Carrying the banner for the Democrats is the Jewish outreach for Obama, directed by veteran Washington hand Ira Forman.

Secondly, each major party is supported by a standing organization, classified as nonprofit under IRS rule 501(c) 4, whose major purpose is supposedly the promotion of social welfare.

Such an organization — like a super PAC — is not allowed to coordinate its activities with a political campaign arm, though the distinction may be difficult to discern by the untutored eye.

The National Jewish Democratic Council does the job for the Democrats, headed by president and CEO David A. Harris (frequently confused with David A. Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee).

Its counterpart on the Republican side is the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC), under Executive Director Matt Brooks.

Everybody on board, so far?

Recently, the confrontation between the campaign arms on both sides has been enlivened by the formation of Rabbis for Obama, with 613 American rabbis signed up as supporters at latest count.

The signatories quickly learned that even rabbis are not exempt from partisan warfare.

As soon as the membership list of Rabbis for Obama was made public in late August, the RJC pounced on the name of Lynn Gottlieb, a Renewal rabbi from Berkeley.

Gottlieb sits on the advisory board of Jewish Voice for Peace, which, according to its Web site, supports the use of boycott, divestment and sanctions to pressure Israel into ending its occupation of the West Bank.

In a statement and in ads, RJC has called on pro-Obama rabbis to distance themselves from Gottlieb and from seven other Jewish Voice for Peace rabbis who also signed on as Obama supporters.

The Obama campaigns shot back by pointing to the president’s strong support of Israel and toughest-ever actions against Iran, but noted that “the president obviously does not endorse or embrace [the rabbis’] every affiliation, action or utterance.”

Although Baca, the coalition director for the Romney campaign, said there were no plans to form a Rabbis for Romney group, such a move is actually in the works in California, without the knowledge, so far, of the Romney staff.

The organizer is Rabbi Dov Fischer of Young Israel of Orange County, who has sent out a proposal to fellow Modern Orthodox members of the Rabbinical Council of America to sign a support statement for Romney.

So far, Fischer said, he has received more than 100 positive responses, and he will now broaden the appeal to lists of Conservative rabbis.

In interviews with rabbis and lay leaders of the major Jewish denominations, there was broad agreement that political preferences tended to parallel theological divisions. Reform and Reconstructionist rabbis and congregants lean overwhelmingly toward Obama, the Orthodox toward Romney, while Conservatives are found in both camps, with perhaps an edge for Obama.

Rabbinical leaders of pro-Romney and pro-Obama groups stressed their support for Israel, with each side claiming that its candidate was the more ardent defender of the Jewish state.

However, pro-Obama rabbis put equal emphasis on the domestic social policies of the president, a stand likely to find considerable resonance in the American Jewish community.

Among the vice chairs of the national Rabbis for Obama group are two well-known Los Angeles scholars, Reform Rabbi Richard N. Levy and Conservative Rabbi Elliot Dorff.

Dorff, rector and distinguished professor of philosophy at the American Jewish University, made the point that as a rabbi he represents the Jewish tradition, which, by his light, included a concern for the social welfare and health care of all the people.

Levy, rabbi of the campus synagogue and director of spiritual growth at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, similarly noted that in addition to support for Israel, “there are moral and ethical aspects” in working for or against a given candidate.

Obama campaign Jewish outreach director Forman cited among his staff’s major activities close contact with Jewish leaders in cities and states, media relations with print, digital and video outlets, and monitoring the Romney campaign.

Other priorities include deploying “truth teams” to rebut charges against Obama, and supporting Jewish Leadership Councils, especially in such likely battleground states as Florida, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Colorado.

The revised figure for the 2008 Jewish vote for Obama stands at 74 percent, and Forman was confident that the results would be similar come November. Current polls show considerably lower levels of Jewish support for the president, but Forman argues that back in July 2008, Obama was projected to get only 61 to 62 percent of the Jewish vote.

Baca, the coalition’s director for the Romney campaign, said he was conducting an “aggressive” drive for the Jewish vote, though he is “respectful of differences within the Jewish community.”

The latter observation may point to the Republican realization that the party’s domestic social platform is unlikely to appeal to the majority of Jewish voters. Baca cited support for Israel as his main talking point, though not neglecting the issues of jobs and the economy.

“Gov. Romney took the time to visit Israel, and while there spoke of the ‘sacred bond’ between the United States and Israel,” Baca said.

Rabbis who speak out on politics are assumed to carry a certain moral authority, but they must be careful to draw a line between their free-speech rights as individual Americans and their roles as leaders of congregations, whose tax-exempt status forbids involvement in partisan politics.

Reform Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills emphasized that “by becoming a rabbi, I didn’t give up my rights of citizenship. However, I would never endorse a political candidate from the bimah.” Her attitude was echoed by half a dozen other interviewed rabbis.

In broad terms, rabbis tend to reflect the political and ideological views of their congregations, and vice versa, but there are usually some exceptions.

Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben of the Reconstructionist Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades, and a Rabbis for Obama member, reported having heard objections to his political involvement from some members. “Some people told me I shouldn’t take any public position in an election, and others said that it’s not a rabbi’s job to get involved in political issues,” Reuben said.

So far, however, he knows of no member who has walked out and left the congregation because of his political stand. Nevertheless, Reuben, like many of his colleagues, is deeply worried by the “toxic political climate” pervading current campaigning.

“It is too easy to defame someone with a casual aside, or not take responsibility for what we say, counter to Jewish values,” said Reuben, who will preach on the need for civility during the High Holy Days.

Rabbi Fischer, who estimated that 98 percent of his Orange County congregation supported Romney, cited one example of the intensity of political emotions.

Even he was surprised when, after reciting a prayer for the health of the president of the United States, some anti-Obama congregants asked him to omit the prayer in the future. Fischer said that he declined to do so.

There is at least one rabbi who is taking his politics one stage further by running for office. He is the Orthodox Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, a prolific columnist and author whose books include “Kosher Sex” and “Dating Secrets of the Ten Commandments.” Boteach is the Republican candidate in New Jersey’s 9th Congressional District, just across the bridge from Manhattan, which contains sizable Jewish and Arab communities.

During a phone interview, Boteach criticized the country’s decades-long obsession with gay marriage, abortion and contraceptives, but focused mainly on foreign policy.

He charged that President Obama had failed to promote freedom and human rights throughout the world, most recently by not intervening to aid rebel fighters in Syria.

By contrast, he praised former President George W. Bush for establishing “democracy in Iraq.” Boteach’s super PAC reportedly has received $500,000 from casino owner Sheldon Adelson. 

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