Across the United States, Jewish community professionals are honing their skills of persuasion, preparing to deal with a new crop of lawmakers unfamiliar with Jewish organizational priorities — and who could be unenthusiastic once they’re in the know.
This season of anti-incumbent sentiment, much of it swelling from the political right, presents the likelihood of a Republican take-over of at least one house of Congress. The GOP needs 39 seats to win in the House of Representatives; pollsters are predicting gains of 17 to 80 seats.
The Tea Party insurgency has pushed past the GOP primaries a crop of candidates who have never held political office. Many of the freshmen are likely to arrive in Washington sharing their party’s warmth for Israel, but knowing little about the Jewish state or U.S. domestic issues that Jewish federations traditionally champion — elder care, poverty relief and other community services.
“In the Tea Party, the concern to dismantle government is very strong and, for better or worse, the Jewish community has prospered and gotten used to involved government, grants, social services, government aid to Israel,” said Marshall Berger, the Reagan administration liaison to the Jewish community who now teaches law at Catholic University. “Once they start cutting, it’s going to be hard to make exceptions.”
The strategy, said Joyce Graver Keller, the executive director of Ohio Jewish Communities, a group that lobbies for the state’s federations, is to make friends now to prepare for more nuanced meetings after January.
In the meetings she has with candidates, Keller outlines broad areas of concern, leading with support for Israel and the need to confront Iran over its suspected nuclear program, and then explaining Jewish community backing for safety-net spending.
She anticipates a long learning curve in a number of cases. “We have people running who have never been to Israel, and even if they have a position paper, they don’t grasp that it’s more than a war zone,” Keller said.
In some cases the learning curve may be insurmountable.
Hours after Keller spoke in an interview Oct. 8, The Atlantic magazine revealed that Rich Lott, a Tea Party-backed candidate in the Toledo, Ohio, area, for years had spent weekends dressing up as an SS officer as a member of a group that re-enacted Nazi maneuvers.
Lott, who has never held public office, seemed baffled that anyone was taking offense, even after the national Republican Party made him politico non grata.
“Never, in any of my re-enacting of military history, have I meant any disrespect to anyone who served in our military or anyone who has been affected by the tragedy of war, especially the Jewish community,” he said in a statement.
Lott is an extreme example, but across the country, community outreach officials are fretting over a political demographic that hasn’t had much overlap with Jews.
Matt Goldberg, the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) director in Louisville, Ky., said he was worried that spending reductions would result in cuts to security and social programs for seniors.
National officials forecast a grim winter, noting threats by incumbent Tea Party-backed GOP senators Jim DeMint of South Carolina and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma to dry up spending. Despite overtures by top Jewish officials, DeMint will not budge, insiders said.
If DeMint and Coburn are joined by another handful of hard-liners, they could muster the power to bring government to a halt, using the Senate’s arcane parliamentary rules that grant even lone senators sweeping powers to gum up legislation.
“If you have Rand Paul in Kentucky; if you have Sharron Angle in Nevada; if you have Joe Miller in Alaska; you can have a tremendous impact on social services,” said one official, referring to three races where budget-slashing Tea Party-backed candidates are competitive.
Of concern are possible cuts to Medicare and Medicaid, programs seen as vital to sustaining food and medical assistance to the poor and the elderly.
“One of the things we’ve been working on with local JCRCs is looking at the most vulnerable populations, the new people in poverty,” said Josh Protas, the Washington director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the JCRC umbrella that is a partner in the interfaith Fighting Poverty With Faith campaign. “Certainly a lot of the service agencies are feeling the brunt of this.”
One frustration for Jewish officials has been the demonization of “earmarks,” the district-specific spending widely derided as “pork” by conservatives. Earmarks fund an array of programs favored by Jewish groups, including naturally occurring retirement communities, the jewel in the Federation system crown, and grants that enhance security at Jewish institutions.
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