Only two pairs of Jewish rival candidates have survived all primary battles and other obstacles to face one another. The two Democratic congressmen of the CA-30 race - the much talked about (Howard) Berman vs. (Brad) Sherman. And two not-so-famous local politicians in Florida.
Meet Lois Frankel, a Democratic candidate, former mayor of West Palm Beach and former Minority Leader in the Florida House. And meet Adam Hasner, a Republican candidate, former Majority Leader in the Florida House.
Polls show the race is a dead heat - or do they? This one, from about two weeks ago, gives Hasner a slight advantage. This one, a week later, says Frankel is leading, but only by three points. Internal Democratic polls, though, point to a far clearer Frankel lead. In Democratic circles, the internal polls are considered to be more serious, more nuanced and well researched. Hasner, naturally, points to the fact that the non-biased polls are those in which there’s a tie.
I should note, however, that in my week-long visit to Florida I met a few Republican operatives who all thought that a Hasner victory would be a very big surprise in a district that is new and untested, in an area known to be more hospitable to Democratic candidates, Barack Obama included.
Whatever happens in this race, it won't change our House Jewish Projection for the 2012 election cycle. When both candidates are Jewish, a Jew is (obviously) going to win. Of course, a Hasner victory would be both more surprising and more Jewishly significant, as it would add a second Jewish Republican to the House. Hasner is also the candidate more openly putting his Jewishness forward in this race, while Frankel is much more reluctant to make a Jewish case. This is obvious for anyone looking at their website bios: Hasner's says he’s Jewish in the second sentence; Frankel's doesn’t mention it.
“The values I was brought up with reflect priorities of this community”, Frankel told me last week, when we met for a long conversation in West Palm Beach, where she had been mayor. But she believes that “Jewish voters are no different from other voters”, and doesn’t feel the need to “wear my Judaism on my sleeve”.
Adam Hasner with his wife Jillian: 'If you are
a one-issue Jewish voter, Israel should be it.'
Earlier on the day of our conversation, Hasner had met with Sol Urbach, a "Schindler’s List" survivor, at his office in Boca Raton. Urbach had come to convey his support, and Hasner apologized for being late to our meeting because he couldn’t cut Urbach short.
When Hasner talks about the Jewish voter, he sounds quite different to Frankel. “No voter should be a single issue voter”, he says. About 15 percent of the area voters are Jewish, some highly involved in the campaigns. And both Hasner and Frankel believe that for many the economic issues will be front and center, and that they will be looking for the candidate who makes sense on the bigger issues of the day.
Even so, Hasner has made Israel a central part of his campaign. “If you are a one-issue Jewish voter”, he says, “Israel should be it”. Quite a statement for an American, I tell him. “It is”, he agrees. But 60 years after the Holocaust, “the security of Israel – the security of Jews – is the possible one issue for Jews”.
With Frankel, I spend a couple of hours traveling through downtown West Palm Beach, her city. She shows me the public library, her pride – and it is not hard to see why. Frankel was an active two-term mayor, at times controversial, often confrontational. “A brash politician with big goals and the will to achieve them, no matter who stood in her way”, is how the Palm Beach Post described her.
She seems more bored than angry when I ask about Israel. Bored by the need to defend herself when she was “pro-Israel before Adam was even born”. Bored by the need to explain to Jewish voters that “making Israel a partisan issue doesn’t help Israel”. Israel “doesn’t need to be an issue in this campaign”, she says, and quickly goes back to explaining why she’s the right choice: the economy, social safety nets, women’s rights, the role of government – on all of these issues she is the one representing the interests and the desires of the 22nd District voters, so she believes.
We walk through a downtown West Palm Beach that was turned upside down and renovated under her leadership. This is an example to what government can do. Of course, she says, government cannot and should not be doing it all alone – the business community has to step in. But igniting the process, initiating it, is the role of a government.
Conveniently, both candidates claim that “differences between us are very clear”, as Hasner puts it. This is of course true when talking about economic issues, about the Obama administration. It is also true when it comes to Israel, but in somewhat different way: Hasner’s emphasis on the issue is in great contrast to Frankel’s dismissive reluctance to make it one.
For me, though, their markedly different answers to all questions related to the Jewish vote, to Jewish voters, was the most telling. It is reflective of two world views, one giving Judaism a central role in public life, the other considering it a more private matter; one seeking an expression of communal Jewish interests, the other refraining from any such communal otherness.
If either is more Jewishly engaged, I cannot tell. That depends in many ways on one's definition of “engagement”. Hasner was leading a Florida bill of divestment from Iran, and did so, no doubt, both because he felt this was an American interest but also because he felt that this is his duty as a Jew. Frankel also says that her belief in social activism and social justice stems from her Jewish upbringing.
That they choose such different paths can lead to one of two possible conclusions: either one of the two candidates is more influenced by Jewish values and commitments and the other is just faking it – or that Judaism is just broad enough to include both ideologies and ways of communicating them.
Check out Rosner's new book, The Jewish Vote: Obama vs. Romney / A Jewish Voter's Guide