For two decades, Nathan Hochman voted exclusively Democratic: Mondale, Dukakis, Clinton, Clinton, Gore -- the 42-year-old former assistant U.S. attorney cast his ballots for them all. To Hochman the Republican Party represented a right-wing amalgam of pro-business, anti-abortion and pro-prayer-in-school interests.
Sept. 11 changed everything. National security and Israel moved to the top of Hochman's political priorities, and on both counts he felt the Democrats fell short. Hochman felt that the Republicans, by contrast, seemed to see that peace through strength is the only option in this new era. He was also drawn to the fact that the Bush administration has made Israel's security a "foremost concern" and consistently sent "the message to the world that Israel's survival is not a debatable question."
So two years ago, for the 2004 presidential election, Hochman did the once unthinkable: He switched parties and voted for Bush. Since then, he's been preaching to friends and family about what he considers the Republicans' big tent and the party's unshakeable commitment to Israel.
"I've opened up people's eyes to the possibilities of what the Republican Party can represent," he said. "At the very least, they're listening to me."
At a time when Israel faces a dual threat from Hezbollah and Hamas -- groups classified by the U.S. Department of State as terrorist organizations -- an increasing number of Jews have become more receptive to the Republican Party's message of blanket support for Israel and its foreign policy. Put off by what they characterize as a string of anti-Israel positions taken in recent years by Democratic Party grandees, they worry that the Democrat's often anti-Israel progressive wing will continue its ascendancy. And if it does so, many Jewish Democrats might think about quitting the party entirely. At the very least, they have become more amenable to voting for moderate Republicans, according to Joel Kotkin, Irvine Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation.
"It's going to be harder and harder to be on the left and be pro-Israel," Kotkin said. "I think many Jews are going to have to choose between their leftism and their Judaism."
At the same time, Democrats argue that they remain among Israel's staunchest supporters. Former Rep. Mel Levine, for example, is a stalwart Israel partisan: "Democratic support for Israel remains solid and strong," he insisted. Attempts by the Republicans to suggest otherwise, Levine and others argue, is nothing less than a cynical ploy to peel away Jewish votes. Despite Republicans' best efforts, Democrats say, the overwhelming majority of Jews will continue to vote Democratic because of the party's steadfast support for Israel and its commitment to such core Jewish values as justice, equality and opportunity. Among the faithful is Daniel Sokatch, executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance.
"I keep hearing from the RJC [Republican Jewish Coalition], the Republican Party and commentators that this is the election when the Republicans are going to break Jewish ties to the Democratic Party," he said. "Well, I'm 38 years old, and it hasn't happened yet. And I don't think it's going to happen."
Recent opinion polls suggest, however, that Democratic support for Israel has slipped, a development that Republicans have wasted no time trying to capitalize on. In August, a study by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 68 percent of Republicans surveyed said they sympathize more with Israel than with the Palestinians, compared to just 45 percent of Democrats. Similarly, a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll, conducted between July 28 and Aug. 1, found that Republicans favored alignment with the Jewish state over neutrality by 64 percent to 29 percent. By contrast, only 39 percent of Democrats supported alignment, while 54 percent favored neutrality.
"I am very worried that the Democratic Party's pro-Israel stance will continue to show cracks," said Paul Kujawsky, vice president of the local chapter of Democrats for Israel, "and that the most [Zionistic] committed Jews will continue to flow to the Republican Party."
Nobody is suggesting a massive defection to the Republican Party by Jewish Democrats. The historical, as well as philosophical, ties that bind Jews to the party of Truman, FDR and JFK run deep, which partly explains why an estimated three out of four Jewish voters are Democrats.
Still, the Republicans have made some inroads. Nationally, President Bush won at least 26 percent of the Jewish vote in 2004, up from 19 percent in 2000, according to the Los Angeles Times. A socially moderate Republican presidential nominee with a strong record on Israel, experts said, could pull in 40 percent to 45 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008 and sweep such key swing states as Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Closer to home, the California Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) has seen its membership more than triple, to 7,000 from just 2,000 in the past 2 1/2 years, RJC California Director Larry Greenfield said. On the issue of Israel, Republicans now appear to be scoring higher in the battle for the hearts and minds of the Jewish voter, mostly because of perceived Democratic missteps:
- In a recent interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, former Democratic President Jimmy Carter said Israel launched an "unjustified attack on Lebanon" and that it lacked "any legal or moral justification for their massive bombing of the entire nation of Lebanon."
- At a time when Hezbollah rockets sent hundreds of thousands of Jews in northern Israel fleeing into bomb shelters, the local chapter of the Progressive Democrats of America voted to recommend that the United States cut off military aid to Israel.
"We don't see how shipping cluster bombs to Israel, which is going to create generational hatred, is going to help peace in the Middle East," chapter President Marcy Winograd said, adding that her group also voted to condemn Syria and Iran for supplying arms to Hezbollah. Winograd received 37 percent of the vote in her June 6 Democratic primary race against Rep. Jane Harman (D-El Segundo).
- To most political commentators, Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) lost his bid against peace candidate Ned Lamont in the Connecticut senatorial primary "because he came off as an uncritical supporter of Iraq policy, not because of his deep commitment to Israel," said Rep. Howard Berman (D-Van Nuys).
Nevertheless, many Jews have lamented that an Orthodox Jew and strong Israel supporter succumbed to a political neophyte who received much of his backing from what they see as the far-left, anti-Israel blogger wing of the Democratic Party. That two controversial former Democratic presidential candidates, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rev. Al Sharpton, flanked Lamont at his primary election celebration further discomfited many Jews. Jackson, in 1984, referred to New York City as "Hymietown"; Sharpton is alleged to have incited anti-Jewish violence in Crown Heights in the 1990s and to have referred to Chasidic Jews there as "diamond merchants."
- In 2003, Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) blamed the Jewish community for pushing the United States into Iraq. "If it were not for the strong support of the Jewish community for this war with Iraq, we would not be doing this," Moran reportedly told the Greater Reston Interfaith Peace Coalition, according to the Reston Connection newspaper.
"There's something terrible going on in the Democratic Party," said Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition in Washington, D.C. Sensing an opportunity to make political hay, the RJC in early August launched an ad campaign in more than 20 Jewish newspapers across the country, including the Jewish Journal, portraying the Democrats as soft on defense and Israel.
Below a photo of a glum looking Sen. Lieberman, the text reads: "Right now, Israel needs all the friends it can get. Sadly, the Democratic Party just took away one of Israel's best friends."
David Goldenberg, deputy executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council in Washington, D.C., believes that by running such spots, the Republicans are attempting to divide the Jewish community. He argued that the Republicans have no other issue that resonates with Jewish voters and, he said, have resorted to distorting the Democrat's positions.
"As a party, the Republicans are pro-Israel when it is expedient to be pro-Israel," Goldenberg said.
Yet there has been a long-term and genuinely heartfelt commitment to Israel among the Christian right, rebuts Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum. The single person who most reflects the Republicans' commitment is George W. Bush, he said.
But the president's Middle East policies have, in many ways, left Israel more vulnerable than ever, responded several high-ranking Democrats. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) said the U.S. war in Iraq has diminished America's ability to respond to the "real threat" in the region -- Iran, a country alleged to have nuclear ambitions and which has called for the destruction of Israel. An emboldened Iran, Waxman said, now feels "more able to openly use Hezbollah" forces against Israel to fight its proxy war against the United States.
"I think most thoughtful Jewish supporters of Israel are going to realize that it would be better if [Bush] loved us a little bit less, but would do things on behalf of U.S. and Israelis interests that are competent and successful," Waxman said.
Political consultant Bill Carrick believes that in the final analysis, Democratic officialdom's strong support of Israel will keep Jews in the party, regardless of Republican predictions to the contrary.
Indeed, in late July, the U.S. House of Representatives passed on a bipartisan 410-8 vote, a resolution that supported Israel in its confrontation with Hezbollah.
Expressions of confidence notwithstanding, at least one Democrat operative, who requested anonymity, said the party has failed to inspire an acceptable level of support for Israel among its rank-and-file.
"We have to do a better job of explaining to our constituents why the Democratic Party is pro-Israel and why that's important," he said.