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Jewish voters: left, left, left, right, left

Republican support for Israel has left many voters wondering how to cast their ballots.

By MARC BALLON, Special to the Times
Published October 29, 2006


The Democrats have a Jewish problem.

For decades, the party of Roosevelt, Truman and JFK supported Israel with a heartfelt passion born from the belief that the Jewish state was good, just and democratic. However, the times they are a changing.

In recent years, strident voices have emerged condemning Israel as immoral, opportunistic and a drag on U.S. foreign policy. In an interview with the German magazine Der Spiegel, for instance, former Democratic President Jimmy Carter said Israel launched an "unjustified attack on Lebanon." At a time when Hezbollah rockets sent hundreds of thousands of Israelis fleeing into bomb shelters, the Progressive Democrats of Los Angeles voted to recommend that the United States cut off military aid to Israel.

In Connecticut, political neophyte Ned Lamont celebrated his primary defeat over Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew and ardent supporter of Israel, by appearing on the podium flanked by two former Democratic presidential candidates: the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who once referred to New York City as "Hymietown," and the Rev. Al Sharpton, who allegedly helped incite anti-Jewish riots in Crown Heights in the 1990s.

Meanwhile, Republican support for Israel has grown stronger than ever. Driven by a president who has cultivated a special relationship with the Jewish state and the deep emotional and spiritual bonds felt by evangelical Christians, the Republican Party appears to have replaced the Democrats as Israel's closest friend.

Recent opinion polls highlight the widening chasm. 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 45 percent of Democrats. Similarly, a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll 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.

None of this is to suggest a massive Jewish defection to the Republican Party. The historical, as well as philosophical, ties that bind Jews to the Democrats run deep, which partly explains why an estimated three out of four Jews vote Democratic. Furthermore, Democrats in Congress are every bit as pro-Israel as their Republican colleagues.

In politics, though, perception is reality. And many Jews now perceive that Democratic support for Israel is softening, a particularly troubling development with Israel facing Hezbollah and Hamas on two fronts and an Iranian regime, with nuclear aspirations, calling for the Jewish state's destruction.

Against this backdrop, the Republicans have made some inroads. Nationally, President Bush won about 26 percent of the Jewish vote in 2004, up from 19 percent in 2000. A socially moderate Republican presidential nominee with a strong record on Israel could pull in 40 percent to 45 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008, enough to possibly make a difference in such key swing states as Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Unless the Democratic leadership begins to condemn those within the party's ranks now attacking Israel, "It's going to be harder and harder to be on the left and be pro-Israel," said Joel Kotkin, Irvine Senior Fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based New America Foundation. "I think many Jews are going to have to choose between their leftism and their Judaism."

Marc Ballon, a former staff reporter at the Los Angeles Times and Forbes magazine, now writes for the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles and teaches journalism at Cal State Fullerton in Orange County.

[Last modified October 28, 2006, 09:56:22]

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