Republicans have seized on the assertion of Rep. James P. Moran (D-Va.) that Jews are determining American policy toward Iraq as a new weapon in the GOP's long-term effort to attract traditionally Democratic Jewish voters and donors.
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) told a group of more than 150 Orthodox Jewish leaders from around the country yesterday that the Democratic Party "appears to countenance remarks like those made by Representative Moran in the past few weeks."
DeLay has been the driving force in the Republican effort to capitalize on President Bush's strong support of Israel and his leadership in the war on terrorism to weaken Democratic support and financial backing from Jews.
"There are only a few key pillars left holding up the Democratic coalition, especially financial pillars, and if we can fracture one of them, they [Democrats] are going to go into 2004 in big trouble," a GOP strategist said.
In states such as Florida and New York, Jewish voters are a large enough percentage of voters to play a crucial role in election outcomes. In presidential elections, Democratic candidates depend on Jewish supporters to supply as much as 60 percent of the money raised from private sources. Any significant reduction in the financial support will weaken Democratic candidates and the Democratic Party organizations.
While Bill Clinton was president, he received strong support from Jewish voters, many of whom backed his efforts to negotiate a peace settlement in the Middle East. But with the collapse of the peace process and the outbreak of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, the GOP has sought to win support from more right-leaning Jews who no longer view the Palestinian Authority as a legitimate negotiating partner.
Joining DeLay yesterday in his meeting with representatives of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America was another key figure in the Republican effort, Rep. Eric I. Cantor (R-Va.). Cantor said Moran's comments were "reminiscent of the accusations contained in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion," a notorious Czarist forgery that fomented pogroms against Jews in 19th-century Russia.
Cantor, the chief deputy whip and the only Jewish Republican in the House, said in an interview, "Jews in this country may not be able to afford to be Democrats. . . . One party [the GOP] is absolutely resolute in its commitment to Israel."
The remarks by Cantor and DeLay drew sustained applause and a standing ovation from the Orthodox Jewish leaders.
"On many issues that are very important to the Jewish community, and especially the Orthodox community that I represent, the Republicans are striking chords that ring very true, and that's going to be reflected in future elections," said Harvey Blitz of New York, president of the Orthodox Union.
There is evidence that Republicans are winning defections among some moderate and liberal Jews, as well. Late last year, two prominent Jewish leaders who strongly supported Democrats in the past -- Jack Rosen, chairman of the American Jewish Congress, and Michael Sonnenfeldt, former chairman of the moderate Israel Policy Forum -- gave $100,000 and $10,000, respectively, to the Republican National Committee. Dawn Arnall of California, who has donated primarily to Democrats, gave the RNC $1 million on Oct. 24, 2002.
Polling data are more ambiguous.
Steven M. Cohen of the Hebrew University's Melton Centre for Jewish Education said a survey he oversaw in late 2002 suggests that "American Jews may be poised on the edge of a historic shift to the right in their political views. . . . Younger Jews are far more willing than their elders to identify as Republicans and to approve of President Bush, suggesting that the Democrats' advantage among Jews will shrink during the coming decades."
But annual surveys conduced by the American Jewish Committee dispute this finding, and show very little shift away from either liberalism or the Democratic Party.
Rosen said that as long as the political agenda is dominated by terrorism and threats to the survival of Israel, Republicans will have a strong chance to make gains in the Jewish community. But if the agenda returns to domestic issues, including abortion, prayer in school and minority rights, Democratic strength among Jews will revive, he said.
At a church forum in Reston earlier this month, Moran said, "if it were not for the strong support of the Jewish community for this war with Iraq, we would not be doing this." His comments were more ammunition for the GOP's contention that Democrats who oppose a war in Iraq are insufficiently concerned about Israel's security.
For the past three days, Democrats have put on a full-court press to try to limit the damage from Moran's comments, with a parade of Democratic congressional leaders and presidential candidates denouncing his comments.
Six Jewish Democrats in the House, including Henry A. Waxman (Calif.), Benjamin L. Cardin (Md.) and Sander M. Levin (Mich.), yesterday called on Moran to retire in 2004, and if he runs again, "we cannot and will not support his candidacy." They warned that Moran's "inflammatory" comments "can unleash unintended and dangerous consequences."
For Republican strategists, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war on terrorism and the prospect of war with Iraq have been key to building an alliance with Jews. In the main, Jews have been suspicious of the GOP's ties to the religious right, have opposed the GOP's stand against abortion and have criticized the Republican Party's willingness to weaken the separation of church and state through such policies as Bush's "faith-based" initiative. Matthew Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, calls the changed environment the "perfect storm" that could lead to a historic political shift.
DeLay has perhaps the strongest ties to the Christian right of any Republican in the House. He has repeatedly stressed his commitment to Israel, and helped foster a growing bond between American Jewish leaders and evangelical Christians who support the Israeli cause.
"The path to security and stability lies down the road that Israel has already traveled," DeLay told the Orthodox group yesterday. "The Israelis don't need to change their course. They don't need to travel the path of weakness as defined by the neo-appeasers."
DeLay's adamant backing of Israel played a key role in a successful fundraiser he held last summer in Englewood, N.J., at which Jewish donors gave his Americans for a Republican Majority PAC about $100,000.