Jews weigh in on the start of U.S. primary season
When Chabad Lubavitch of New Hampshire director Rabbi Levi Krinsky offered U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman an aliyah to the Torah in 2004, Lieberman—not a Cohen or a Levi—told Krinsky: “I’m a plain old Joe.”
Lieberman, who received the sixth aliyah that morning, went on to finish fifth in the subsequent New Hampshire presidential primary, squelching his momentum in the race. Krinsky regretted his decision, telling the Shomer Shabbat senator from Connecticut: “Joe, I would’ve given you shlishi (the third aliyah), at least.”
As Krinsky told JointMedia News Service, candidates who don’t win the New Hampshire primary but still come in second or third stay in the thick of the running for their party’s nomination, while those who finish fifth or sixth say, “Okay, I lost my support.”
The countdown to Election Day 2012 is officially underway, with the Jan. 3 Iowa caucus and Jan. 10 New Hampshire primary for the Republican challengers to President Barack Obama. Both states have small Jewish populations—6,000 for Iowa (0.2 percent of the state’s total population) and 10,000 for New Hampshire (0.8 percent of the state), according to 2010 figures from the Jewish Virtual Library.
While the Jewish vote won’t determine the outcome of these early primaries, the issues raised by Republican Jewish voters around the country have already “seeped into the general consciousness,” said Richard Baehr, chief political correspondent for American Thinker.
Baehr cited the fact that the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC), in its Dec. 7 candidates’ forum, made a clear statement by declining to invite Ron Paul because of his views that were far outside the party mainstream. Paul has come under fire for reported newsletters in which he called Israel “an aggressive, national socialist state” and suggested that the Israeli Mossad could have set up the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
Initially, the other Republican candidates took a metaphorical vow of silence on Paul—thinking, “Let him be, he’s not going to be the nominee, don’t say anything about him,” Baehr explained. However, as Paul gained momentum in the Iowa polls, the rest of the country followed RJC’s lead and started placing his record on Israel under the microscope.
In that sense, Baehr said, issues raised by Jews have entered the political discussion even in states without large numbers of Jewish Republican voters.
“Republican Jews have played a constructive role by highlighting Paul’s history,” Baehr said.
That’s the case in Democrat-heavy New Hampshire, as Chabad’s Krinsky and Rabbi Joshua Segal of Congregation Betenu in Amherst agree that “there is certainly some concern about some of the views expressed [by candidates], especially by Ron Paul,” as Segal said.
However, Krinsky and Segal also agree that compared with previous presidential elections—especially 2008, when New Hampshire had both Republican and Democratic primaries—there is far less energy surrounding this year’s race on a local level.
Chabad—known worldwide for providing Shabbat hospitality—routinely receives myriad requests from campaign volunteers leading up to the New Hampshire primary, but has received far fewer requests this year.
“Our phones are not quite as busy as they would usually be,” Krinsky said.
Segal said “there’s not really too much buzz within the Jewish community” in New Hampshire about this election, with more community members “sitting on the sidelines and observing” because they are Democratic voters.
Nevertheless, Segal called local Jews in New Hampshire “very aware, and savvy, and participative” as a political group, attending and even organizing intimate “coffee meetings” for candidates, such as a meet-and-greet for 2008 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in Segal’s home.
Like Krinsky, Segal has colorful recollections of Joe Lieberman’s 2004 candidacy. He recalled that one member of Congregation Betenu asked was trying to get Lieberman to lead a prayer service on Shabbat, but that the senator declined because his apartment at the time was not within reasonable walking distance of the synagogue. The congregant proceeded to ask Lieberman if it would help to rent a Segway, Segal said.
In Iowa, Rabbi Leib Bolel of Beth El Jacob, an Orthodox congregation in Des Moines, said Paul’s statements on Israel “really got under the skin of the community here.”
Nevertheless, Bolel thinks that while foreign policy “creates headlines,” local Jewish voters are more concerned with having a candidate who is “going to turn the economy around.” Bolel said he recently met Iowa Governor Terry Brandstand, who projected that the state will create 200,000 new jobs within the next few years.
Brandstand, a practicing Roman Catholic, was born to a Latvian Jewish mother. Martin Edelson, president of Ames Jewish Congregation, recalled being at a speech Brandstand gave during his first stint as governor (he first served from 1983-99, then was elected again in 2010). Edelson said Brandstand made a point of highlighting his Jewish connections even though he isn’t a practicing Jew—an indication that despite Iowa’s extremely small number of Jewish voters, those voters meant something to Brandstand.
“He was pushing for the Jewish vote in Ames,” Edelson said of Brandstand.
“Politicians, their life is getting re-elected,” Edelson added. “You never know when you need an extra 50 votes.”
Edelson, a liberal Democrat who is “personally not happy with a lot of things Obama has done or not done,” said that when it comes to the Republican candidates, he tries to “understand where their support for Israel comes from.” Though trying to win the Jewish vote in Iowa isn’t necessarily something that would propel a Republican candidate’s campaign, appealing to the state’s large number of Christian Zionists is more significant, Edelson said.
Since Israel is always among the points Christian Zionists want to see candidates address, the current crop of Republicans has been particularly vocal about their support for Israel in Iowa and elsewhere, Edelson speculated.
Living in Ames for 34 years, Edelson said he has always been impressed with “how good the relationship is between local religious establishments,” explaining that the First Baptist Church of Ames provided his congregation with space for seven years before it had its own synagogue facility.
Jews in Ames also take pride in the fact that Iowa State University is home to Israeli professor Dan Shechtman, the 2011 Nobel Prize winner in chemistry.
“It’s a rare phenomenon for a school like Iowa State,” Edelson said.
After Iowa and New Hampshire, the political discussion shifts to South Carolina (Jan. 21 primary), Florida (Jan. 31 primary) and Nevada (Feb. 4 caucus), with “Super Tuesday”—seven primaries, three caucuses—set for March 6. While South Carolina’s 11,000 Jews (0.2 percent of its population) put it in the same boat as Iowa and New Hampshire, Nevada has a more statistically significant 74,000 Jews (2.8 percent of the population), and Florida boasts 613,000 Jews (3.3 percent).
Krinsky’s message in New Hampshire is that no matter what you think about the pool of current presidential candidates, it’s important for Jews to “get out and exercise that right to vote,” since there are always important issues on the table like Israel and the economy.
“Don’t say, ‘I have no one to vote for, I won’t vote at all,’” Krinsky said.