A Return to the Bad Old Days

by Rafael Medoff

With the Jewish vote assuming a prominent role in the presidential race, a New York Times columnist is openly hoping for a return to the days when then-Secretary of State James Baker infamously dismissed Jewish voters with the declaration, “F— the Jews, they don’t vote for us.”

In his August 1 column, Thomas Friedman claimed the purpose of Mitt Romney’s recent visit to Israel was “to grovel for Jewish votes and money.” He complained that “the GOP decided to ‘out-pro-Israel’ the Democrats,” and this, he alleged, has “shut down the peace process.”

Friedman’s solution? A return to the days when America’s Mideast policy was guided by men like James Baker, secretary of state from 1989 to 1992, who ignored domestic pressures and was willing “to get in the face of both sides” and who “told blunt truths to every Israeli or Arab leader.”

Some of the “blunt” words for which Baker is remembered actually were written by his friend and tennis partner, Thomas Friedman. A Baker remark comparing his role in Arab-Israeli diplomacy to that of an obstetrician was lifted almost word for word from Friedman’s 1982 book, From Beirut to Jerusalem. And Baker credited Friedman with conceiving his public message to Israel, “When you’re serious about peace, call us,” complete with a sarcastic recitation of the White House phone number.

But the bluntest of Baker’s “truths” was also the most vulgar. In the New York Post in March 1992, former Mayor Ed Koch reported Baker’s “F— the Jews” remark. Baker vehemently denied it. State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler called Koch’s report “garbage.” But in a 2008 book (coedited by this author), Koch finally revealed his source, and it was unimpeachable: then-Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Jack Kemp. That’s about as close to proof as we are likely to have in this lifetime.

Baker’s remark was not merely obscene, but also betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding of American Jewish political behavior. Baker, in 1988, was talking as if it was still the 1960s–only 10%-15% of American Jews voted Republican in the presidential races of 1960, 1964, and 1968. But as the Democratic party shifted to the left, Jewish voters began moving the other way. The Jewish vote total for the GOP doubled in the 1970s and 1980s, ranging from 30% to 32% in four of those five races.

The peak was in 1980, when about 60% of American Jews deserted President Jimmy Carter, with about 40% voting for Republican nominee Ronald Reagan and 20% for Republican-turned-independent John Anderson. Carter’s policies toward Israel deeply alienated many American Jewish voters, and they responded as citizens in a democracy do.

One could argue that Baker’s attitude toward Jews and Israel was not a response to Jews spurning the Republicans, but a cause of it. After all, look at the Jewish vote for Republican candidates in the races that followed Baker’s obscenity: 11% in 1992, 15% in 1996, 20% in 2000.

Whether Jewish support for the GOP will continue to follow that upward trajectory remains to be seen. Repairing the damage that Baker did to the Republicans’ relationship with American Jewry has not been quick or easy. But as Friedman notes, crudely but not inaccurately, “the GOP decided to ‘out-pro-Israel’ the Democrats.” In 2009, following the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza, 60 Democrats in the House of Representatives signed a letter urging the Obama administration to send U.S. aid to Gaza. No Republicans signed it. In January 2010, another letter urging aid to Hamas-controlled Gaza was signed by 54 Democrats in the House–and again, no Republicans.

And in March 2010, 333 members of the House signed a letter reaffirming the U.S.-Israel alliance, in the wake of the Jerusalem housing controversy. Of the 102 members who did not sign, 94 were Democrats and only 8 were Republicans. Twenty-four senators declined to sign a similar letter–20 Democrats, and 4 Republicans.

This is not James Baker’s Republican Party any longer.

And the Jewish community has changed, too. Orthodox Jews, who are politically the most conservative element in the community, are approaching 15% of U.S. Jewry and rising, thanks to a high birth rate and few intermarriages. A recent study of the New York City area –the heart of American Jewry– found that 32% of Jews there are Orthodox. Russian Jewish immigrants and their children comprise about 12% of American Jewry, and former Israelis make up about 7%–two blocs that likewise tend to be politically conservative.

There’s one more group to factor in. In the 1980 race, Reagan did best among Jews aged 30 to 45. Unlike their parents, they had no track record of deep-seated loyalty to the Democrats, so when Carter turned against Israel, they turned against him. Today they are in their 60s and 70s, and pulling the lever for the GOP –if they again perceive the incumbent Democratic president as unsympathetic to Israel– will be even easier the second time around.

Which brings us to perhaps the greatest irony of all: Thomas Friedman, to judge by the positions he has articulated on various issues over the years, very much fits the profile of the previous generation’s typical American Jewish voter–in other words, exactly the kind of Jewish voter whom Baker had in mind when he uttered his famous obscenity.

But the changes that both the Republican Party and the American Jewish community have undergone and are continuing to experience suggest that the political assumptions and alignments of the Baker-Friedman era are becoming a thing of the past.

(As published in the Jerusalem Post- August 13, 2012)
August 2012