By JONATHAN TILOVE
October 18, 2004
c.2004 Newhouse News Service
TAMARAC, Fla. _ The Kings Point retirement community is home to some 8,000 people, almost all Jews. That’s more than the Jewish population of 13 states; more Jews than in Arkansas, Mississippi, West Virginia, Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas combined.
Come Nov. 2, there is little doubt that Jews at Kings Point, and across the United States, will, as Jews have for generations, vote overwhelmingly Democratic for president.
But there is evidence on the ground here, and in a recent national survey by the American Jewish Committee, that President Bush stands to marginally improve his 19 percent 2000 showing among Jews in a manner that could prove decisive in Florida and in the swing states of Pennsylvania, Ohio and Nevada. Nevada has, as a percentage, nearly as large a Jewish population as Florida.
In a close election, almost any constituency could prove crucial. Jews are no exception.
All of which explains the presence at Kings Point on a recent Sunday of Sens. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., and Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., four Jewish members of the House of Representatives (including Tom Lantos of California, the only Holocaust survivor to have served in Congress), Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz and, the piece de resistance, Sen. John Kerry’s younger brother, Cameron. Cameron, to gasps of delight, described his conversion to Judaism 21 years ago, and suggested that seeing his brother sworn in as president would make him nearly as proud as he felt seeing his two daughters bat mitzvahed.
After appearing in the Cabaret Room at the Kings Point Clubhouse before a standing-room-only crowd of more than 500 _ most of them retirees from New York and New Jersey _ Cameron Kerry and company, along with a crew of local Jewish elected officials, fanned out to synagogues in Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties, together home to half a million Jews. In a single afternoon, they spoke to about 10,000.
“We’ve got to convince these people not to change, not to waver,” said Joe Schreiber, the mayor of Tamarac and a Kings Point resident for 17 years.
Or, as state Rep. Adam Hasner, who is leading the Jewish outreach effort for the Bush campaign in Florida, puts it, “They are bringing in all the big guns because they know they are losing support in the Jewish community and they are defending this voting bloc that they have taken for granted for all these years.”
There are only about 6 million Jews in America, according to Ira Sheskin, director of the Jewish Demography Project at the University of Miami. But the Jewish population is older on average, and 90 percent of Jews are registered to vote, compared with less than two-thirds of other eligible Americans. That makes Jews roughly 3 percent of the national electorate and about 5 percent in Florida, according to Sheskin.
The huge Jewish preference for the Democrats last time was in part a function of Gore’s choice of Lieberman as his running mate _ the first Jewish candidate in history on a major party’s national ticket.
Kerry’s paternal grandparents were Jewish _ they changed their name from Kohn to Kerry and converted to Catholicism _ but even he did not know that until he was informed of it by The Boston Globe last year.
Jewish Republicans like Hasner and Sid Dinerstein, a Brooklyn-born New Jersey transplant who is chairman of the Palm Beach Republican Party, say 2004 will be a breakthrough year for them. They cite Bush’s strong record of support for Israel and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and aggressive leadership of the war on an Islamist terror movement in which hatred of Jews is paramount.
Hasner said he knows he is making headway; for the first time this year, his mother will vote Republican for president. Dinerstein flatly predicts Bush will get a third of the Jewish vote in Florida.
Could be, said Robert Watson, a political scientist at Florida Atlantic University. Watson, who is not Jewish but speaks frequently to Jewish groups, was taken aback at the reaction he got when he addressed a Jewish women’s group a few weeks ago.
“I made a joke or two at the president’s expense,” said Watson. “It’s usually met with resounding applause, but this time I got some hisses. I asked for a show of hands, and about a third were for Bush.”
That, in fact, would not so much be a breakthrough as a return to form. From 1972 to 1988, Republican presidential candidates always won more than 30 percent of the Jewish vote nationally _ as much as 39 percent for Ronald Reagan in 1980, when he defeated President Jimmy Carter, whose born-again religiosity wasn’t especially popular with Jews.
A survey released by the American Jewish Committee in December, before the Democratic primaries, found Bush getting 31 percent of the Jewish vote in a matchup with Kerry. In the survey released in September, though, Bush was down to 24 percent against Kerry.
While Bush does much better among younger Jews than older ones, that’s small solace in southern Florida where, Sheskin said, half the Jews are 65 or older.
When the votes are counted, says Bruce Warshal, a rabbi and the former publisher of Broward County’s Jewish Journal _ he still writes a column there _ Bush probably will score only 2 percent or 3 percent better with Jews than his 19 percent of four years ago.
But that still would represent several thousand additional votes in Florida, many times the statewide margin in 2000. “Not what they would want, but just what they need,” said J.J. Goldberg, editor of the Forward, the Jewish newspaper based in New York, who said he has noticed that what Jews for Bush lack in numbers, they make up in intensity.
Warshal, who supports Kerry, agrees the Jewish Republicans have been working hard. He estimates they are outspending Democrats 5-to-1 on advertising in Jewish newspapers across the country, with ads showing Bush in a yarmulke at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, and a testimonial from former New York Mayor Ed Koch, a Democrat. Koch has traveled to Florida on behalf of the Bush campaign, as has another former New York mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, who is a very popular draw.
It’s been enough to jangle the nerves of folks like Schreiber, who is vice president of the Tamarac Democratic Club (his wife is president), and Marc Sultanof, the vice mayor of Tamarac, who is president of the separate 850-member Kings Point Democratic Club. For weeks, both men had been urging the Kerry campaign to send the cavalry.
The overriding message of the celebrity lineup at Kings Point was that Jews need not worry about Kerry on Israel. “He is going to be every bit as good for Israel _ or better _ as George Bush,” said Schumer.
While some of the prime architects of the war in Iraq are Jewish neoconservatives who believed it would help create a safer Middle East for Israel, Dershowitz said the policy instead has jeopardized Israel by weakening America’s ability to contend with the greater threat posed by Iran.
And at home, Dershowitz said, “This administration is beholden to the Christian right. Remember to whom this president dedicated his inauguration _ I’ll never forget those words _ `to our savior, Jesus Christ.”’ In fact, that dedication was made by the Rev. Franklin Graham, evangelist Billy Graham’s son, in the invocation at Bush’s inauguration.
The notion that Bush may be leading America to become a more explicitly Christian nation taps into a deep reserve of Jewish insecurity evident at Kings Point.
“A Christian nation, that’s terrifying,” said Sultanof.
“What’s going to happen to the Jewish people?” said Schreiber. “They’re going to have to move. They’re going to have to get out.”
It is an anxiety that may help explain why Jews have remained so Democratic despite their economic success. It is still true, as the scholar Milton Himmelfarb memorably put it, that “Jews live like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans.”
For the Depression-born generation of Jews at Kings Point, voting Democratic remains nearly an article of faith.
After the Kerry event, Irene Kruger, who moved to Kings Point right after it opened 21 years ago and founded the local chapter of Hadassah, the women’s Zionist organization, said she has not yet met a Bush voter at Kings Point. “Not that I know of,” she said.
Vote Republican and “die on the spot,” said Judy Frasieur, who runs the Knitwitz club, which makes knitwear for Lakota Indians in South Dakota.
And yet, toward the rear of the Cabaret Room, one man, a member of the Kings Point Democratic Club, quietly allows that while he considers Bush “an idiot,” he plans to vote for him. A Democratic president, he fears, would inevitably pressure Sharon to “make peace” and place Israel at risk.
Besides, said the man _ who requested anonymity for fear his wife would find out _ his son is a surgeon and Republicans do better by doctors. Now, he said, if his son were a lawyer, that would be a different story.