NEW YORK — When Bob Dole made his first run for the Senate in 1968, Esther Levens and her husband, Vrem, hosted 500 people in their backyard in Johnson County, Kan., so people could get a close look at the candidate.
"He was a congressman from western Kansas and no one knew whether he was a Democrat or a Republican," Levens recalled.
She and her husband, who has since died, formed a close friendship with Dole, now 72, who has steamrolled through the Republican presidential primaries and locked up the GOP nomination for president.
Over the years, the couple grew to admire what Levens calls the Senate majority leader's "brilliance," his "strong legislative skills" and "his loyalty to causes and to people."
"He is as honorable and decent a man as you can find," she said.
Levens, who is president of a group called Voices United for Israel and is now a national activist for Dole's presidential campaign, acknowledges that she and the candidate differ on several domestic policy issues — she favors abortions rights, for example. But she has made peace with those differences.
"I don't think I can agree with a candidate on every issue," she said. "You have to establish priorities, and my priority is Israel."
In her political calculations, Levens is somewhat typical of Jewish Republicans.
Although President Clinton is expected to garner as much as 85 percent of the American Jewish vote come November, Jewish support for the Dole campaign is significant.
Five of Dole's 15 national campaign co-chairmen are Jewish. In addition, Dole is expected to win the overwhelming majority of the Jewish GOP vote throughout the remainder of the primary season. The remaining state primaries with larger Jewish populations (such as California's on Tuesday, March 26) have become a foregone Dole victory.
Jewish Dole supporters describe their man as a steady, proven leader whose character has been shaped by an early bout with poverty, a heroic fight against Nazi tyranny, and a devastating war injury that taught him compassion for people with disabilities.
They say he is a longtime friend of Israel, an advocate of Jews from the former Soviet Union, and a supporter of foreign aid. They also point to Dole's recent sponsorship of the congressional initiative to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
But critics say Dole's record is far from stellar.
Even his supporters acknowledge he called for cuts in aid to Israel in 1990, and has periodically lashed out at Israel and the pro-Israel lobby. Also, Dole opposed the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital as recently as 1990.
But supporters of the veteran senator contend those positions involved "extenuating circumstances" that should not cloud Dole's overall record.
"Dole has a 30-year relationship with Israel, longer than [that of] any other candidate, including the president," said A. Mark Neuman, an active Dole supporter who was an associate director of political affairs in the Reagan White House.
Dole "has voted for aid to Israel" countless times "as a member [of Congress] from the state of Kansas, which doesn't exactly have a big foreign aid constituency," said Neuman, now the Washington, D.C., representative for The Limited Inc. That business is headed by Leslie Wexner, who is one of the Dole campaign's national co-chairmen.
"Dole is probably the most important supporter in the United States of the peace process being pursued by the elected government of Israel," Neuman added. "Without his support we'd be in big trouble."
While Jewish supporters concede that during this election campaign Dole has come down to the right of them on certain issues, they insist he is a true moderate at heart.
Those who have worked with or watched Dole in the Senate over the years note he has long been a champion of traditionally liberal causes such as food stamps and nutrition programs for mothers and infants but has moved noticeably rightward as the presidential election season has heated up.
For instance, Dole has recently intensified his opposition to abortion, except in cases of rape, incest or when the mother's life is endangered. He had supported a constitutional amendment that would ban abortion but recently retreated from that position. And he led the fight against the nomination of Dr. Henry Foster, who had performed a number of abortions, for surgeon general.
Dole also supports voluntary prayer in public schools, a position many Jews oppose. And he likes the idea of government vouchers that would enable parents to choose between public and private schools for their children.
"Today we find that voluntary prayer is forbidden in our classrooms, that the moral code we nurture in our churches and synagogues is under attack from our government," Dole said in a speech in April of last year in Des Moines, Iowa.
Dole gets one of his strongest votes of confidence from Max Fisher, the veteran Jewish statesman who serves as honorary chairman of the Dole campaign.
"I've known Bob Dole since 1969, and I'm 100 percent behind him," Fisher said. "There will be things we don't agree on," he acknowledged, but "on balance, he's been good."
Dole is "the man of the moment," added Fisher, especially "given the emergence of Pat Buchanan," whom Fisher terms "a disgrace to the political system."
Many Jews are also less than comfortable with the one wild-card left in the presidential race, a potentially Independent candidate Ross Perot, around whom some stories of anti-Semitic incidents surfaced in the 1992 campaign. Should Perot enter the race, he is expected to siphon votes away from Dole.
"Especially at times like these," said Fisher about Dole, "we need somebody with a steady hand who can bring people together."
Although Dole has won heavy Republican Jewish support, statements from his past haunt him to this day.
In 1990, Dole proposed 5 percent across-the-board cuts in aid earmarked for Israel and other top recipients in exchange for aid to emerging democracies.
Criticizing American Jewish leaders' support for U.S. aid to Israel, Dole was quoted as saying: "They wouldn't give one penny to anybody else. It's selfishness."
In a subsequent effort to explain his remarks, Dole said his assertion was not intended as "personal or ethnic attacks on anyone in the Jewish community."
Dole also is remembered for having lashed out when in 1989 Israeli commandos seized a Hezbollah cleric, Sheik Abdel Karim Obeid. U.S. Marine Lt. Col. William Higgins was hanged by his kidnappers in Lebanon in apparent retaliation.
"I would hope the Israelis would take another look at some of their actions, which they must know in advance will endanger American lives," Dole was quoted as saying in the Washington Post.
"Perhaps a little more responsibility on the part of the Israelis would be refreshing," he added.
Sources say the bitterness of some of Dole's remarks came from a feeling of betrayal after he helped engineer the Senate's 1986 ratification of the Genocide Treaty, which recognized genocide as an international crime nearly 40 years after the United Nations adopted the treaty.
Dole was deeply hurt, they say, when the Jews who had enlisted his help in the ratification effort later succumbed to pressure by the Turkish government to fight against the inclusion of the 1915 massacres of Armenians by Turks as examples of genocide to be displayed at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and at other memorials.
Dole apparently has profound attachments to the Armenian community, prompted in part by the Armenian surgeon who restored the partial use of Dole's arm, which was severely injured when a shell exploded on an Italian battlefield during World War II.
Dole was also rumored to be angry that he did not get Jewish political action committee money for his prior presidential campaigns.
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Penn.), the Senate's only Jewish Republican, recently threw his support behind Dole and defends the candidate's record on Israel.
Specter, who made his own brief, failed bid for this year's Republican nomination, has known Dole since Specter was 12 years old. At that time, the Specters moved to Dole's hometown, Russell, Kan., a town of 4,498 where they were the only Jewish family.
Specter's father ran a junkyard, while Dole's father ran the elevator.
"Bob Dole is a terrific guy," Specter said. "He's clearly the best choice of everybody who's out there. He's very strong on civil rights and equal opportunity."
For George Klein, a vice chairman of the Dole campaign finance committee and a former chairman of the Washington, D.C.-based National Jewish Coalition, the choice is clear.
Dole is "the kind of man we need to be president, with strength and vision," Klein said. "The soul of the party is at stake."