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GOP Jews aim to show they’re not an oxymoron

by LISA HOSTEIN, Jewish Telegraphic Agency

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PHILADELPHIA -- Clifford May, director of communications for the Republican National Committee, jokes that there is a common bond between being Jewish and being Republican: Both are hard to explain to the outside world.

Vivian Young, a Jewish communal activist in Philadelphia, agrees, with one exception: She often avoids the explanation.

"I'm definitely in the minority" as a Jewish Republican, Young says, sipping a drink at a Jewish community-sponsored event on the eve of the Republican National Convention here.

As a result, she says, "I tend not to discuss politics with people."

The hundreds of Jewish delegates and supporters gathered for this week's convention are well aware they represent a minority in the political fabric of American Jewry.

But despite their minority status, they are passionate advocates of a party they believe best serves the interests of their families, their community and their country.

If "you're listening and looking, you'll find a strong awareness of Jewish concerns within the party," says Cheryl Halpern, national chairman of the Republican Jewish Coalition, which hosted a series of convention-related events during the week.

Three separate Jewish-sponsored events on Sunday preceded the convention's Monday night opening, though at least one of those -- a community celebration co-sponsored by the United Jewish Communities and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee -- featured arguably as many non-Jews and Democrats active in the Jewish community, as it did Jews.

Attendee Kendal Unruh of Colorado, wearing a long skirt fashioned after the American flag and identifying herself as part of a contingent from the Christian Coalition, expressed bewilderment that so many Jews vote Democratic when the Republican Party, and particularly its evangelical Christian component, is so supportive of Israel.

Indeed, Jews vote overwhelmingly Democratic, particularly in presidential elections.

While most Republican Jews foster no illusions that the 2000 presidential race between Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore will deviate from that tradition, many express optimism that shifts in the Jewish and political landscape bode well for a future link between Jews and the Republican Party.

And some suggest that the link already has appeared in state and local races. For example, Jews have thrown their support in recent years behind Republican mayoral candidates in New York, Philadelphia and Los Angeles.

They also believe that Bush, with his slogan of "compassionate conservatism," can speak to American Jews in ways that the old, harsher message of the Republican Party often did not.

"The word "Republican" still tends to scare the hell out of American Jews," said Murray Friedman, a historian and the mid-Atlantic regional director of the American Jewish Committee, which also hosted several events on the sidelines of the convention.

The word "conservatism," in contrast, rolls a little easier off the tongue, Friedman said at a pre-convention event on "The Republican Party and the Jewish Community." The event was sponsored by the AJCommittee.

Summarizing a case he made in a recent Commentary magazine article titled "Are Jews Moving to the Right?" Friedman said the idea of "compassionate conservatism" could be very attractive to Jews.

Still, he said, Jews are largely put off by the Christian right and the issues, such as abortion and school prayer, on which the right seeks to influence the Republican Party.

To the degree that evangelical leaders Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell are seen as "part of the arsenal of Republican ideas and supporters," Friedman said, "Jews will have difficulty making a final move to the right."

Indeed, many Jewish delegates at the convention sought to distance themselves from some of the social issues espoused by the party platform.

"I'm a pro-choice Republican" who doesn't support the Republican platform on the abortion issue, Pennsylvania state Sen. Robert Jubelirer said at the AJCommittee event.

But that should not be an issue on which to base one's vote, he said, echoing the view shared by many Jewish delegates who said they were pro-choice.

Several also said they did not believe that Bush was seeking to overturn Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion. And they took Bush at his word that the abortion issue would not be a litmus test for any potential appointee to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Instead, the delegates here focused on the economic and foreign policy issues being touted by Bush and his party.

In the area of church-state separation, some Jewish Republicans see a gradual shift in what one called the "absolutist" position on issues such as vouchers and faith-based domestic programs.

"Just as we are reassessing the role of religion in American Jewish life, we also have to look again at the role of religion in American life," said Elliott Abrams, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a Washington-based think tank, and an assistant secretary of state under President Reagan.

Abrams, who led a roundtable discussion on public policy issues of concern to the Jewish and Latino community, said the Jewish community is rightly beginning to reassess the issue of vouchers that parents can use at public, private or parochial schools.

To continue to support public schools as an absolute value is "not a moral position," Abrams said in an interview, when the public schools that Jews can choose are in affluent areas, as opposed to the failing inner-city public schools many non-whites are forced to attend.

Thomas Schatz points to his hometown of Washington as a good example where school choice, the option to send one's child to any school in the district, works.

"Minority parents want vouchers," said Schatz, president of a group called Citizens Against Government Waste.

Schatz, a 47-year-old who said he turned Republican five years ago and is a new board member of the RJC, represents what some veterans see as an encouraging shift among younger Jews.

"A predetermination to be a Democrat tends to resonate with the older Jewish voter," Halpern said, while that doesn't exist among younger Jews.

Acknowledging that Bush is unlikely to garner more than a quarter of the Jewish vote, if that, some say that in the end, Jewish voices -- and Jewish money -- in the Republican Party is more important than Jewish votes.

Jewish thinkers in the neo-conservative movement include key Bush advisers Ari Fleischer, the candidate's spokesman; Josh Boltun, a general policy adviser, and Stephen Goldsmith, the former mayor of Indianapolis and a domestic policy adviser.

For more JTA stories, go to

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