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On the Minds of Jewish Voters

October 21, 2010 By:
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Potential voters had the economy on their minds at a candidates' debate in Newtown.

It's not hard to find Jewish voters concerned about the fiscal health of the nation. Take, for example, Sybil Schwartz and Ken Brier.

Both Schwartz of Garnet Valley in Delaware County and Brier of Bala Cynwyd in Montgomery County are in their 60s, and still working. While they each cite the economy as their No. 1 issue, they attribute different causes for the souring economy, as well as the best course of action to fix it. "The most important thing for me right now is for people to get a job so that they can support their families," said Schwartz, who has switched her registration back and forth from Republican to Democrat, and is a volunteer for Joe Sestak's Senate campaign against Pat Toomey.

Schwartz, who works at a nonprofit organization, supported the federal stimulus package. But she also thinks that the tax cuts enacted under President George W. Bush made sense.

Brier, a retired colonel in the U.S. Army who now runs a small business, said that "the measuring stick should be what private-sector jobs are created."

For Brier, who is hoping the Republicans take back control of the House, the important things are cutting taxes and avoiding massive federal spending like the stimulus program.

Brier was one of hundreds who attended four different Jewish-sponsored candidates' debates in hotly contested local congressional races over the past month, in advance of the Nov. 2 midterm elections.

His and Schwartz's concerns about the economy trumping all else were reflected in many interviews and questions for the candidates at these events.

The focus on jobs and the economy in this election was confirmed by a recent survey by the American Jewish Committee. In the survey -- conducted over five weeks and released last week -- respondents picked the economy and unemployment as their top two issues, with 87 percent citing the former as "very important," and 81 percent citing the latter as having prominence.

Even as the future of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks remains in doubt, the Middle East doesn't appear to be a top priority for many Jewish voters. Israel tied for fifth place out of 10 issues, along with foreign-policy concerns in general.

Those results aren't dramatically different from the 2008 AJC survey taken before the presidential election, suggesting, analysts say, that unless a candidate is deemed vehemently anti-Israel, the Jewish state doesn't figure too prominently into Jewish behavior at the polls.

For years, the GOP has tried without great success to make significant inroads with Jews by arguing that it's the better party on Israel. Ironically, however, if the Republicans do manage to woo more Jewish votes this time around, it would likely be because of disenchantment over the economy, and not the Mideast. Between two separate surveys the AJC conducted in March and again in October, the percentage of Jews who approved of Obama's handling of the economy dropped from 54 percent to 45 percent.

Conventional political wisdom dictates that pocketbook issues usually trump foreign affairs, especially in difficult economic times, according to Gilbert Kahn, a political scientist at Kean University in Union, N.J.

Although the public was more focused on foreign policy in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terror attacks, and the ensuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, those concerns have little to do with Jewish attitudes toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Instead, Kahn said that the low survey numbers for Israel reflect a decades-long trend of American Jewish estrangement and apathy toward the Jewish state, a trend that he laments.

Rabbi Steve Gutow, president and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, said that just because most U.S. Jews place Israel lower down on their election-year priorities doesn't mean that they lack a strong connection to the Jewish state.

"We are, as a people, fundamentally Americans. We live in the same place, and these issues are fundamental to us," said Gutow, adding that, when it comes to candidates passing the pro-Israel litmus test, the rules change somewhat.

In fact, Israel has received plenty of play in the race for the junior U.S. Senate seat in Pennsylvania. Joe Sestak's opponents have criticized his decision to sign a letter calling for an easing of Israel's Gaza blockade, along with his acceptance of an endorsement and campaign cash from J Street, the dovish lobbying organization.

Sestak's Jewish supporters have lauded his voting record on Israel and pointed out that his opponent, Republican Pat Toomey, repeatedly voted against foreign aid to Israel while in Congress.

Officials at the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and other local Jewish institutions tried, without success, to get Sestak and Toomey to commit to a community-wide debate. So those questions haven't been aired in a public forum; instead, they've been debated in private fundraisers, and via media interviews and political advertising.

Federation did sponsor two congressional debates: one between Democrat Bryan Lentz and Republican Pat Meehan at Suburban Jewish Community Center B'nai Aaron in Havertown, and another between Democrat Manan Trivedi and U.S. Rep. Jim Gerlach at Main Line Reform Temple, Beth Elohim in Wynnewood. Israel has figured little in those two House races.

While the Middle East was raised by debate moderators at those programs, questions from audience members -- submitted by index cards -- almost exclusively focused on the domestic realm, according to Robin Schatz, director of government affairs for Federation.

What's on the Ballot?
The tenor was a little different at a debate between Jon Runyan and U.S. Rep. John Adler (D-N.J.) at the Betty and Milton Katz Jewish Community Center in Cherry Hill, N.J., which was attended by more than 600 people. Perhaps it was due to the visible Orthodox presence in the crowd, or the fact that audience members were given time to ask questions via the microphone, but the conflict, as well as the Iranian threat, did come up more often. Still, domestic issues predominated.

"We were pleasantly surprised with the number of questions that were asked that focused on the U.S.-Israel relationship," said David Snyder, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Southern New Jersey. 

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