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Tea, Anyone?

October 21, 2010 By:
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Signs galore exemplify the message of Tea Party activists at a tax-day rally in New City, outside New York.
President Barack Obama's motorcade wasn't expected to pass by for another three hours. But Sid Karp stood patiently on the corner of Arch and 12th streets late last month -- along with about two dozen other Tea Party protesters -- waiting for the chance to express his ardent disapproval of a variety of policies.

"Obama is changing our form of government from a Democratic republic to some kind of socialist utopian regime that will end up like 1984 or Stalin's Russia," declared the 67-year-old disabled veteran from Northeast Philadelphia.

Karp is one of a small number of Jews active in local Tea Party groups. (There are roughly 80 such organizations across the state.)

He and others argue that the movement's focus on individual responsibility and personal freedom is consistent with Jewish tradition and will resonate with more Jews -- once they get past the negative stereotypes.

Just how the Tea Party phenomenon will influence the results of the midterm elections on Nov. 2 has been one of the biggest political questions of 2010.

For their part, longtime Jewish Republicans have mixed feelings about how the Tea Party will affect the GOP's efforts to woo Jewish voters.

Some express optimism that it could help, while others worry that the grassroots movement complicates the party's efforts to appeal to moderates and independents.

A Focus on the Domestic
The Tea Party, which takes it name from the famous 1773 Boston protest against taxes levied by the British, is a loose network of national groups without a central platform, though the focus is mostly on domestic issues. While members insist that the Tea Party is separate and distinct from the Republican Party, in most cases, it's backing conservative Republican candidates, even as they have ruffled the feathers of the party establishment.

Earlier in the year, when Tea Party activists helped Republican Scott Brown capture the late Sen. Ted Kennedy's seat in Massachusetts, it looked like a win-win alliance for the two parties. Now, with some movement candidates looking shaky -- Christine O'Donnell in nearby Delaware comes to mind -- some Republicans are wondering if the anti-Obama insurgency might end up costing the GOP some seats.

Here in Pennsylvania, the movement has lined up solidly behind the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate, Pat Toomey, the former president of the Club for Growth, whose conservative philosophy is viewed as sowing some of the ideological seeds for the new movement.

Toomey paints himself as more mainstream Republican than other Tea Party candidates, but he's quick to defend the movement and its ideals.

"I think the Tea Party has been mischaracterized by a lot of the media," Toomey said in a recent interview with the Jewish Exponent. "I think if people became familiar with what most Tea Party folks are really all about, I don't think they would be repelled at all."

Scott Feigelstein, Pennsylvania/South Jersey regional director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said that the Tea Party represents an opportunity for the Republicans to reach more Jews.

"It energizes people" who haven't previously been engaged in politics, said Feigelstein, who earlier in the year teamed up with a host of Tea Party organizations and political-action committees to organize a Republican candidates' forum.

But Charles Kopp, a longtime RJC member who is serving as chief counsel to Tom Corbett's gubernatorial campaign, expressed "some concerns among leaders in the Republican Party that the Tea Party element will turn off some elements that the party would like to include, including the Jewish vote."

The uncertainty over the Tea Party factor comes at a time when Republicans are hoping to make long-sought inroads among Jews, who still overwhelmingly vote Democratic. According to a new survey of Jewish public opinion from the American Jewish Committee, 33 percent of respondents said that the country would be better off with a Republican Congress.

For their part, Democrats are making the case that the Tea Party is making the GOP less attractive to Jews.

"The Tea Party is a clear representation of an ongoing reality that today's Republican Party is veering farther and farther to the right, and all elements of moderation are being driven farther from it," said David A. Harris, president and CEO of the National Jewish Democratic Council.

According to a recent survey, the overwhelming majority of Tea Party activists self-identify as conservative Christians.

Robert Sklaroff, an Abington oncologist active in two local Tea Party groups, said that it's nearly impossible to paint the movement in broad brushstrokes. Sklaroff -- who habitually has turned up at political events to press candidates on Obama's policies -- noted that there's broad agreement on fiscal issues such as lower taxes, opposition to the stimulus package and the bailouts, in addition to the health care law.

But there's little consensus on social issues or foreign policy, though he did assert that, by and large, Tea Party groups favor strong national defense and identify as pro-Israel.

Yet earlier this year, the Anti-Defamation League released a report citing extremist rhetoric -- including comparing the Obama administration to the Nazis -- at some Tea Party events.

"White supremacists and anti-Semites are planning to exploit Tea Parties to disseminate their hateful views and recruit a larger following," stated the ADL report in May.

An Anti-Semitic Strain?
In an interview earlier this year with the Jewish Exponent, Dick Armey -- a former House Majority leader who is now co-chairman of Freedomworks, a Washington, D.C.-based group that funds Tea Party-backed candidates -- denied the movement contained an anti-Semitic strain.

He said that he didn't have a specific outreach plan for Jewish voters, and, in fact, had one essential message for all groups -- the dire need to cut taxes and government spending.

"Our primary reaction is to these massive bailouts," said Armey. "We don't take a position on foreign policy and aid to Israel in the Tea Party movement."

Last week, Armey told The Philadelphia Inquirer that the roots of the nationwide Tea Party actually lie in the state of Pennsylvania, with President George W. Bush's decision to endorse Arlen Specter over Pat Toomey in the 2004 U.S. Senate primary.

He said that led many conservatives to rebel against the existing Republican establishment.

Benjamin Korn, director of Jewish Americans for Sarah Palin, said that his group isn't a Tea Party organization, per se -- it's more focused on foreign policy issues -- but he did note that some of his members are active in the larger movement.

"The Tea Party has been happy for whatever support they get from the Jewish community, with all this stuff about the Tea Party supposedly being anti-Semitic," said Korn.

"Jews relate to the Tea Party," he continued, "if they see it as a way of redressing economic concerns in the country."


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