If you believe the conventional wisdom about the 2008 presidential election, Democratic candidate Sen. Barack Obama was having a very tough time garnering Jewish support before Sen. John McCain picked a running mate. Polls in the Jewish community had Obama getting about 55 percent of the Jewish vote, as much as 20 percentage points lower than John Kerry or Al Gore, the two previous Democratic presidential candidates.
Then McCain tapped a little-known Alaska governor as his vice presidential pick, one who had a habit of dividing the country into East Coast city folk and the so-called real Americans who live in more rural areas.
The Jewish community, it turned out, shuddered. And Obama ended up with 78 percent of the Jewish vote.
A year and a half later, Obama’s popularity with Jewish voters is sinking, and a group of Jewish conservatives is now touting Sarah Palin as the Republicans’ latest best hope to win over Jewish voters.
The big question: Will Obama’s growing problems with the Jewish community translate into popularity for a Republican only recently seen as a poison pill with Jewish voters?
Philadelphia political activist and former Philadelphia Exponent editor Benyamin Korn thinks so. The self-described “Independent” just launched a new website, “Jews for Palin – A Home Page for Jewish Independents,” to galvanize Jewish support based on Palin’s positions on Israel, energy independence and fiscal responsibility and her outspoken advocacy on “family values” issues.
To Korn, a presidential win for Palin would be no different than Ronald Reagan’s rise from “B-list movie-star” to California governor and the presidency, or Margaret Thatcher’s ascendance from grocer’s daughter to prime minister of the United Kingdom.
Worried by what he views as Obama’s chilly attitude toward Israel and complacency toward Iran, Korn said he was anxious to find someone capable of unseating the president in the next election — and despite the skepticism of numerous political scientists, he believes Palin’s personality and views on U.S.-Israel relations will prove attractive to Jewish voters.
“We are so upset about Obama’s Middle East policy that we’re looking for his biggest opponent — she is the leading voice,” Korn told The Jewish Week. “We have been impressed by Gov. Palin’s brilliance, charisma and courage, and we have supported her and wanted to see her advance since she made her acceptance speech at the Republican nominating convention.”
The site, launched by a team of six, has received over 10,000 hits in its first 11 days of operation, according to Korn. Since its incorporation as an LLC, the organization has received several small contributions along with one major donation.
Many political observers are not all that impressed.
“Anyone can launch a website, and a good deal of the 2012 presidential campaign will be fought on the Internet — this site seems to be an effort in that war,” said Sandy Maisel, a professor of government at Colby College in Maine. “However, Palin will draw little Jewish support — and I think it is noteworthy that none of the groups that they say launched the group have their names listed.”
Korn brushes off this omission, saying that the “the paint is still wet” on a project that was rushed because of his sense of urgency about deteriorating U.S.-Israel relations. He said he will announce an official advisory board in the coming weeks.
“I frankly think that this is a case of a very small group of people who, other than Korn, choose to be unidentified and are trying to sell something that doesn’t sell in the Jewish community,” said Ken Wald, professor of political science at the University of Florida and director of the school’s Center for Jewish Studies.
Wald said there are “any number of standard bearers in the Republican Party” with a better chance of appealing to politically conservative Jews.
Korn insists his motivations stem more from his admiration for Palin than his disdain for the current president’s policies.
“It is more about our support for her, but what has really galvanized us into action has been the extreme nature of Obama’s treatment of Israel,” Korn said, adding that he was angered by the Obama administration’s recent implication that Israel’s intransigence might be putting American lives at risk and outraged by the coldness toward Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his most recent White House visit.
“I guess we shouldn’t feel so bad — he gave the Dalai Lama the same treatment,” Korn continued. “The president is more concerned about Jews building apartments in Jerusalem than about Iran’s building nuclear missiles; it was time to act.”
In an opinion column written for JTA, Korn cited World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder, ADL National Director Abraham Foxman and former New York City Mayor Ed Koch for their recent criticism of Obama’s Israel policies, using their words to validate his desire to replace Obama with Palin.
While Koch rejects the idea of a Palin presidency, he speaks admiringly of her.
“I’d never vote for her — her politics scare me — but I admire her as a human being,” Koch told The Jewish Week. “She’s a plucky person who speaks out. I think the people who refer to her as stupid are ridiculous. She’s much smarter than they are and I wish her well, but I don’t want her as my president.”
With most conservative contenders taking much the same positions on Israel, Palin’s thin foreign policy credentials could be a major turnoff for voters, said the University of Florida’s Wald. “Her experience is rather laughable; she has about 15 minutes in her. It’s hard for me to understand why someone who has less experience in the Middle East than anybody would be a good choice.”
But Korn maintains that Palin’s brief tenure as governor of Alaska is enough to disprove the conventional wisdom that she lacks the experience to be president.
“If anyone takes an objective look at Gov. Palin’s performance as governor of Alaska, they would understand that it was brilliant,” Korn said, praising her hard-line support for oil drilling. “She only resigned because the tsunami of schmutz that was unleashed against her made it impossible for her to do her job.”
While she lacks foreign policy experience, Korn feels that Jews – particularly the Orthodox — “by and large can relate to Sarah Palin’s social and family values because the Orthodox are intensely family-oriented people,” he said. “So her populism does not alienate them. That does not mean that there is a major swell of support for Palin in the Orthodox community, but we aim to change that.”
But more liberal Jewish voters will generally reject Palin’s social conservatism, many political scientists argue — and some will question the nature of her support for Israel. Palin, who wears her Evangelical Christianity on her sleeve, may be tainted in the minds of some Jewish voters by a Christian Zionist movement steeped in Bible prophecy that predicts wars that will devastate the Jewish state before the return of the Christian Messiah.
“One can certainly question whether or not that’s a pro-Israel stance,” Wald said. “Relying on an Evangelical for support of Israel is lying on a very sharp sword.”
Not surprisingly, Korn disagreed, saying that Maimonides argued that “the advent of the Jewish Messiah is inextricably linked to the return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel,” and that the Evangelical view is no different from this idea.
Whether or not Korn’s pro-Palin effort changes Jewish hearts and minds, it’s clear the former Alaska governor’s early campaign and the effort on her behalf by some conservative Jews will provide some of the best political fireworks in the early phases of Election 2012.
“The Palin phenomenon creates an element of interest and excitement to a campaign season that is so far pretty dull,” said Kean University political scientist Gilbert Kahn. “That said, the likelihood she will catch on with Jewish voters beyond the same small set of followers is very small. Her campaign will lose more than it gains once Jews start dissecting what she really stands for.”
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