Some Jews wary of gaining political power

There is growing evidence that a candidate’s religion is of diminishing importance in national politics and that religious prejudice is in decline as a factor in elections and high appointive office, particularly for Jewish candidates.

But many Jews don’t believe it, and they fear awakening latent anti-Semitism should they become too politically powerful.

All of that could change with Vice President Al Gore’s decision to name Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman as his running mate. Even Republican Jews are praising Gore’s choice of Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew.

President Clinton named two Jewish jurists in succession to the Supreme Court — Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Steven Breyer — without much more than routine notice.

And increasingly, Jewish candidates across the country are being elected to local and national office by non-Jewish voters. America’s 6 million Jews, about 2 percent of the nation’s total population, occupy 11 percent of the seats in the Senate. In the House of Representatives, there are 23 Jewish members holding 5 percent of the seats.

Jewish community leaders say it no longer much matters if a candidate is Jewish. Jewish candidates win or lose, and are nominated or not, like any other candidate. Being Jewish, however, is not the reason they are successful, and most importantly, it is not the reason when they are unsuccessful.

Sen. Arlen Specter, a Jewish Republican from Pennsylvania, made an unsuccessful but serious bid for his party’s 1996 presidential nomination. Not all, but many, Jewish leaders believe it is now reasonable to think a Jew could be elected president.

All of that certainly could not have been said 30 or even 20 years ago.

But while many Jews take pride in the trend and believe it should be celebrated, other Jews find the dramatic change troubling. They worry that acceptance and success can never be taken for granted, that a strain of anti-Semitism still lingers below the surface of American society.

“Sure, there are some who are fearful of what non-Jews will say, who are mindful of Jewish history and think it would be better for Jews to be not seen and not heard, but that is a view of a diminishing minority,” said Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University,

Jennifer Laszlo, a Washington-based pollster and political consultant, who is Jewish, said she cannot feel complacent.

“Darwin said it is not the smartest or the strongest but those best able to adapt who survive, and adapt sometimes means keeping your head down,” Laszlo said.

Laszlo admits her concerns are connected to her own experience in 1994 when she failed to win the Democratic nomination for Congress in a crowded primary in the Second District of North Carolina, where she grew up. One competitor’s tactic was to refer to her as “that Jew-girl from Durham,” Laszlo recalls.

Even if there were risk of igniting anti-Semitism, that should not deter Jews from seeking public office, said Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Committee.

“There is always some kind of risk out front when you head up,” Forman said. “Politics is about who gets what, when and how. In America today, if you don’t take the risk, you’re going to be left behind.”

Discussing his own unsuccessful campaign for the Republican presidential nomination (which Sen. Bob Dole won), Specter said he did not lose because he was Jewish.

“There were a lot of other factors,” Specter said. “It had a lot more to do with my position on the political spectrum. I did not appeal to Republican primary voters because I was too much of a centrist.”

A February 1999 Gallup poll of national voters found that 92 percent said they would be willing to vote for a Jewish presidential candidate.

Even so, Specter challenges the notion that religion is irrelevant to voters when the candidate is Jewish.

“I think there’s a latent adverse reaction to Jewish candidates today, perhaps not as intense as it was in the past, but it’s still there. I don’t know if it’s a 5 percent factor or a 9 percent factor or an 11 percent factor, but it’s there.”

Even in states like California, where voters have elected two Jewish senators, many Jews still perceive anti-Semitism as a lurking threat.

“There is a foreboding that Jews maintain that there may not be a great deal of anti-Semitism now, but they don’t want to admit there might not be in future,” said Earl Rabb, former director of the Jewish Community Relations Council in San Francisco.

David Singer, who studies polling data for the American Jewish Committee in New York, is struck by the gap between non-Jewish voters who would vote for Jewish candidates, and Jews who do not think this could be true.

“It’s perfectly clear that their Jewishness is irrelevant, yet among Jews, you would not believe the amount of resistance you get to this,” Singer said. “There’s this strange mind warp we’re in. American Jews remain convinced that there is a lot of anti-Semitism in the United States.”

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