Has George Bush ever been to a bar mitzvah or eaten a blintz? Rudy Giuliani has -- dozens of times.
The Bush family has been never been very popular with Jews, but Giuliani won a big majority of the Jewish vote, in the world's biggest Jewish city, both times he ran for mayor. He's the Republican front runner; if he wins the nomination, could the Republican relationship to Jewish voters be transformed? That question lurked in the background when Giuliani and other GOP candidates spoke earlier this week in Washington at a forum sponsored by the Republican Jewish Coalition.
The traditional Republican stance was expressed eloquently back in 1992, when James Baker, at the time Secretary of State to President George H. W. Bush, said "[Expletive] the Jews. They didn't vote for us anyway."
Baker had his facts right: Bush Senior got only 11 per cent of the Jewish vote that year. Bill Clinton got about 80 per cent of the Jewish vote in both 1992 and 1996. Al Gore got the same in 2000. Even John Kerry got 76 of the Jewish vote in 2004.
But could that pattern change if Giuliani is the candidate in 2008? He got two-thirds of the Jewish vote in New York City when he ran against Democratic David Dinkins. He got three-quarters of the Jewish vote when he ran for reelection against Ruth Messinger, herself Jewish.
The Bush family was always more pro-Arab, especially pro-Saudi, than they were pro-Israel. Back in 1992, Baker was arguing for a tougher policy with Israel, pressing them to settle with the Palestinians. He reiterated that position last year in the Baker-Hamilton report, also known as the Iraq Study Group report, which argued we could weaken the appeal of Islamic terrorism by creating a viable Palestinian state, returning the Golan Heights to Syria, and negotiating with Iran.
Rudy is emphatically not that kind of Republican. He made that perfectly clear in his pitch at the Republican Jewish Coalition. As Maureen Dowd reported in the New York Times, he reminded listeners that he refused to accept a $10 million check for 9/11 families from the Saudi prince who urged America to "adopt a more balanced stance toward the Palestinian cause." He reminded listeners that he threw Yasser Arafat out of a Lincoln Center concert held in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations.
Giuliani's pitch to Jews is all about Israel. "If I'm president," he said this week, "I'm not going to let any man destroy Israel"--just in case you were wondering about that. He draws an analogy between the situation in Iraq and Gaza: if we pull out of Iraq, he says, Iraq will end up looking like Gaza after the Israelis pulled out. It will become another base for terrorists – but one that is much bigger. And of course he talks about Hitler: "If Europe had confronted Hitler at an earlier stage," he said, "there would have been millions and millions of lives saved." That's why he would refuse to negotiate with today's Hitler, located in Iran.
Nevertheless it's unlikely that any Republican candidate, even Giuliani, will win Jewish votes away from the Democrats because of their positions on Israel. First of all, the Democratic candidate will be 100 per cent "pro-Israel" (meaning they support the parties on the Israeli right).
Secondly, only a handful of Jews vote on the basis of candidates' "support for Israel." "Jewish voters look like other voters with high levels of education," says Ira Foreman, co-editor of Jews in American Politics, writing in the Israeli daily Haaretz. The main difference is that they are more liberal: "Jews place more emphasis on civil liberties than their non-Jewish counterparts. Jews support abortion rights at higher levels than other Americans. Jews support the concept of separation of church and state. Jews support gay marriage and civil unions at higher levels than non-Jews."
Finally, when Giuliani won those Jewish majorities in New York City, the city was in a steep economic decline, the South Bronx was burning, the crack epidemic seemed unstoppable. Rudy's tough-guy stance worked in that context, but the country has different concerns today. In 2008, the great majority of Jews once again will vote for the Democrat, even if the Republican is Rudy.