Suzanne Fields / July 15, 2011

Republican Courtship of the Jews

“The Merchant of Venice” is back and plays for relevance, just in time for 2012. The Shakespeare drama is staged in the nation’s capital, set in a troubled America struggling with cultural extravagance in New York City before the Great Depression. Al Pacino stars in a movie version, inviting reflection on the ambiguities of prejudice and greed, as familiar in 21st century Washington as 16th century Venice. There’s enough corruption depicted in the play to indict an entire wasteful society. The famous “pound of flesh” is but a metaphor for all kinds of excesses of thinking and action. Anti-Semitism is only a part of it.

“The Merchant of Venice” is back and plays for relevance, just in time for 2012. The Shakespeare drama is staged in the nation’s capital, set in a troubled America struggling with cultural extravagance in New York City before the Great Depression. Al Pacino stars in a movie version, inviting reflection on the ambiguities of prejudice and greed, as familiar in 21st century Washington as 16th century Venice. There’s enough corruption depicted in the play to indict an entire wasteful society. The famous “pound of flesh” is but a metaphor for all kinds of excesses of thinking and action. Anti-Semitism is only a part of it.

Scholars, in fact, now exonerate Shakespeare from sharing the Jew-hatred of his characters, since it’s unlikely that the playwright ever met a Jew. Jews were expelled from England in 1290 and didn’t return until 1656, when Oliver Cromwell, a Puritan, showed them tolerance. Cromwell was assisted by Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel of Amsterdam, who acted as a Jewish ambassador to the Gentiles.

Jewish history, like everybody else’s history, repeats itself. A friend who attended a joint commemoration of Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday and the 17th anniversary of the death of Lubavich Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson tells how these two men, a Christian and a Jew, worked together to free Soviet Jews in ways that were mostly kept secret.

In a program sponsored by Chabad Lubavitch centers in Philadelphia, titled “The Rebbe, Ronald Reagan and the Russian Exodus,” speakers from the Reagan administration recalled how the rabbi and the president, through “quiet diplomacy,” helped Soviet Jews gain their freedom.

Gary Bauer, an evangelical Christian who served as undersecretary of education and was a domestic adviser to Ronald Reagan, and Max Kampelman, a Jew who served as his chief arms negotiator, recalled the partnership of the Rebbe and Reagan and their long private correspondence. The president obtained lists of Jews who wanted to emigrate, and he personally saw that they were handed to Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev. Gorbachev agreed to ease travel restrictions for the Jews as long as his specific efforts on their behalf were not made public.

“There is no limit to what a man can do or where he can go,” Reagan was fond of saying, “if he doesn’t mind who gets credit.” Bauer believes the president’s personal relationship with the rabbi helped him to alleviate the plight of the Soviet Jews at a time when he was under pressure in the White House to drop the issue. I recall meeting a group of “refuseniks” in St. Petersburg in the 1980s who were excited by Reagan’s efforts. We huddled in a cold basement where they read the Torah and studied Hebrew, praying they could leave Russia for Israel.

For Reagan, suppression of Jews was further evidence that the Soviet empire was indeed “evil.” He was a steadfast supporter of Israel. Jews gave him almost 40 percent of their vote in 1980, but only 35 percent four years later. He remained more popular with the Jews than his Republican successors.

Now there may be cracks in the Jewish support for President Obama, whose concern for Israel can only be described as “not so much.” An article in Politico, the Capitol Hill political daily, widely circulated among Jews, includes several interviews with Jewish Democrats who have lost faith with the man they supported so overwhelmingly in 2008. This could take a toll in campaign contributions.

They’re disappointed by Obama positions on both domestic and foreign concerns, but mostly by his attitude toward Israel. Most recently it was the evocation of the 1967 borders as a starting point for peace talks with the Palestinians, negotiation of “land swaps” that would clearly undercut Israel’s bargaining strength. Before that, it was his on-again, off-again position on an undivided Jerusalem and his ambivalent reception of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“There’s an inclination in the community to not trust this president’s ‘gut feel’ on Israel,” says the president of a national Jewish organization.

A new poll for Secure America Now, a nonpartisan organization, conducted by Pat Caddell, a Democrat, and John McLaughlin, a Republican, finds that only two in five Jewish voters say they will vote to re-elect President Obama. Ed Koch, the former Democratic mayor of New York City, urged Jews to vote for the Republican in the race to succeed Anthony Weiner as a protest against Obama’s positions on Israel.

The Jewish vote is small, but it could make a difference in Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Nevada. None of this is lost on Mitt Romney, who is aggressively courting Jews, emphasizing his support of Israel, his experience in private business and his shared understanding of belonging to a minority religion.

Most important, he told an audience of Yeshiva students in his last campaign, they should appreciate his “chutzpah,” his brassy self-confidence in the face of long odds.

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