Voters Turn Nasty As Passions Rage Over Election

By Nathaniel Popper

Published October 29, 2004, issue of October 29, 2004.
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A great deal of ink has been spilled over whether a substantial number of Jews will move to the Republican column in this election. But while the recent studies don’t show any major shifts, there are at least some new phenomena among Jewish voters in this year’s election: spitting, vandalizing and making obscene gestures.

As the heads of Jewish organizations from both sides of the partisan divide have observed, the intensity of people’s feelings about this year’s presidential election has grown fierce enough to spill frequently into physical and verbal abuse. Ira Forman, president of the National Jewish Democratic Council, said he was pushed at an event in Washington last year, and has been subjected to numerous verbal tirades. His counterpart on the right, Matt Brooks, the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said that at a debate last week a man in the crowd made obscene gestures every time he spoke and that he had heard about audience members being spat on and cars with bumper stickers for President Bush being vandalized in synagogue parking lots.

The bitter divisions in the country are not a newly noted phenomenon. But the attention that has been paid to the elusive Jewish swing voters this election cycle — most visibly in the onslaught of political advertisements in Jewish newspapers — seems to have ramped up the tensions in the Jewish community. Moreover, if an ongoing war raises the stakes in any election, the Jewish community is being torn not just by the one in Iraq, but also by the one in Israel. This multiplies the perception — and the accusations — that this election is somehow existential.

“I think our safety is at stake, and the safety of Israel is at stake,” said Dan Loeb, a 38-year-old Kerry supporter from Philadelphia. “Nothing less than that.”

“I feel like I owe Bush something [because of his support for Israel],” trial lawyer Edward Kone said. “It’s like a debt. It’s like he’s family to me.” During an event with Bill Clinton at his synagogue in Boca Raton, Fla., on Monday, Kone protested by standing outside holding a sign with pictures of Bush, Prime Minister Sharon and Rudolph Giuliani on one side and Clinton, Senator John Kerry and Yasser Arafat on the other.

In many cases the media has echoed the dire predictions of the two political camps when it comes to Israel. Martin Peretz, editor-in-chief of The New Republic, wrote a column in the Jewish World review, titled “A President Kerry Would Be a Disaster for Israel.” But Peretz’s own staff at The New Republic sharply disagreed in the magazine’s endorsement of Kerry which paints a dismal picture of the future in the Middle East if Bush is elected.

“While the Iraq war was supposed to inspire liberals throughout the region, it may be doing the opposite,” the editors wrote. “Anti-Americanism has reached such toxic levels that dissidents in Muslim countries seem increasingly fearful of any association with the United States.”

These political opinions often have taken on a more physical format at Jewish election forums across the country.

“The passionate feelings about the elections have been moving across the boundary into hostility between members of the community,” said Reva Price, representative of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, who has been traveling the country during the last few weeks. “I’m worried about after the election, about how we come together as a community.”

In St. Louis, the Jewish Community Relations Council has responded to concerns about the community becoming divided by booking a professor from Washington University to come to its first meeting after the election and talk about civility in public discourse.

Not all community leaders saw such fissures in the Jewish community.

Brian Grossbard, the executive director of Cincinnati’s JCRC, said that in his community, audience members came to election forums with a real desire to hear a reasoned discussion. After the last few months living in the swing state of Ohio, he said, “we’re part of a trend of being tired” of the “unnecessary personal attacks.”

Grossbard argued that the instances of friction between community members have been limited, and the larger problem has been the divisive rhetoric used by the political professionals like Forman and Brooks. Grossbard said during a debate co-sponsored by his organization last week, Forman and Brooks were so fierce, “you could have tossed a piece of meat on the stage and they would have killed each other.”

Brooks defended himself and Forman, saying, “Ira and I have worked together for years. We have a great personal and professional relationship. What has been unfortunate is this trend that we have seen in people coming to the debates with political hate speeches and intolerance.”

Though Israel is one issue that comes up in every Jewish-themed debate, many observers say that Democrats have been less likely to bring it up.

“If you’re talking to Jewish Republicans, then the discussion tends to be about Israel,” said Robert Horenstein, director of the JCRC in Portland, Ore. “If you’re talking to Democrats, which is the majority in my community, then the discussion brings in a lot of domestic issues.”

But the different level of attention to Israel does not mean that the passion is any less from the Democratic side.

Steve Rosenberg, a 51-year-old voter in Portland, said that he has been put off by the Kerry supporters who have “started to paint people as evil, as opposed to disagreeing with positions.”

“Sometimes you hear such anti stuff that it makes you go the other way,” Rosenberg said.

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