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Are Jews Warming to the Tea Party?

Takes No Prisoners:Tea Party favorite Michele Bachmann, who is now a GOP presidential hopeful, has taken President Obama to task for his policy toward Israel. Image by Getty Images

It took Republican congresswoman and Tea Party icon Michele Bachmann less than 24 hours after President Obama’s Middle East address to launch an attack on him. On May 19, 150,000 residents in Iowa and South Carolina received robo-calls from Bachmann, accusing Obama of not standing up for Israel.

Bachmann, who on June 13 formally joined the GOP presidential race, could be trying to tap into a perceived new constituency: Jewish supporters of the Tea Party. Jews have been considered to be the religious group least supportive of the Tea Party. But at least one researcher thinks the community is warming up to the movement.

“Historically, we’ve seen the community as being liberal, but now a counter voice is emerging,” said Steven Windmueller of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

A recent Internet survey of Jews, conducted by Windmueller, found that about 42% thought the Tea Party movement was “refreshing” versus an equal percentage that found it “alarming.” More support for the Tea Party idea came from Republicans, Orthodox Jews and males, and less from Democrats, Reform Jews and females.

Even Windmueller cautioned that his study “does not permit one to make any defining conclusions.” Among other things, its 2,300 or so participants were recruited via publicity on the websites of Jewish newspapers and Jewish organizations — an outreach method bound to exclude the large percentage of Jews who are relatively less affiliated. The replies that respondents gave to various questions in the poll indicated that the sample obtained through this outreach skews to the right compared with that of a scientifically selected random sample.

Nevertheless, Windmueller argues that his study shows “a distinctive Jewish conservative voice emerging on Israel-related matters and an array of domestic social issues” among “highly engaged Jews.”

Others disagree. Political scientist Kenneth Wald, of the University of Florida, argued that Jewish support for Tea Party ideas or candidates is still marginal. “There may be some Jews who are fiscally conservative, but it is a far cry from actually supporting the Tea Party,” he said.

Within the Tea Party, Bachmann is at the forefront of those making Israel a key part of her agenda. In her speech at the high-profile Faith & Freedom Conference held in Washington in early June, Bachmann termed Obama’s call for a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict based on Israel’s 1967 boundaries and mutually agreed land swaps “shocking.” She followed up by buying ads on Jewish websites reiterating this message.

Bachmann is not alone. Attacks on Obama’s Israel policy have come from former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, known as the Tea Party’s biggest draw. Pundit Glenn Beck, a vocal critic of the Obama presidency, has been devoting much of his airtime lately to the issue of Israel. He recently announced plans to hold a “Restoring Courage” rally August 20 in Jerusalem. At this gathering, modeled on his rally last summer that called for patriotic unity in Washington, Beck intends to call for Americans to “courageously stand with Israel.”

These voices currently appear to be dominating discourse on Israel within the Tea Party, overshadowing the more isolationist views of such Israel critics as Rand Paul and his father, Ron Paul, a declared 2012 presidential candidate.

But the question of support for Israel was never the key concern Jewish voters had with the Tea Party.

From the outset, conventional wisdom had it that Tea Partiers, with their program of radically cutting government budgets and decreasing government’s role in daily life, would have a difficult time wooing Jewish voters. This was an agenda seen as running counter to the Jewish community’s historically broad support for government-funded social programs.

Jewish activists also took issue with statements coming from Tea Party members that seemed to indicate a certain lack of sensitivity to the issue of church and state separation.

“Some of the Tea Party’s prominent candidates in 2010 made a very bad impression on the Jewish community,” Wald said. “Jews have an allergic reaction to talk about a divine role in the political world.” A public opinion report published in February by the Pew Research Center found strong support for the Tea Party movement among those who agree with the views of the conservative Christian movement.

But it was this same report, based on combined surveys taken between November 2010 and February, that also found that Jews were not altogether alienated from the Tea Party phenomena. According to that report, 15% of Jewish respondents agreed with the Tea Party, while 49% disagreed and 35% had no opinion. While these figures showed a Jewish community far from supportive of the movement, they also indicated a potential for Jewish votes. Perhaps more important for some Tea Party figures gearing up for presidential runs, they may also suggest a potential donor pool within a community known for political giving.

“Jews are experiencing the same things other Americans are: a combination of fear, anger and uncertainty about their own future,” Windmueller said.

Contact Nathan Guttman at [email protected]

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