A return to the bad old days
This is not James Baker’s Republican Party any longer. And the Jewish community has changed, too.
FORMER US SECRETARY of state James Baker Photo: Reuters
With the Jewish vote assuming a prominent role in the presidential race, a New
York Times columnist is openly hoping for a return to the days when then-US
secretary of state James Baker infamously dismissed Jewish voters with the
declaration, “F--- the Jews, they don’t vote for us.”
In his August 1
column, Thomas Friedman claimed the purpose of Mitt Romney’s recent visit to
Israel was “to grovel for Jewish votes and money.” He complained that “the GOP
decided to ‘out-pro-Israel’ the Democrats,” and this, he alleged, has “shut down
the peace process.”
Friedman’s solution? A return to the days when
America’s Middle East policy was guided by men like James Baker, secretary of
state from 1989 to 1992, who ignored domestic pressures and was willing “to get
in the face of both sides” and who “told blunt truths to every Israeli or Arab
Some of the “blunt” words for which Baker is remembered actually
were written by his friend and tennis partner, Thomas Friedman. A Baker remark
comparing his role in Arab-Israeli diplomacy to that of an obstetrician was
lifted almost word for word from Friedman’s 1982 book From Beirut to
And Baker credited Friedman with conceiving his public message
to Israel, “When you’re serious about peace, call us,” complete with a sarcastic
recitation of the White House phone number.
But the bluntest of Baker’s
“truths” was also the most vulgar. In the New York Post in March 1992, former
New York mayor Ed Koch reported Baker’s “F--- the Jews” remark. Baker vehemently
State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler called Koch’s
report “garbage.” But in a 2008 book (co-edited by this author), Koch finally
revealed his source, and it was unimpeachable: then-secretary of housing and
urban development Jack Kemp. That’s about as close to proof as we are likely to
have in this lifetime.
Baker’s remark was not merely obscene, but also
betrayed a fundamental misunderstanding of American Jewish political behavior.
Baker, in 1988, was talking as if it was still the 1960s – only 10 percent to
15% of American Jews voted Republican in the presidential races of 1960, 1964,
and 1968. But as the Democratic party shifted to the left, Jewish voters began
moving the other way. The Jewish vote total for the GOP doubled in the 1970s and
1980s, ranging from 30% to 32% in four of those five races.
The peak was
in 1980, when about 60% of American Jews deserted president Jimmy Carter, with
about 40% voting for Republican nominee Ronald Reagan and 20% for
Republican-turned-independent John Anderson.
Carter’s policies toward
Israel deeply alienated many American Jewish voters, and they responded as
citizens in a democracy do.
One could argue that Baker’s attitude toward
Jews and Israel was not a response to Jews spurning the Republicans, but a cause
of it. After all, look at the Jewish vote for Republican candidates in the races
that followed Baker’s obscenity: 11% in 1992, 15% in 1996, 20% in
Whether Jewish support for the GOP will continue to follow that
upward trajectory remains to be seen.
Repairing the damage that Baker did
to the Republicans’ relationship with American Jewry has not been quick or easy.
But as Friedman notes, crudely but not inaccurately, “the GOP decided to
‘out-pro-Israel’ the Democrats.”
In 2009, following the Israel-Hamas war
in Gaza, 60 Democrats in the House of Representatives signed a letter urging the
Obama administration to send US aid to Gaza. No Republicans signed it. In
January 2010, another letter urging aid to Hamas-controlled Gaza was signed by
54 Democrats in the House – and again, no Republicans.
And in March 2010,
333 members of the House signed a letter reaffirming the US-Israel alliance, in
the wake of the Jerusalem housing controversy. Of the 102 members who did not
sign, 94 were Democrats and only eight were Republicans. Twenty-four senators
declined to sign a similar letter – 20 Democrats, and four
This is not James Baker’s Republican Party any
longer. And the Jewish community has changed, too.
who are politically the most conservative element in the community, are
approaching 15% of US Jewry and rising, thanks to a high birth rate and few
intermarriages. A recent study of the New York City area – the heart of American
Jewry – found that 32% of Jews there are Orthodox. Russian Jewish immigrants and
their children comprise about 12% of American Jewry, and former Israelis make up
about 7% – two blocs that likewise tend to be politically
There’s one more group to factor in. In the 1980 race,
Reagan did best among Jews aged 30 to 45. Unlike their parents, they had no
track record of deep-seated loyalty to the Democrats, so when Carter turned
against Israel, they turned against him. Today they are in their 60s and 70s,
and pulling the lever for the GOP – if they again perceive the incumbent
Democratic president as unsympathetic to Israel – will be even easier the second
Which brings us to perhaps the greatest irony of all: Thomas
Friedman, to judge by the positions he has articulated on various issues over
the years, very much fits the profile of the previous generation’s typical
American Jewish voter – in other words, exactly the kind of Jewish voter whom
Baker had in mind when he uttered his famous obscenity.
But the changes
that both the Republican Party and the American Jewish community have undergone
and are continuing to experience suggest that the political assumptions and
alignments of the Baker-Friedman era are becoming a thing of the
The writer is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for
Holocaust Studies, and author or editor of 15 books about Jewish history and the
Holocaust. His latest, coauthored with Prof. Sonja Schoepf Wentling, is Herbert
Hoover and the Jews: The Origins of the “Jewish Vote” and Bipartisan Support for