The Palin Puzzle

Support for Israel, traditionally a bipartisan issue in American politics, has become a very partisan issue.

sarah palin311 (photo credit: erik lesser / AP)
sarah palin311
(photo credit: erik lesser / AP)
WHEN BENYAMIN KORN, 54, a self-described activist, journalist, son of a Reform rabbi, father of four teenagers and a ba’al teshuva (someone who has become religiously observant), launched the Jews for Sarah Palin website in mid-April, he was the butt of jokes by friends and foes alike.
After all, 78 percent of American Jews had supported the Democratic presidential ticket in 2008, according to exit polls. And an American Jewish Committee poll in September showed that Jews disapproved of Palin by a 54 to 37 percent margin, indicating that the addition of the former Alaskan governor to the Republican ticket was part of the reason for the Jewish vote.
Korn is a longtime friend of Jeremy Ben- Ami, executive director of the left-wing, twoyear- old, pro-Israel, pro-peace group, J Street, who refers to Korn by his nickname. “If ‘Buddy’ Korn is able to pull together enough Jews who are publicly willing to support Sarah Palin that he could form a minyan (prayer quorum of ten), more power to him,” Ben-Ami writes in an e-mail to The Jerusalem Report.
“There hasn’t been anyone in American politics that I can remember attracting higher negative ratings among Jewish Americans than Sarah Palin.
“I guess that’s the beauty of democracy – even the 14 percent of American Jews who have a favorable opinion of Sarah Palin deserve a political home,” he quips.
And David A. Harris, president of the National Jewish Democratic Council, comments to The Report, “They [Jews who support Palin] can hold their national conference in a phone booth, kosher-catered with four shwarmas.
I welcome them to talk as much about Sarah Palin as possible because it will only help our efforts. She’s anathema to the majority of American Jews, even Republicans.”
Jews have consistently supported the Democratic Party ever since Franklin Roosevelt initiated the New Deal in the 1930s.
“American Jews are Democrats at heart,” Harris says. And it is certainly too early to determine whether Korn will be able to mobilize Jewish support for Palin – who hasn’t announced her future plans, including whether or not she’ll run for president in 2012.
Yet unquestionably, Korn seems to have tapped a reservoir of growing American Jewish disappointment in President Barack Obama’s handling of the US relationship with Israel.
And the activities of Jews for Palin and other recently established, like-minded groups are indicators that the acrimony within the Jewish community, so palpable during the 2008 elections, has not died down.
Korn is particularly excited about a program his group is cosponsoring with the Pennsylvania Family Institute in Hershey, Pennsylvania, at the end of August, where Palin will be speaking.
IN FACT, KORN HAD PLANNED TO launch his organization, Jewish Americans for Sarah Palin, and website this summer, but was spurred to speed up the process by three months because, in his opinion, the Obama Administration was not handling the US’s relationship with Israel properly. “This was a serious development, so I decided to launch immediately,” he explains. He did so on April 16, a time chosen “to coincide with Yom Ha’atzma’ut [Israel Independence Day] and Jewish independence from Barak Obama.”
Although Korn, former editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent, hasn’t built his organization as quickly as he anticipated, he is anything but discouraged.
Korn tells The Report that he is busy “assembling the components” of his new organization for which he hopes to have 50 board members and several chapters formed around the country. As of mid-August, he still had less than two dozen board members and was not ready to announce any chapters. A number of his board members joined in the final days of July, as the advertising war in a pivotal Pennsylvania Senate race heated up. That’s when Korn announced several new members to his advisory board. Tellingly, the majority are Pennsylvanian businesspeople.
“We haven’t focused on building the board so much. We’re working under battlefield conditions and must handle the pressing needs first,” Korn says, noting that the organization has already “established itself as an advocate for Palin” and gained what he refers to as “significant media attention.” He underlines the fact that he is launching this organization “out of our garage” and acknowledges that some people he’s asked to join his board have turned him down. “Some can’t get involved politically, and others say it’s just not their cup of tea.”
Still his website,, has received 50,000 hits. Korn claims that twothirds of these are from Jews, 85 percent of which have been positive, he says. “This is clearly an unscientific observation,” he acknowledges, “but I’m judging this on the correspondence we get. The Jewish mail has been three-to-one supportive, although we get a lot of hostile mail too.”
Korn would not reveal the details of the national chapter network he hopes to establish because, he says, the organization is still in the planning stages. But he does divulge that his group will have an “energizing public gathering” in northern New Jersey in the fall. “We want to target the modern Orthodox, and New Jersey is the heartland of the modern-Orthodox community. There are probably 40,000-50,000 Orthodox families in the area.” The grand event he plans will be held well before the Congressional mid-term elections (in early November) and will show, he says, that “hundreds, if not thousands [of Jews], support Sarah Palin. We will attract a lot of notice the way we’re going to do it,” he adds.
Korn established his organization as a private, limited corporation, which means that donations to “Jews for Palin” are not tax-deductible, and promises that the composition of the board and the public event will demonstrate to the quizzical public that Palin has support from the American Jewish community.
PALIN SEEMS TO ATTRACT THE majority of her supporters in the conservative or neo-conservative pockets along the East Coast. In March, conservative writer Norman Podhoretz published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal in which he wrote that he would “rather have Sarah Palin sitting in the Oval Office than Barack Obama.”
Former editor of The Forward Seth Lipsky, now independent, tells The Report that Palin’s concern over the collapse in the value of the dollar and her pro-business stance are among the reasons she’s gaining support.
In a November 2009 editorial in The New York Sun, Lipsky called her worldview, “Palinism” and wrote, “This started to come into view for us when she gave her interview to Barbara Walters,” he wrote, noting that when asked what she thought of Israel’s West Bank settlements Palin responded, “I disagree with the Obama Administration on that… I don’t think that the Obama Administration has any right to tell Israel that the Jewish settlements cannot expand.”
Added Lipsky, “The formulation by the former Alaska governor struck us as a wonderful statement of an emerging policy. It provides a glimpse of a leader who would respect Israel’s right to establish, democratically, its own strategy in its own sphere and could restore the standing of America’s president in the eyes in (sic) the Israelis, among whom it has plunged…” Another writer who avidly supports Palin, and is on the advisory board of the Jews for Sarah Palin group, is Long Island-based Pamela Geller, founder of Stop Islamicization of America and co-author of the new book, “The Post-American Presidency: The Obama Administration’s War on America.” “I pray she runs for president. To me, as an American, she is the ideal ‘man,’ so to speak. She represents the American ideal,” Geller tells The Report.
“She’s unafraid. We live in a culture that is vicious and dominated by the left. She never backs down, though. She believes in small government and rugged individuality.”
Geller continues, saying that “as an American,” she supports Palin’s platform of low taxes, a strong foreign policy, small government and she’s unapologetic for America’s greatness. And noting Palin’s support for Israel she adds, “As an American Jew… I believe Israel is on the front line of a jihad. Israel is absorbing terrorism and if it were not there, we would be [absorbing terrorism] in America.”
Another American Jew who strongly supports Palin and sits on the advisory board of Jews for Sarah Palin is former Georgia state legislator Mitchell Kaye. Palin’s strong support of Israel, he says, “comes from her heart and ties into her upbringing. Too many others just pander. She’s also plain-talking; she’s a real person. And lastly, she’s a reformer. She challenged corruption in her own party. I’ve been supporting her for a while, but now that she came out against the mosque at Ground Zero,” his support is solidified.
Kaye, who spoke to The Report from Washington, D.C., where he was participating in the Christians United for Israel (CUFI) lobbying on Capitol Hill, charges that the 70-80 percent of American Jews who vote for Democratic candidates do so “without knowing the issues.”
IS PALIN, THE BUTT OF SO MANY jokes, really the key to pulling the Jewish community away from its traditional support for Democrats? Says Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, “My sense is that there’s no outpouring of support for Palin, just against Obama.” Palin, Sarna tells The Report in a telephone interview from Jerusalem, will have a difficult challenge to get support from the American Jewish community.
According to Jacques Berlinerblau, associate professor of Jewish civilization at Georgetown University, there had been a slight progression of Jews towards the Republican Party but Palin’s candidacy put the brakes on the trend. “Palin hearkened back to American small-town populism, like anti-Semitic Father Charles Coughlin in the 1940s and 50s, and that makes American Jews uncomfortable,” he tells The Report. “This rhetorically rings flight or fight bells from previous times. Lines like ‘Christian America,’ which Palin used as a candidate, are never going to make inroads in the American Jewish community.”
Moreover, he continues, Palin’s mixing of state and religion goes against the grains of American institutions, such as the American Jewish Committee or the Anti-Defamation League, while her anti-intellectualism has “never been good for Jews, who are over-represented in holders of advanced degrees.”
Where Palin may get some traction in the American Jewish community is among more traditional Jewish groups, such as the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox, says Berlinerblau. These are, he says, “groups that see secularism as a four-letter word” and are in favor of government-supported parochial schools. “They have an affinity for politicians who want to bring religion into the government. Palin may make inroads in the traditional Jewish community if she casts secularism as bad, but then she will galvanize the liberal Jewish groups” against her, he adds.
John Feffer, co-director at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington D.C., believes that Palin – who has never visited Israel – has latched onto the Israel issue to gain conservative support. “That is an agenda that’s been handed to her, but she doesn’t have a world view. She’s too parochial. She’s not stupid; she just hasn’t learned her lines. She’s become better but she doesn’t come from an ideological perspective. The enthusiasm some Jews have for her is comical. It’s only because she articulates a perspective they share narrowly. On social issues, Jews remain liberal. And her domestic policy is reprehensible.”
Disparagingly, Feffer refers to Palin as a “Shabbos goy.” “She has to do certain things we can’t because we don’t have a Jew in the White House or as Secretary of State. She’ll turn on and off the lights for us. She’s useful, but not a friend.”
WHATEVER THE LEVEL OF support for Palin, and despite an AJC poll conducted earlier this year which indicated 55 percent of American Jews still approve of the way the Obama Administration is handling US-Israel relations, Republicans sense disgruntlement with Obama’s policy toward Israel among American Jews. And they see this as a possible wedge issue through which they can attract what has long been the bastion of Democratic support.
That’s one reason why there’s been so much focus on the Pennsylvania Senate race, where US Congressman Joe Sestak, a Democrat, is running against former Rep. Pat Toomey, the Republican nominee. Toomey is supported by the unorganized, conservative grass-roots effort known as the Tea Party, named after the anti-British early Bostonians who fought against taxation without representation.
Sestak, a former naval commander who worked closely with Israel’s military, quickly garnered support from J Street. Then on July 12, The Weekly Standard’s editor, William Kristol, together with right-wing Christian Zionist and former Republican presidential candidate, Gary Bauer, and conservative writer and activist Rachel Abrams launched the Emergency Committee for Israel (ECI).
(Abrams is also the wife of Elliot Abrams, Middle East advisor under president George W. Bush, and is step-daughter of the conservative magazine Commentary’s Podhoretz.) Formed as a 501(c)4 organization that allows it to run political ads but not to provide for tax-deductible donations, the ECI consists of the three board members plus executive director Noah Pollak and an assistant.
Pollak tells The Report that the “emergency” in his organization’s title reveals their concern in “several major areas,” including Iran’s attempts to produce nuclear weapons and its support for terrorism; the delegitimization campaign against Israel supported by European countries; and the Obama Administration’s handling of the US-Israel relationship. “Our goal is to bring some information and arguments into the political debate for voters, who care about American foreign policy and the U.S.-Israel relationship,” explains Pollak.
ECI released a hard-hitting TV commercial attacking Sestak for signing a letter criticizing Israel’s blockade of Gaza, while refusing to sign a defense of Israel circulated by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), and further charges him with appearing at a fundraiser three years ago for the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR). ECI describes CAIR as an “anti-Israel organization the FBI has called a ‘front group for Hamas.’”
Sestak’s spokeswoman was quoted in the well-known political blog, Politico, as saying that Sestak “is a strong supporter of the State of Israel. His record is clear on the matter and in stark contrast to his opponent who voted against aid for Israel. It’s political silly season, so it’s not surprising these conservatives are trying to distort Joe’s record. It’s also not surprising that ECI chose to create its first attack ad in this congressional race because Joe Sestak was already garnering support from J Street.”
After ECI’s TV ad ran, J Street’s political action committee ran its first-ever TV commercial, supporting Sestak. In an e-mail to supporters, J Street reported that “JStreetPAC, the political action committee branch of J Street, is leading a coalition of national organizations, including Democracy for America, Political Action and Progressive Change Campaign Committee, in pushing back on the baseless attacks by the right wing on Joe Sestak’s foreign policy record.”
The credibility of both J Street, on the one hand, and ECI, on the other, are on the line in the Pennsylvania Senate race. More significantly, since Toomey’s campaign immediately targeted American Jewish voters, it is being watched closely as a barometer of the degree of support Obama retains among the American Jewish community.
Thus, support for Israel, which has traditionally been a bipartisan issue in American politics, has become a very partisan issue.
The American Jewish community has become more fractionalized – partly based on differing opinions about Israel’s policies.
After the Philadelphia-based newspaper, the Jewish Exponent, branded those who are attacking Sestak as “extremists,” Korn’s “American Jews for Sarah Palin” ran an ad the last week in July naming a number of well-known Philadelphia Jews to its growing advisory board. Miffed, Korn tells The Report, “I was not personally offended but it’s a way of demonizing people to distract from the message. I’m a third-generation Philadelphia Federation supporter,” he adds, explaining that this, in his opinion, provides him with “some credentials” in the American Jewish community.
Pollak says ECI has no ties to AIPAC nor the group American Jews for Sarah Palin.
However, by the end of July, ECI had mass emailed Korn’s op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer.
DESPITE THE HUGE MEDIA HYPE hatched by the new conservative organizations that are eagerly igniting controversy and debate within the American Jewish community, longtime observers of American Jews and politics remain skeptical of their impact. “We certainly know that there’s no one-to-one correlation between the amount of noise by a particular candidate and the amount of support for that particular candidate by Jews,” observes Sarna.
Berlinerblau also sees the ECI as a fleeting “fly-by-night” group. “They won’t last. I can’t see groups like this, evangelicals and the Tea Party, persevering.”
“I wonder if the Tea Party is really a movement,” contends Louis A. Ruprecht Jr., who holds the William M. Suttles Chair of Religious Studies at Georgia State University in Atlanta.
“It doesn’t have a clear leadership. I’m not sure if this goes beyond the perennial resentment of paying taxes. In any case, it’s a misappropriation of history,” citing the taxation without representation fight in colonial America. “These guys got representation; they just don’t like it. There’s always been a rebellious streak in American history and they always lose.”
He also wonders what role religion plays in the Tea Party movement and in Palin’s perspective.
“When I see the Tea Party being against [Islamic] terrorism, that’s when religion slips in through the back door.” In fact, Palin’s strong attack against the controversial building of a Muslim center, but often referred to as a mosque, near Ground Zero in New York – site of the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 – has garnered her support both from Christians and Jews.
Feffer says he’s observed a shift to the right over the last few decades that allows the traditionally conservative wing, religiously and politically, to link arms with the neo-conservatives and evangelicals. “This predates Palin and the Tea Party, but the latter provides a meeting group for people against Obama. It’s new packaging. But the politics of resentment rarely produce long-term organizations. They will have an effect on the local level, in the Senate races, but they haven’t articulated a coherent vision that could function as a [presidential] platform.”
For now, the Sestak-Toomey Senate race is the site of the opening shot of the battle that will be waged at least through the November congressional elections. The ECI’s Pollak declines to disclose the group’s plans beyond November, only calling into attention a recently released statement that refers to the debate ECI’s ad has opened and states that the ECI plans to participate in the debate in Pennsylvania “and elsewhere.” Indeed, in mid- August, Pollak released a statement lambasting the US State Department for employing the imam of the proposed New York Muslim center, Feisal Abdul Rauf, as an emissary to the Middle East. And, in early August, the ECI launched additional attack ads, this time targeting Congressional candidates in Ohio, Connecticut and Virginia. Pollak told The Report to assume there will be more such ads.
Korn is much more effusive about his group’s future plans. “We know how to build an organization and the new technology allows us to have two-way communication with each hit [on its website]. We’re building up our membership, chapters and mailing lists. Many people have already donated money, from $5 to $180 to substantially more,” he says. “We have a nucleus of chapters in a dozen cities without even starting. Once we go public, it will create a big splash. They understand that we are the cause they want to support. It’s not just a website; our mission statement resonates with people. We’ve received hundreds of comments that say, ‘Thank God, there are others who feel this way and are doing something.’” Noting that his goal is to “create space for Sarah Palin in Jewish communication” and to support her “in whatever she does, whether she becomes a candidate or not,” Korn obviously feels that American Jews for Sarah Palin has achieved that goal. “I know the Palin people are aware of us.”