'Historic moment' as Jewish Republicans prepare to switch sides

Click to follow

For Danny Silver, a conservative Jewish lawyer from Los Angeles, the news that Al Gore had chosen an Orthodox Jew as his running mate on the Democratic presidential ticket was like a bolt from the blue.

For Danny Silver, a conservative Jewish lawyer from Los Angeles, the news that Al Gore had chosen an Orthodox Jew as his running mate on the Democratic presidential ticket was like a bolt from the blue.

"I was all set to vote for Bush," he said, "but now I have no choice. This is a historic moment for American Jews and I have to stand up and be counted." Apparently, he is not the only one. Jewish groups across the country yesterday hailed the choice of Senator Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut as Mr Gore's number two as a bold decision, one they hope will sweep away any remaining misgivings about the place of Jews in the mainstream of American life.

And it appears to have done nothing but good for the flailing Gore campaign. An opinion poll taken for CNN and USA Today on Monday night showed George W Bush's lead, which had reached 11 per cent in the wake of last week's Republican Convention, narrow down to just two percentage points. Although much of that bounce can be ascribed to other factors, notably Mr Lieberman's reputation for integrity, his Jewishness certainly does not appear to be a handicap.

Democrats are betting that times have moved on from the 1960 presidential campaign, when John Kennedy's Catholicism was cause for widespread concern and almost lost him the election. If anything, they believe that Mr Lieberman's devoutness will play well in the American heartland, even if it is not the devoutness of the mainstream religion.

"America is the world's most religious democracy, and people respect religious feelings. Issues like his refusal to campaign on the Sabbath will go down very well," predicted Donna Bojarsky, a political consultant for Democrats in Hollywood. "Yes, we are nervous, but we are also excited. People are going to learn a lot more about the Jewish religion than they ever imagined."

Although there are Americans on the far right who denounce Jewish conspiracies and embrace neo-Nazi ideology, the CNN/ USA Today poll showed just 4 per cent of voters believing Mr Lieberman's religion to be a liability, well down on the 19 per cent who said the same thing about JFK in 1960. Another survey much quoted yesterday showed that the number of Americans willing to accept a Jew in high office had risen from 42 per cent in 1947 to 92 per cent last year.

"Anti-Semitism is a thing of the past," said Steven Spiegel, a political science professor at the University of California in Los Angeles who advised Bill Clinton during his 1992 presidential campaign. "When Lieberman speaks about God, he appeals directly to Middle America." Whether Mr Lieberman's Jewishness can make a difference in attracting specific groups of swing voters is another matter, however. About 70 per cent of America's 6 million Jews are Democrats anyway.

"We're talking about a 5 per cent, 10 per cent swing in the Jewish vote? Big deal!" exclaimed David Horowitz, a former left-wing radical turned conservative gadfly. "Al Gore hasn't even locked down his supporters on the left, and Lieberman is too conservative to help him with that." One of the highest concentrations of influential Jewish Americans is to be found in Hollywood, whose celebrity firepower can have enormous sway over political races. But Senator Lieberman raises mixed feelings in the entertainment industry because he has staged a series of attacks on the moral values of film, television and video games and has threatened restrictive legislation if the industry fails to police itself.

Many political observers, however, believe that liberal Hollywood has nowhere other than the Gore-Lieberman ticket to turn. The Jewish factor, meanwhile, might have a galvanising effect in other parts of the country such as Florida, a key swing state, or New York, where Hillary Clinton might just enjoy the knock-on effect of American Jewish enthusiasm in her tightly fought Senate race.

There are still some questions about the extent of Mr Lieberman's religious commitment. Will his place on the ticket distort US policy on the Middle East, for example? Will his observance of the Sabbath interfere with running the country if he is elected?

Officially, Mr Lieberman has agreed to fall in line with Mr Gore's platform in every particular, and since Mr Gore is about as pro-Israel as any US politician he is unlikely to make much difference there.

As for the much-mooted risk of a rogue state launching a nuclear strike against America on a Saturday, there is a special dispensation in the torah permitting observant Jews to work in cases where health or safety are at stake. Mr Lieberman has regularly gone to Capitol Hill on the Sabbath, although he tends to walk there rather than taking motorised transport.