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Jewish World Review Nov. 24, 1999 /15 Kislev, 5760

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Pondering the Panderers

The two Democratic presidential hopefuls have different approaches to wooing the Jews -- THE GREAT NATIONAL JEWISH JAMBOREE that is the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities of North America took place last week in Atlanta.

There was a lot on the plate of the G.A. last week, an event that also doubled as the official inaugural of the new merged UJC. The sessions at the annual conclave dealt with many topics: Jewish renaissance, fundraising, overseas allocations and democracy in Israel, just to name a few. While the sessions are a must for Jewish professionals, wonks and pundits,the G.A. also brings out a host of vendors of everything Jews might want to buy from books to jewelry in a vast exhibition hall that is always my favorite feature of the event.

But along with those flogging their wares and ideas in Atlanta were two individuals who were selling themselves Vice President Al Gore and former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley the two major candidates for the Democratic nomination for the next president of the United States.

Given the concentration of Jewish leaders, donors and opinion makers at the Atlanta convention, the presence of the two Democrats was a natural.

Especially when you consider that studies of campaign contributions made in recent national elections showed that Jews made up a disproportionate percentage of those who gave to Democrats (American Jews also gave a smaller, but still disproportionate, share of the money that Republican candidates received).

Gore's appearance at the G.A. was a near-run thing. According to published reports, the vice president's office had initially turned down the invitation. But, after some last-minute appeals, the Gore staff did the right thing by their candidate and rearranged his itinerary to allow him to be the keynote speaker at the opening ceremonies held at the Atlanta Civic Center.

Since he is not a sitting vice president, Bradley did not get equal time. Instead, his organizers had to settle for a "meet and greet" event in a small banquet room in the hotel where the G.A. was headquartered. The appearance attracted a few hundred delegates.

But the differences between the two candidates' approach to the G.A. audience went a lot further than the venues for their speeches. While many observers have noted that the political philosophies and programs espoused by Gore and Bradley are basically similar (both are moderate to liberal Democrats), there was a remarkable contrast in their approaches to Jewish voters and donors.

In his speech, Gore choose to go the all-out pander route to appeal to Jewish interests. The vice president used Hebrew and Yiddish words, and his mispronunciation of the word chesed he pronounced the first two letters with a soft "ch," as in the word church produced peals of knowing laughter from the audience.

If that wasn't enough, the famously stiff veep read through a comedic list of "Jewish country-and-Western song titles." Though this was the sort of e-mail joke list that clutters most computers (i.e. "The second time she said 'shalom', I knew she meant goodbye,"), the goofy item was a big hit with listeners in Atlanta.

More substantively, Gore ticked off a laundry list of issues that his handlers believed have Jewish appeal. This included support for Israel, the peace process, social justice, hate-crimes legislation and abortion rights.

For the record, the statement that generated the most applause was Gore's pledge to defend "a woman's right to choose."

Though Gore significantly omitted the standard pledge of loyalty to Israel's rights to sovereignty over Jerusalem, I doubt that he missed a single other obvious Jewish applause line.

If those who came to hear Bill Bradley a few hours later were expecting more of the same, they were disappointed. Bradley had no Hebrew or Yiddish phrases to offer his listeners.

Outside of a brief mention of what he called his "perfect" record on Israel while in the Senate, along with a short, pointed story about his first visit to the Jewish state (in which he was given a lesson about how Israelis are expected to "trust" the United States), Bradley did not speak about specifically Jewish issues.

In fact, he made more references to basketball than to Jewish topics, and told not a single Jewish joke. His was a deliberate, nonpander speech. Instead, he spent his time discussing his political philosophy of civic responsibility in a characteristically intellectual manner.

Rather than an appeal to the specific concerns of his audience, the former Knicks star challenged them to think about the things he was interested in.

He took it as a given that they understood he supported Jewish causes, without the need to do so on bended knee. Nor did the always rumpled-looking Bradley feel the need to act the role of "honorary Jew" that other non-Jewish politicians like to affect.

The question is, which of these two approaches will be more successful? There is little question that the all-out pander is the safe route to take with Jewish voters. On key issues where votes will hang on the politician's position and Israel has always been such an issue for most Jews the direct approach is probably the most useful.

However, the all-out panderer also runs the risk of appealing insincere or just foolish. Former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole's blatant pander to Jewish voters in 1995 (in preparation for his ultimately unsuccessful run for president in 1996) on the issue of Jerusalem certainly seemed a switch for a man who had always been lukewarm on Israel. Few were fooled by the obvious switch by Dole. That's a danger that a man such as Gore, who has longstanding ties to the Jewish community, doesn't run.

For all of the abuse that "special interests" get in today's political world, being pandered to is one of the pleasures of living in a democracy.

If it takes an election to force a politician to do the right thing about an important issue so as to win votes, then so much the better for democracy.

Dole's sponsorship of legislation intended to force the U.S. Embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem may have been an insincere pander, but it was also very useful to the pro-Israel community.

On the other hand, now that even the government of the state of Israel no longer speaks much about the Jewish state's potential peril, the all-out pander may be going out of fashion.

Bradley's style may not sell as well wholesale as it did retail in his Atlanta venue, but I have a hunch that a dignified call to an enlightened view of citizenship may actually appeal to more Jewish voters (especially younger ones) than the Tennessee Yiddishe boychik routine the vice president has spent the last 20 years perfecting.

If so, then perhaps we can look in the future for candidates who will appeal to Jews with more substance and less shtick.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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©1999, Jonathan Tobin