The 1980 presidential election, like the Nixon-McGovern matchup eight years earlier, offered a clear choice between a Republican candidate who was unambiguous in his support of Israel and a Democrat whose record was something less than sterling. Only this time, the pro-Israel candidate was the challenger, former California governor Ronald Reagan, while the more problematic candidate was the incumbent, James Earl Carter.
Carter had alienated many American Jews early on in his presidency by calling for a “Palestinian homeland” and engaging in a series of confrontations with Israeli leaders. Moshe Dayan, the legendary Israeli general who at the time was serving as Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s foreign minister, recalled a particularly unpleasant meeting with Carter in Washington.
Carter, Dayan would later write in a memoir of the period entitled Breakthrough, berated him for what he perceived to be Israel’s intransigence. “You are more stubborn than the Arabs, and you put obstacles on the path to peace,” Carter told the startled Dayan.
Carter’s animosity toward Israel was on full display during the Camp David negotiations in the fall of 1978. The president continually browbeat Begin while White House aides put out the word that the Israeli leader was the main stumbling block to Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s noble quest for peace.
The Carter administration’s relationship with the American Jewish community probably reached its nadir several months prior to the 1980 election when the U.S. voted against Israel at the United Nations and Carter’s UN ambassador, Donald McHenry, clumsily tried to double-talk himself out of the ensuing controversy.
But as the presidential campaign heated up later that year, American Jews ? at least the vast majority for whom voting Democratic had become the closest thing in their lives to a religious act ? faced the dilemma of having to turn their backs on a Democratic president. However, the only viable alternative to Carter was Ronald Reagan, who was not just a Republican but a conservative Republican, which for most Jews in 1980 (and to a somewhat lesser extent today) was akin to an alien life form, an altogether different species.
There was a third choice that year, in the person of liberal Illinois Republican congressman John Anderson, who after a dismal showing in the Republican primaries saw fit to inflict himself on the electorate as a third-party candidate in the general election. But Anderson’s chances of winning were nil, so voting for him was widely understood to be something of a protest vote, a “neither of the above” judgment on Carter and Reagan.
For many Jews who ordinarily voted Democratic, Carter’s dismal performance as president ? and not just his perceived tilt against Israel – made the decision to vote for Reagan a little easier. So did the fact that Reagan was receiving support from some rather surprising sources, including the endorsement of former Democratic senator Eugene McCarthy, at one time a virtual icon of the 1960’s antiwar movement.
On Election Day Carter was repudiated by better than half the American Jewish electorate, garnering just 45 percent of their votes. Thirty-nine percent of the Jewish vote went to Reagan, just a drop less than the 40 percent that went to Eisenhower in 1956. John Anderson, as expected, did extremely well – better than 14 percent – among Jews who were sick of Carter but could not take the step of voting Republican.
Since leaving office, Carter has been a vocal critic of Israeli policies and a staunch advocate of Palestinian nationalism. Had he won a second term, there is little doubt the Jewish state would have suffered.
Shortly before the 1980 election, Cyrus Vance, who earlier that year had resigned as Carter’s secretary of state, confirmed to then-New York mayor Ed Koch that Carter, if reelected, would “sell out” the Jews. And according to investigative journalists Andrew and Leslie Cockburn, Carter, at a March 1980 meeting with his senior political advisers, angrily snapped, “If I get back in, I’m going to f— the Jews.”
(Continued Next Week)
Jason Maoz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org