The last couple of columns, both of which focused on Jewish voting habits in presidential elections, inspired some spirited responses from readers.
First, several respondents took issue with the Monitor’s citing the 1980 Reagan-Carter election as the best evidence that a Republican presidential candidate will always face an uphill battle among Jewish voters when running against a Democrat – even if the Democrat is an incumbent with an undistinguished record and a less than friendly demeanor toward Israel.
The 1972 election, argued those readers, was an even stronger example of mindless Jewish liberalism. The Monitor, reflecting back on the level of Jewish support for the ultra-liberal dove George McGovern over the incumbent president, Richard Nixon, was inclined to agree, and said so in a follow-up column.
But a bunch of readers reacted to that column by nominating the 1984 election as the one that should stand above all others in the annals of Jewish electoral infamy. And those readers also have a point.
Actually, the Monitor touched on the 1984 election a number of years ago, and it warrants a repeat look.
A majority of American Jewish voters had deserted Jimmy Carter in 1980 – with just 45 percent voting for Carter, 39 percent choosing Carter’s Republican challenger, Ronald Reagan, and 16 percent opting for independent candidate John Anderson. This led to speculation that the Jewish community perhaps was finally moving away from its longtime loyalty to the Democratic Party and thus rendering obsolete Milton Himmelfarb’s famous quip that “Jews earn like Episcopalians but vote like Puerto Ricans.”
It was not to be. Jews would flock home to the Democrats in 1984. The Democratic nominee, Walter Mondale, was a former senator from Minnesota who more recently had served as Jimmy Carter’s vice president. Mondale had compiled a pro-Israel voting record in the Senate, but there were questions raised during his tenure as vice president about the depth of his commitment. He never publicly criticized any of the Carter administration’s Mideast policies that many American Jews found so troubling – and worse, seemed to share Carter’s instinctive need to blame Israel for all manner of wrongdoing.
According to Ezer Weizman and Moshe Dayan, both of whom authored accounts of their intimate involvement in Israel’s negotiations with Washington during the Carter years, Mondale was a constant thorn in the side of the Israelis.
Dayan was particularly scathing, describing one meeting at the White House with senior American officials, Carter and Mondale included, that amounted to a non-stop scolding of Israel. Carter berated Dayan and his fellow Israeli diplomats for being “more stubborn than the Arabs” and putting “obstacles on the path to peace.”
If anything, wrote Dayan, Mondale was worse than Carter: “Our talk lasted more than an hour and was most unpleasant. President Carter…and even more so Mondale, launched charge after charge against Israel.”
In fact, Dayan added, Mondale could barely restrain himself: “Whenever the president showed signs of calming down and holding an even-tempered dialogue, Mondale jumped in with fresh complaints which disrupted the talk.”
Ronald Reagan, on the other hand, was never shy about his affinity for Jews and Israel, which went back decades. The Nazi death-camp newsreels he viewed at the end of World War II had an especially profound effect. “From then on,” he said, “I was concerned for the Jewish people.”
In his memoirs Reagan declared, “I’ve believed many things in my life, but no conviction I’ve ever had has been stronger than my belief that the United States must ensure the survival of Israel.”
Under Reagan, U.S. aid to Israel, both economic and military, rose to new heights, as did the countries’ strategic cooperation. Notwithstanding a series of policy disagreements between the Reagan administration and the governments of Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, Israeli journalists Dan Raviv and Yossi Melman dubbed the Reagan years the “Solid Gold Era” in U.S.-Israel relations.
Once again, however, most American Jews in 1984 were concerned above all else with a liberal political agenda – preserving abortion rights, keeping prayer out of public schools, etc. Accordingly, nearly seven out of ten Jewish voters pulled the lever for Mondale, even as their fellow Americans were reelecting Reagan 59 percent to 40.6 percent, forty-nine states to one.