WASHINGTON – To some conservative Jews, Texas Gov. Rick Perry would make an excellent presidential candidate. He’s been to Israel more than any other candidate in the field and has said he loves it. And Perry creates jobs.
But other Jewish conservatives seeking the anti-Obama candidate look at the three-term governor and see something arresting: He believes he’s on a mission from God.
Perry has nonplussed longtime Jewish supporters by claiming he has been “called” to the presidency and by hosting a prayer rally this month that appealed to Jesus to save America.
Jennifer Rubin, the Washington Post’s Right Turn columnist and a bellwether of Jewish conservatism, took liberals to task on her blog for treating the event as “a spectacle” – it was borne of deeply considered worries about the country’s parlous state, she said – but Rubin also expressed caveats about the rally.
“His words at the event were restrained but not ecumenical,” she wrote. “And his use of public office to promote the Christian event was, to me, inappropriate. The event, while scheduled last December, is still reflective of the man who would be president. Would he do this in the Oval Office? Does he not understand how many Americans might be offended? Is he lacking advice from a non-Texan perspective?”
Fred Zeidman, an influential Houston lawyer who has known Perry for decades and has hosted him at his home, said that “None of us remember him being quite as devout as he seems to be now, but we wouldn’t necessarily have known.”
Zeidman, who for eight years served as chairman of the board of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, supports Mitt Romney. But Zeidman told JTA that before endorsing Romney, he checked with Perry last December to ask whether he would be running. At the time Perry said no.
On Saturday, Perry threw his hat into the ring.
“A great country requires a better direction,” he said, declaring his candidacy. “A renewed nation needs a new president.”
Perry has been a conservative since before he switched parties in 1989 to became a Republican. A cotton farmer and former Air Force pilot, he led efforts in his first five years as a Democrat in the Texas Legislature to pare the budget.
Perry, a devout Methodist, was attracted to Israel from the launch of his career. One of his first acts after being elected agriculture commissioner in 1991 was to create the Texas-Israel Exchange, which promoted information and research sharing.
In a 2009 interview with The Jerusalem Post, when as governor he led a delegation to Israel, Perry – who at about the same time flirted with Texas secessionist rhetoric – said the alliance was a natural one.
“When I was here for the first time some 18 years ago and I was touring the country, the comparison between Masada and the Alamo was not lost on me,” he told the Post. “I mean, we’re talking about two groups of people who were willing to give up their lives for freedom and liberty.”
As much as Perry’s heartfelt love for Israel makes him attractive to Republican Jews, it is the other reason he was in Israel at the time – seeking out job creation initiatives, as he has across the globe – that has been the basis of his Jewish support.
“I became intrigued by Rick Perry when I read his book Fed Up! because it was exactly what I was feeling,” Robin Bernstein, who heads Perry’s fundraising in Florida, said in an interview.
“His economic success in Texas is a model for the entire country.”
Texas has managed to weather the recession comparatively well, and the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas has reported that half of all U.S. jobs created from June 2009 to April 2011 were in Texas.