We left off last week in the midst of the 1972 presidential campaign, one of the more interesting in terms of Jewish voting behavior. On one hand you had the incumbent, Republican Richard Nixon, whose relationship with Israel during his first term was quite solid; on the other you had his Democratic challenger, South Dakota Sen. George McGovern, a leading dove on Vietnam with a not especially inspiring record on Israel.
Israeli leaders left no doubt about their preference; Prime Minister Golda Meir considered Nixon the friendliest U.S. president since the creation of Israel in 1948, and Israel’s ambassador to Washington, the former IDF chief of staff and future prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, made it clear in public statements that his government was hoping for a Nixon victory.
None of that seemed to matter to the bulk of American Jewry. Certainly there were defections from Democratic ranks – an organization calling itself “Democrats for Nixon” was a predominantly Jewish affair, and several wealthy big-name Jewish contributors who normally gave to Democrats were this time around writing checks to the Nixon campaign – but most Jews still feared that pulling the Republican lever would cause their right hands to lose their cunning.
“Official” Jewry – that dizzying network of committees, councils, conferences and leagues staffed by liberal flunkies whose Holy Writ is the platform of the Democratic Party and whose daily spiritual sustenance comes from New York Times editorials – was represented in the McGovern campaign by Jewish liaison Richard Cohen, who after the election returned to his job as public relations director at the American Jewish Congress, and campaign director Frank Mankiewicz, a former employee of the Anti-Defamation League.
As in past elections, individual organizational leaders, such as Washington fixture Hyman Bookbinder, made no secret of their Democratic sympathies. Not surprisingly, Jewish celebrities were highly visible McGovern supporters: Barbra Streisand, Art Garfunkel, Alan King, Peter Falk and scores of other household names enthusiastically gave their time and money to the Democratic candidate.
As Stephen Isaacs described it in his 1974 book Jews and American Politics, “despite problems with affirmative action plans-cum-quotas, the ‘urban fever zone,’ scatter site housing, community control of schools, an inept Democratic presidential campaign – despite all these things and more – the Jewish bloc vote did hold up” for McGovern, who won the votes of 65 percent of American Jews – this while Nixon was crushing McGovern among the general electorate with a landslide of historic proportions.
Nixon defeated McGovern by a count of 60.7 percent to 37.5 percent, 49 states to 1; more tellingly as far as Jews were concerned, he won nearly 70 percent of the white vote.
Nixon did double his share of the Jewish vote from the paltry 17 percent he received four years earlier, but the startling fact remains that McGovern actually did better among Jews than Adlai Stevenson had in 1952 and 1956.
Given Nixon’s record on Israel and the plaudits of Israeli leaders, his moderate domestic agenda, and an unimpressive opponent with no strong ties to the Jewish community, the 1972 election was as clear a signal as any that it was a combination of old habits and a religious-like devotion to dogmatic liberalism that drove the majority of Jewish voters, not any primary concern for Israel or narrowly defined Jewish interests.
A year later, as the Yom Kippur War raged, Nixon went against the State and Defense Department bureaucracies and directed the massive military airlift to Israel that literally saved the Jewish state from near certain defeat. It should never be forgotten that had it been left up to two-thirds of American Jewish voters, the man sitting in the Oval Office during Israel’s time of unprecedented peril would have been President George McGovern.
(Continued Next Week)
Jason Maoz can be reached at email@example.com