A majority of American Jewish voters had deserted Jimmy Carter in 1980, leading to speculation that the Jewish community perhaps was moving away from its longtime loyalty to the Democratic party and rendering obsolete Milton Himmelfarb’s famous observation that “Jews earn like Episcopalians but vote like Puerto Ricans.”
But Jews would flock home to the Democratic party in 1984, preferring the Democratic candidate, Walter Mondale, to the incumbent Republican president, Ronald Reagan, by a 69 percent to 31 percent margin.
The ’84 election was yet another indication that a Republican presidential candidate, whether an incumbent or a challenger and no matter how strong his record on Israel, will always lose among Jewish voters when the alternative is a liberal Democrat without any pronounced or well-known hostility to Israel.
Mondale, a protege of the late Hubert Humphrey, was a former senator from Minnesota who more recently had served as Carter’s vice president during the latter’s ineffectual one-term presidency. Jews were drawn to Mondale for a number of reasons – his Humphrey connection, his New Deal liberalism, and the simple fact that he wasn’t Reagan, to whom most American Jews never took a liking, despite a dramatic improvement in U.S-Israel relations since Mondale’s old boss had been thrown out of office.
Mondale had compiled a pro-Israel voting record while 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 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 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 stated on more than one occasion, “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 strategic cooperation between the two countries. Despite 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 summed up the Reagan years as the “Solid Gold Era.”
Once again, however, American Jews in 1984 (with the exception of several heavily Orthodox New York City neighborhoods) were above all else concerned with preserving abortion rights and keeping prayer out of public schools. Accordingly, seven out of 10 Jewish voters pulled the lever for Mondale, even as their fellow Americans were reelecting Reagan with landslide numbers, 59 percent to 40.6 percent, 49 states to 1.
(Continued Next Week)
Jason Maoz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org