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Rick Perry and the Jews: An Introduction

Having been mesmerized by a few hours of Professional Bullfighting on TV the other day my free-associative mind kept returning to two previously unconnected themes: 1) presidential aspirant Rick Perry, and, 2) Jews (i.e., a people who rarely participate in recreational activities that involve close contact with large, highly enraged animals).

A third motif, national déchéance, fleetingly inconvenienced me; the world’s best professional bullfighters, apparently, are not Texans or Oklahomans but Brazilians. But that is neither here nor there.

Commentators are just beginning to assess Perry’s chances among Jews and it stands to reason that the subject will be revisited many times in the coming months. In fact, the question of “Jews in the General Election” is a staple of Faith and Values journalism, sort of like the classic drenched-reporter-standing-on-the-beach-three-hours-before-the-hurricane-hits segment.

We are just getting to know Cowboy Rick Perry. The Jews, however, we know well. What follows are some general considerations  for those wondering about this Aggie’s prospects among the People of the Covenant.

Just how important are Jews in a national election? They are small in number (estimates range from 1.8 to 2.2 percent of the general population) and concentrated in traditional Blue enclaves anyhow (e.g., New York, New Jersey, California). Crucially, they are numerous in the perennial swing state of Florida (far less numerous in other ones such as Ohio, Wisconsin, and Virginia). It is here where Perry or any GOP aspirant will need to make a stand.

But it would be an error to think of Jews solely in terms of numbers. Their value lies in their organizational and intellectual assets. Jewish political groups are generous donors and formidable coalition-builders. Too, they are disproportionately represented among the nation’s opinion makers. Rick Perry will need to reach out and he will do that on the subject of . . . .

Israel: This will be the most contentious issue of all in a prospective Perry-Obama match-up. Like all conservative Evangelicals, Perry is staunchly pro-Israel. Like all Evangelicals, his fealty to the Jewish state is theological in nature, based on a philo-Semitism enmeshed with classical Christian supercessionism (in some variants, for the Messiah to come all of the Jews must be gathered to Israel).

Jews are deeply divided over the Evangelical embrace of Israel. Some object to the theological presuppositions of the approach (i.e., that Jews will either disappear or embrace Christ). Others, who don’t figure that Christ will return any time soon, disregard the theology and appreciate the political support that Evangelicals in Congress have given them since the 1980s.

Then there are liberal Jews who abhor both the theological underpinnings and the political support. The latter, they argue, enables a conservative Israeli government to pursue policies which are detrimental to peace and its own survival.

The wildcard in all of this is Obama. True, he received 78 percent of the Jewish vote in 2008. Yet current dissatisfaction with his policies is not inconsiderable, especially among the exceedingly vocal pro-Israel faction. Expect Perry or any other GOP hopeful to wedge this issue ’till kingdom come.

Israel will be Governor Perry’s portal to the Jewish community. Obama’s “betrayal of our greatest ally” will be the central theme of every speech he gives to a Jewish group on the campaign trail. Expect a visit to the Wailing Wall replete with the governor donning a beaming white kipa.

Insofar as Perry has signaled a willingness to contrast his military record to that of Obama’s don’t be surprised if Pilot Perry rockets into Israel on his own private Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor. Hell, he may even volunteer to fly a sortie over Damascus. Such behaviors will be necessary because Perry has one huge obstacle to overcome. . . .

The Response: Governor Perry’s unecumenical extravaganza of a few weeks back, I believe, was a huge political mistake. Most importantly, it did absolutely nothing to ingratiate him to Catholic voters. In terms of Faith and Values campaigning few things are more important than ingratiating oneself to Catholic voters!

As for Jews, it left nearly all of them—including Republicans—with concerns. Note to Perry handlers: Jews love ecumenical America. Jews fear Christian (as in Evangelical Protestant) America. Jewish neo-Conservatives are not an exception to this rule. Mitt Romney can go to town here. Members of the Tribe will feel that he understands what it means to run afoul of the majority.

Buckin’ Off the Fed: The Palin Factor: All things equal, Jews like strong central governments, not a pastiche of local decision makers catering to majorities. Perry’s recent tantrum directed at Ben Bernanke is not the type of thing that wins over most Jews. Indeed, the whole states-rights discourse leaves most on edge. His disdain for Social Security and Medicare ought make for some interesting back-and-forth with older Jewish voters in the Sunshine State.

Jews are also impervious to the charms of “small-town America” solicitations the likes of which Sarah Palin employed in 2008. Some commentators, I am one of them, believe that such appeals spooked GOP-curious Jewish voters who prefer cities and federal governments to backwaters and volatile statehouses.

Jews, like all minorities, appreciate lawful order and if they are taxed a bit more for the privilege, so be it. Perry’s abhorrence of D.C. is not a winning issue for him among this constituency.

Perry: The Bull or the Rider? Everything we have seen so far indicates that the formidable Perry has more bull than rider in him.  He can scarcely go eight seconds without lashing out at someone and he does so with an I’m-strapped-what-about-you? swagger. That may go over well in Dallas but less so among Jewish retirees in southern Florida.

If he does win his party’s nomination, Rick Perry will be a hard sell among Jews. Unless he softens the edges, unqualified support for the current government of Israel may be his only means of improving on the 22 percent of the Jewish vote which John McCain garnered in 2008.

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