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Elections expert dampens hopes for Jewish shift
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Elections expert dampens hopes for Jewish shift

Despite efforts to attract Jewish voters by making Israel a “wedge issue,” Republicans are likely to make few inroads among Jewish voters who find the party’s social stance too far to the right, according to a Princeton University political analyst.

Julian Zelizer, professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, said Republican efforts have failed to take into account that Jewish voters are not of one opinion on Israel, and, in fact, a number have no issue with President Barack Obama’s policies toward the Jewish state.

“It’s not at all clear that the American-Jewish community falls in lockstep on the position of Israel,” said Zelizer in a phone interview in advance of his Oct. 19 Shabbat appearance at Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen. “While the president may have misstepped early in his administration by tying the settlements to the peace process, many in the Jewish community think the Obama administration is doing just fine with regard to Israel.”

The Princeton resident, who also writes a weekly column for CNN.com, will be on friendly turf at Neve Shalom, where he grew up and where his father, Gerald, has been rabbi for more than four decades.

“Part of my talk is going to be why Republicans have had so much trouble winning over the Jewish vote, despite ongoing efforts since 1980, when Jimmy Carter did poorly among Jews against Ronald Reagan,” said Zelizer, “and why now — in this election, when many thought a switch may happen — they are still having trouble.”

That trouble can primarily be tied to the shift to the right of the GOP, he said. Its increasingly conservative views on social issues — from immigration and civil rigvhts to reproductive rights — clash with the liberal to moderate views of many Jews.

“While there will be some Jews who vote Republican, it very well may have nothing to do with Israel,” said Zelizer. “It may be because they have the same frustrations as other people with the economy and other issues. Jimmy Carter did poorly with Jews, but he also did poorly with a lot of other constituents.

“But, my guess is that if the Romney campaign keeps moving in this direction, it won’t be easy for him to get Jews.”

From the last week in September until the election, the Republican Jewish Coalition is hosting weekly phone banks in New York and central New Jersey staffed by volunteers calling Jewish voters in the critical swing state of Ohio.

Such banks may have negligible effect in New Jersey, with recent polls showing Obama opening up a growing lead.

In Florida, however, where the president’s lead is smaller, Jews could be a factor in the Sunshine State’s going Democratic, said Zelizer.

“There too the Medicare position of his running mate Paul Ryan could very well be an obstacle in efforts to get Jewish support,” Zelizer explained. “A lot of Jewish residents in Florida are reliant on Medicare.”

In addition to problems with the GOP stance on Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, many Jews disagree with the Republicans on immigration, a position that also puts the party at odds with segments of the Latino population.

While support for Israel remains strong in the Jewish community, there is now a divergence of opinion on how to handle the peace process and other issues, some of it generational, said Zelizer.

“While there clearly have been tensions” between Benjamin Netanyahu and Obama, the Israeli prime minister “himself threw a wrench into that whole argument in his [Sept. 27] speech at the United Nations, where he praised Obama,” Zelizer said.

The social positions of the Orthodox may be more in alignment with the GOP than those of the rest of the Jewish community, but, Zelizer said, there are obstacles to winning them over as well.

“It’s not clear they will go with Republicans,” said Zelizer. “Many Orthodox live in the northeastern states, where the Democrats are very powerful, so they align with those in power. Geography and local politics push back against this community being loyal to the GOP.”

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