A presidential historian and former White House staffer told an Aug. 11 gathering in Long Branch that the 2016 presidential race is shaping up to be the “most Jewish” in history.
“Think about it,” said Dr. Tevi Troy. “Both leading candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, have machatunim,” Jewish in-laws of their daughters. (Chelsea Clinton is married to the Jewish Marc Mezvinsky, and Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, married the Orthodox Jared Kushner, originally of Livingston, after converting.)
“It’s remarkable how little comment there is” on this phenomenon, Troy said. “The larger American society accepts this with nary a second thought. I can’t think of any other country where the leading candidates have machatunim — except Israel.”
Troy served, in the administration of George W. Bush, as deputy secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, deputy assistant and later acting assistant to the president for domestic policy, and White House liaison to the Jewish community. He is now president of the American Health Policy Institute and author of the best-seller What Jefferson Read, Ike Watched, and Obama Tweeted: 200 Years of Popular Culture in the White House.
Troy was the keynote speaker at the major donors’ dinner of the Jewish Federation in the Heart of NJ, which drew 85 people to Avenue Le Club in Long Branch. (Among them were Troy’s parents, Elaine and Dov, originally from Queens, who now live in Monroe.)
Other examples of the “Jewish flavor” permeating the campaign arena: Vermont Democrat Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has been gaining ground on Clinton in the race, is Jewish, and Lauren Bush Lauren, niece of Republican hopeful Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, is married to the Jewish David Lauren (son of fashion designer Ralph Lauren).
Moving on to the political targeting of the Jewish vote, Troy said candidates have been making a play for the Jewish vote, particularly in the “purple” states, like Florida, rather than in places like Brooklyn, a solidly “blue” area. A truism behind this approach, he said, is that “if the Democrats get more than 80 percent of the Jewish vote, they usually win. If the Republicans get more than 30 percent, they usually win. That is why there is a big difference between getting 20 and 30 percent of the Jewish vote,” said Troy. “It almost seems like it’s getting to be a race for Jewish support.”
Nothing perhaps demonstrates this more than the fund-raiser former Texas Gov. Rick Perry held at a kosher restaurant in Des Moines, Iowa. “I don’t know what is more surprising: that there is a kosher restaurant in Iowa or that Rick Perry chose to have a fund-raiser there,” joked Troy
Although Jewish participation in American political life has come to the fore in the last decades, Jewish involvement in government goes back to the 19th century; in 1813, Mordecai Manuel Noah was appointed by President James Madison as consul to Tunis. However, after the Muslim country objected, Madison — “to his everlasting shame,” said Troy — recalled the Jewish Noah.
Oscar Straus became the first Jewish cabinet-level appointee in 1906, when President Theodore Roosevelt made him secretary of commerce and labor — although Judah Benjamin did serve as treasurer of the Confederacy during the Civil War.
Troy said Roosevelt famously said of his appointment, “I didn’t look for the best Jew for the position; I looked for the best man for the position.”
As the 20th century went on, Jews became increasingly involved with American politics, mostly with the Democratic Party. As they grew more comfortable on the political stage, a host of Jewish groups began lobbying the president and Congress.
With more than 50 such groups vying for attention, Troy said, the Eisenhower administration made a simple request: “Can’t you just have one organization to represent everybody?” spawning the creation of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. However, Troy noted, the existence of the Presidents’ Conference has not stopped the same groups from lobbying the White House.
By the time of the administrations of John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, a number of Jews had been appointed as presidential speechwriters.
When William Safire worked for Richard Nixon — who, Troy said, was no philo-Semite (though a strong supporter of Israel) — the speechwriter asked to have Yom Kippur off.
A surprised Nixon asked, “You really do all that with the prayer shawl and little hat?” and then, much to Safire’s surprise, added, “Good for you.”
However, it has been in the 21st century that Jewish influence has really blossomed, starting with the Democratic nomination of then Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, as Al Gore’s running mate in the 2000 election.
Event chairs were Jeffrey Schwartz, federation second vice president, and his wife, Marcia, and Sheryl Grutman, former president of the Jewish Federation of Monmouth County.
Jeffrey Schwartz told the crowd the Jan. 1 integration of the former Monmouth and Greater Middlesex federations has gone smoother than anticipated. “You are the lifeblood of this organization,” he told the assembled donors. “We could not do it without you.”
Federation president Mitchell Frumkin said he was gratified to see so many people who shared a vision for the united community, while three long-time community activists spoke of what their involvement meant to them.
Board member Edward Guttenplan of Highland Park called federation “the navigator of all the needs of the community.”
Past Monmouth president Elise Feldman of Farmingdale said after more than 30 years of involvement in helping Jews locally and around the world, “federation is in my soul.”
Federation CEO Keith Krivitzky said the merged federation has worked “to change the direction of the Jewish community,” allowing it to effectively use its leverage to bring additional programs and services to the community.
Though Krivitzky declined to break out how much money specifically was raised at the event, he said, “The new campaign thus far has raised $1.6 million, with several major donors raising their gifts in conjunction with the event.”