Women examine if Jews are deserting Democrats

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In 1944, Franklin Delano Roosevelt swept 90 percent of the Jewish vote in his last presidential election. A half century later, Republican Gov. Pete Wilson harnessed 41 percent of California's Jews in a reelection quest.

The traditional Jewish straight-ticket Democrat vote is no longer.

Disillusioned with the left, some Jews question the effectiveness of welfare and social programs. However, many see the Republican Party as too far to the right, particularly on such issues as abortion, school prayer and health care.

Jewish women on both sides of the political spectrum addressed those concerns Jan. 23 at Temple Isaiah's annual Women's Education Day in Lafayette sponsored by the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay.

Diana Aviv, director of the Washington Action Office of the Council of Jewish Federations, directed a morning briefing. In an afternoon debate, Rosalie Zalis, senior policy adviser to Wilson, and Judy Bloom, assistant to Assemblywoman Jackie Speier, went head to head on such issues as education, social reform and Israel.

Although the women didn't agree on much, they did reach a consensus on one thing — good government is usually moderate government, whether Democratic or Republican.

"My contention is there is a place in both parties for Jews. Actually, I think it's mandatory," Zalis said.

"There's a wide spectrum within both parties, from [Louis] Farrakhan to [U.S. Sen.] Dianne Feinstein on the left and [presidential candidate] Pat Buchanan to Pete Wilson on the right," she added.

"And I think Wilson and Feinstein have a lot more in common than Farrakhan and Feinstein or Wilson and Buchanan."

Bloom agreed, but said Wilson is an anomaly in a Republican Party that has veered sharply to the right.

"Wilson doesn't agree with a lot of the Republican platform," Bloom said. "But we need to look at local vs. national platforms…Unfortunately, moderates like Pete Wilson aren't leading the Republican Party. Instead, they are angry young white men."

Retorted Zalis, "It's our fault if the right wing is taking over the Republican Party because Jews have deserted the entire party, not even supporting moderates and leaving it to the extremists."

Meanwhile, both women used Jewish teachings to justify their positions.

Bloom cited Jewish ideals like tzedakah (charity or justice) and tikkun olam (repairing the world) as leading her to be "a Democrat, a liberal and an unabashed feminist."

"Our faith teaches us to help people help themselves. But I'm concerned that the Republicans want to forget about people who can't take care of themselves — children and the elderly."

Zalis, who used to vote Democratic, countered that tzedakah isn't "cycle after cycle of welfare dependency…or affirmative action, quotas and preferences.

"These are not Jewish ways. If they were, we [Jews] would be 2 percent of medical school students."

Zalis added that the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee sided with Wilson in his opposition to affirmative action policies.

Ultimately, both women stuck to their political allegiances. As a Democrat, Bloom said she votes not just as a Jew, but as a woman and as a U.S. citizen. Zalis takes a different perspective.

"We need to take care of our own issues first," she said. "There are a number of Jewish Democrats who don't support Jewish issues yet feel they have to support everyone else's issues."

Meanwhile, "Jewish Republicans have been speaking with [Speaker of the House] Newt Gingrich. He's becoming a real friend to Israel," Zalis added.

The audience, nearly 250 women and a handful of men from Contra Costa County, groaned — to which Zalis responded, "See, you want to discount it."

But Bloom said Gingrich isn't Israel's only friend in Washington. "AIPAC [the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the leading pro-Israel lobby] has been doing its job."

Both women urged audience members to listen carefully to the messages coming out of Sacramento and Washington and to make their voices heard.

"Both moderate Democrats and Republicans need input," Zalis said.

"We need to be players in shaping the agenda of the Republican party. We need to be a moderating influence like we have been in the Democratic Party. We have a golden opportunity to shape the society."