Gores focus on religion sparks Jewish concern

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WASHINGTON — Unhappy with the draft of a speech he was to deliver at the Jewish state's 50th anniversary celebration and frustrated with five Jewish aides who were unable to discuss the first biblical references to Israel, Vice President Al Gore took a break for dinner while his staff scoured Air Force Two for a copy of the Bible.

Halfway across the Atlantic Ocean while en route to represent the United States at Israel's jubilee celebrations last year, Gore huddled over all they could find — a King James Bible borrowed from a military aide.

Six hours later, amid a sea of notes, the eight-minute speech was done.

That night in Jerusalem, an enthusiastic crowd cheered Gore as he recounted the story of Jacob.

"Since the angel of God first wrestled with Jacob, and gave him your name — Israel — your dream and your struggle have nurtured the children of Israel through all the bitter centuries of your wandering and dispersion, your persecution and despair," Gore said at Hebrew University's stadium.

Now it is Gore who is wrestling — trying to define the role of religion in public policy as he officially begins his campaign for president.

And Jewish supporters of the vice president are wrestling, too — trying to reconcile Gore's decision to make religion central to his campaign with his long history of support for Jewish causes.

If Gore is going to emerge from President Clinton's shadow, he's going to need some new issues of his own, supporters say.

With the American people telling pollsters that they want the next president to be more "moral," Gore's campaign sees a winning message in religion.

"The Democratic Party is going to take back God this time," Elaine Kamarck, a senior Gore policy adviser, recently told the Boston Globe.

Casting aside strong opposition from some of his key Jewish supporters, Gore recently called for the expansion of a federal program despised by most in the Jewish community and opposed by Clinton himself.

In one of his first major campaign speeches, Gore focused on religion and pledged, if elected president, to expand "charitable choice" programs, which encourage religious institutions to provide federal welfare programs.

With this speech, Gore inserted into the campaign an issue that Democrats traditionally have been loathe to use to attract voters.

Talk of religion in politics makes many in the Jewish community uncomfortable because usually it does not mean Judaism.

In fact, writing recently in the New York Times, author A.N. Wilson said Gore's May 24 speech on charitable choice offered a cure for what the vice president called "ordinary Americans" who "have been turned off to politics."

"The cure is Christianity," Wilson wrote.

To be sure, Gore is not the type of politician who has worn religion on his sleeve.

But in dozens of speeches to Jewish audiences since he became vice president, Gore, who spent a year studying at divinity school, has frequently espoused religious themes.

By bringing this to the campaign, Gore's message sheds some light on how he plans to become only the second sitting vice president this century to win a presidential election.

Gore's presidency will be a "laboratory for innovation and experimentation," said Steve Grossman, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee. A longtime Jewish activist, Grossman worked with the vice president and his staff on the charitable choice speech.

But Grossman's praise does not assuage the fears of most Jewish groups, which flooded Gore's office with letters and statements of protest against charitable choice.

The United Jewish Communities, the umbrella fund-raising and social service organization of the Jewish community, in a rare policy statement, criticized the vice president's proposal as "neither necessary nor helpful."

Gore's plan "will not strengthen the work of the religious sector in providing human service, but will likely undermine the quality of social services they provide," said Stephen Solender, acting president of the UJC, which last fall voted to oppose all current charitable choice programs and any attempts to expand them.

Opponents of Gore's proposal believe the statement will get noticed in the vice president's office especially because of the large number of Gore contributors who sit on federation boards across the country.

The program will lead to proselytizing and the erosion of the constitutional doctrine of separation of church and state, opponents argue. In the organized Jewish community only Orthodox and Republican groups expressed support for the program, which allows a church to receive taxpayer money for counseling that includes religious content.

Now the ball is in Gore's court, activists say as they wait for the campaign's next move on the issue.

If Gore had no track record with the Jewish community, some Democratic activists fear that he would be in trouble.

But unlike Clinton, who was a relative unknown in the community, when he ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1992, Gore has a proven history from his career in the House of Representative, from 1977 to 1985, and then as a senator until 1993 when he became vice president.

Gore comes to the campaign as an internationalist who "stands for a muscular foreign policy," Grossman said, recalling Gore's decision to break with Democratic senators and vote to support the Gulf War.

One supporter recalled a 1995 attack on the vice president by Russian ultranationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky, who in a U.S. television interview attacked Gore, calling him a Jew. Gore at the time called the attack "a badge of honor" and went on to strongly condemn Zhirinovsky. As a senator, Gore frequently championed the cause of Soviet Jewish prisoners.

On Israel, Gore has one of the strongest voting records.

During the Clinton administration's darkest days with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Gore was the one who maintained a dialogue with the Israeli leader, officials said.

But while Jewish Democratic activists claim support among Jewish voters for Gore is as broad as Clinton's, who received almost 80 percent of the Jewish vote in his two presidential elections, others believe it is not as deep.

"He's got a great record with the Jewish community, a voting record," one activist said, trying to draw a distinction between Gore and Republican frontrunner George W. Bush.

"Now Gore's got to work it."