Evaluating Edwards

washington | The much-anticipated announcement of Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) as the Democratic vice-presidential nominee didn’t trigger the same elation among Jews that Sen. Joseph Lieberman’s selection did four years ago when the Connecticut Democrat became the first Jewish name on a national ticket.

But there is seemingly solid support among Jewish Democrats hoping that Edwards’ selection will help bolster Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) bid to unseat President Bush.

The Republican Jewish Coalition reacted to Edwards’ selection by stating that the senator lacks the foreign policy experience necessary for leadership in times of war. The organization also referred to Kerry and Edwards as inexperienced legislators.

In contrast to Republican reactions, Kerry described Edwards as “a man whose life has prepared him for leadership, and whose character brings him to exercise it.”

The National Jewish Democratic Council called Edwards “an outstanding friend of the American Jewish community and a powerful supporter” of the positions “held by the vast majority of American Jews.”

As the number of candidates dwindled in the 2003 Democratic primary last winter, several significant Jewish contributors became enamored with Edwards. Lonnie Kaplan, a former president of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee who initially backed Lieberman, found in Edwards a solid supporter of Israel and someone able to connect with Jewish voters on issues of importance.

“His basic instincts are in line with the community,” said Ryan Karben, a Jewish state assemblyman in New York who represents an area with several Chassidic communities. “That’s reassuring because it doesn’t come across as contrived or gleaned from years of meetings.”

Karben brought Edwards’ wife, Elizabeth, to a meeting with the New York Board of Rabbis when she was campaigning for her husband for the state’s primary. At the time, Elizabeth spoke of her belief in a strong U.S.-Israeli relationship, participants said. Edwards doesn’t need to represent a state with a lot of Jews to understand the needs of the Jewish community, supporters say.

Edwards was a highly successful trial lawyer in North Carolina seven years ago when he sought a seat in the Senate, largely financing his own campaign. That meant Edwards didn’t spend as much time as other aspiring lawmakers courting support and dollars in the Jewish community, both in and out of his state, North Carolina Jewish activists said.

“He didn’t seek out the Jewish community,” unlike others who “go from candidate event to candidate event begging for money,” said Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, a Democratic political consultant from North Carolina who made a failed bid for Congress in 1994. “Because he was self-financed, he could avoid a lot of that.”

Edwards nonetheless has earned Jews’ respect. He has a solid voting record on Israel, pro-Israel lobbyists say, and he emphasizes issues that resonate with many Jewish voters: health, education and poverty.

Edwards visited Israel with colleagues from the Senate Intelligence Committee in 2001 and was there when a suicide bomber attacked Sbarro restaurant in downtown Jerusalem.

“I think the trip left on him an understanding,” said Randall Kaplan, a Greensboro businessman and board member for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. “He really gets the strategic issues, the existential issues.”

In a statement to JTA during his presidential bid, Edwards said he would, as president, increase U.S. engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with the appointment of a senior envoy to the region.

He said he supports a two-state solution, with the Jewish state of Israel and “a legitimate, democratic and territorially viable Palestinian state living side by side in peace.”

And he signaled support for Israel’s anti-terrorism tactics, including the security barrier Israel is erecting in the West Bank.

“As long as the Palestinian leadership fails to end terror, Israel has a right to take measures to defend itself,” Edwards said. “Such defensive measures are not the cause of terrorism, they are the response to terrorism.”

As part of the rollout of Edwards as a candidate for vice president, Kerry’s campaign took note of his foreign policy experience, including meetings he has had with Mideast leaders Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and former Prime Minister Shimon Peres, Mossad head Ephraim Halevy, Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher and Jordanian King Abdullah II.

On the domestic front, Edwards said in his statement that he supports faith-based charities delivering social services “in a manner consistent with the First Amendment,” but did not specify whether he supports federal funding for such charities.

But in contrast to the Bush administration’s plan that allows religious charities to receive federal funds while allowing the hiring of individuals of a specific religion, Edwards said the charities should follow anti-discrimination standards.

He is a former co-sponsor of the Workplace Religious Freedom Act, legislation that has languished in Congress for years and would give employees the right to seek accommodations for their religious practices. While Edwards has not put his name to the legislation this year, Jewish organizational officials say he is expected to support the legislation if it moves forward for a vote.