With Israel top on their agenda, Russian Jews heavily favor Bush

new york | While American-born Jews and Russian-speaking Jews in New York have been building stronger intercommunal ties in recent years, they remain far apart when it comes to presidential politics.

A recent American Jewish Committee poll showed American Jews favoring Democratic candidate Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) over President Bush by a wide margin, 69 percent to 24 percent.

But in a separate survey of Russian Jews in New York City, the AJCommittee found that 54 percent of Jews from the former Soviet Union would vote for Bush and 14 percent for Kerry, with 25 percent undecided.

And according to a number of political observers in the Russian community, that poll may even underestimate Bush’s strength among Russian speakers.

“From my conversations with a wide assortment of people in the Russian community, I would estimate that the numbers are something like eight to one for Bush over Kerry,” said Ari Kagan, executive director of the United Association of East European Jewry and a commentator for the Russian Forward.

“The feeling for Bush is so vociferous that I don’t know of one prominent person in the Russian community who is willing to say openly he is backing Kerry,” Kagan said.

“Even though Russian Jews are mainly registered Democrats, lately many are reluctant to say out loud they are Democrats because they don’t want to be tied to Kerry.”

Even in the liberal Bay Area, Russian Jews are “leaning toward” Bush, said Pnina Levermore, executive director for the Bay Area Council for Jewish Rescue and Renewal. “It has largely to do with Bush’s position toward Israel, which is a major factor for the emigre community.”

Denis Hiller, co-owner of a Silicon Valley high-tech company, said, “Most of us will vote for Bush,” because he is “such a staunch supporter of Israel for one thing and the way he handles terrorism.” The “Russian Jewish community as a whole is pretty conservative, regardless.”

Fira Stukelman, former president of the Association of Holocaust Survivors from the Former Soviet Union and one of the community’s leading advocates for seniors, said that older Russians voted strongly for Al Gore over Bush in 2000.

But she said, “This time they are going overwhelmingly for Bush over Kerry. The reason is simple: Israel, Israel and Israel. Russian Jews are convinced Bush is the best friend Israel has ever had and is doing more to protect Israel’s interests than any other American president.”

Since their arrival in large numbers from the Soviet Union in the late 1970s and their growth to an estimated 20 percent of the Jews in the five boroughs of New York City, the Russian-speaking community has been a classic swing constituency.

In the 1980s, the community tended to vote Republican in large measure because of President Ronald Reagan, whom they adored for his characterization of their former homeland as the “Evil Empire.”

In the 1990s, the Russians swung sharply into the Democratic camp because of an affection for President Clinton and because the GOP-run Congress spearheaded a series of measures that cut social benefits for immigrants.

In 2000, Russian Jews in New York are believed to have voted for Gore over Bush 77 to 20.

Yet all of that has changed radically over the past four years as Russian-speaking New Yorkers, traumatized by the impact of 9/11, have responded favorably to Bush’s war on terror, including the invasion of Iraq, and his unabashed support for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in his struggle with the Palestinians.

JTA staff writer Rachel Pomerance in New York contributed to this report.