Local presidential debate brings out the blue and red of area Jews

Even in politically “blue” San Francisco, the race for the White House has some people seeing red.

Exhibit A: the “presidential” debate held Wednesday, Oct. 20, at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. The event was co-sponsored by the Republican Jewish Coalition and the Raoul Wallenberg Jewish Democratic Club.

An audience topping 300 came to watch two surrogates duke it out for Jewish hearts and minds. (The turnout was impressive considering attendees chose politics over watching Boston clinch the pennant.)

As in the real presidential debates, there were no knockout blows, but both sides got in their shots.

Standing in for George Bush and John Kerry were U.C. Berkeley professor/Republican operative Dan Schnur and former Democratic L.A.-area Rep. Mel Levine. Moderator Michael Krasny tried to keep the questions limited to subjects of Jewish interest.

For sake of civility, Krasny asked the audience members to maintain a respectful silence throughout. It didn’t last.

Levine began by detailing what he saw as President Bush’s failed domestic record, but he reserved his harshest criticism for the administration’s Middle East policy, blasting the president’s handling of Iraq and for “coddling the Saudi royal family time and again.”

He also pointed out Kerry’s 100 percent rating from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, saying the senator “has been on the side of Israel with every single bill.”

Schnur countered by criticizing Kerry for positing a “moral equivalency” between the Israelis and Palestinians, offering past quotes from Kerry as evidence. “I don’t know where [Kerry] stands,” said Schnur.

Levine came back with a left hook of his own. “This administration has failed to develop alternate Palestinian leadership,” he said. “John Kerry’s plan will restore American credibility around the world.”

The debate heated up when the subject shifted to the role of religion in the presidency. Said Levine, “I’m frightened by the role this president has given religion in politics.”

Schnur, a one-time Jewish day school student, conceded “there are aspects of the evangelical faith that make me uncomfortable,” but added, “to say one cannot be trusted because he makes moral decisions based on a different religion from ours is a dangerous slope.”

Midway through, the audience (seemingly evenly split between Bush and Kerry supporters) started making some noise, especially during discussions of Iraq and terrorism.

The biggest audience outburst came when Levine discounted Bush’s role in getting Libya to disarm. The subsequent hissing and catcalls made Kanbar Hall seem more like the Knesset.

“This is fun,” interjected Krasny.

While Schnur agreed that some criticism of the administration’s handling of the Iraq war was legitimate, he said, “I worry about a president [Kerry] concerned with passing a global test.”

Levine stressed that Kerry would work more productively with other nations, and that he would “work with Muslim nations to isolate extremist Muslims.”

Despite a few moments of snarling and spontaneous applause, the audience was mostly cordial, the two debaters collegial.

In the lobby afterward, Jewish Republicans and Democrats mingled amiably, though they tended to clump themselves in separate partisan clusters like jocks and cool kids at a high school sock hop.

Said Leon Mayeri of Berkeley, “It was excellent. The most important issues were covered, and I was pleased to see a consensus of support for Israel.”

David Rosnow of Bolinas, a Kerry supporter, echoed the sentiment. “It was a good discussion,” he said, “though the most interesting issue to me is how Republicans can align themselves with a party so close to the Christian right.”

On the other side of the room Bob Gardner, a board member of the Republican Jewish Coalition, was also pleased with the debate. “I thought Dan Schnur did a better job,” he said. “There is a lot of surprise in the Bay Area Jewish community that there is an organized Republican group. But it’s not necessary for the Jewish community to have a monolithic position in politics.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.