Can Barack Obama hold on to the Jewish vote in 2008 in numbers sufficient to secure his elections? It is the same question asked in 1968. Then, as now, polls revealed that the average Jew was disconcerted by the Democratic candidate attitude towards Israel. And, then, as now, Jewish Democratic party activists spared no effort to return them to the fold. Then as now, they asked Jews to trust that the “heart” of the candidate is in the right place. Then, as now, the Republicans are actively competing for the Jewish vote. Then, Jewish Republican had an Israeli ambassador on their side. Today, they have a formidable candidate to aid their cause.
On the other hand, Barack Obama is no Hubert Humphrey though in a recent Barack Obama even had the “audacity” to ask Jewish voters to judge him by what he says and what he does. The trouble is that he has done very little beyond convincing the enemies of Israel and America that he is the man they wish to see elected. And Jews would have to be really stupid to believe anything any politicians says and which in his case is not all that comforting. What Jews should do is consider the strategic vision of the presidential candidate and that of his advisers. And those of Obama leave much to be desired.
The newly released LBJ’s Secret Israel Tapes are an excellent case in point. In it Lyndon Johnson waxes lyrical about his love for Israel and his contention that he told Kosygin that he supports the Jewish state because it is the right thing to do, should not be taken at face value. Arthur Goldberg was one of Johnson’s court Jews and he played him like a fiddle mainly by appealing to his vanity and an exaggerated sense of self importance. First, Johnson convinced Goldberg to leave the supreme court by promising to make him a “second” secretary of state and, then, used him to give harsh anti-Israeli speeches at the UN.
During the Middle East crisis which preceded the Six Day War Johnson told Goldberg that anti Israeli Dean Rusk was pushed aside and had no role in managing the crisis for the administration. Anyone studying the documentary evidence knows it to be a lie though I must confess I used that comment to secure an interview with Dean Rusk. Rusk understandably was livid. Three times he returned to the subject despite my assurances that I knew Goldberg was fooled and not for the first time.
Johnson saw Goldberg as the representative of the Jewish community and, believed that what was acceptable to Goldberg would be acceptable to the Jewish community at large. Goldberg, like the rest of his Jewish cronies, was charged with selling Johnson’s policies to the Jewish community. By early 1968 when the reported conversation between President Johnson and Arthur Goldberg took place, that community was fed up with Johnson. Not only did his Arab appeasement policy during the crisis lead to the 1967 War, he had also left Israel standing alone and embargoed during the war and was in the middle of trying to use Israel’s territorial gains to improve America’s negotiating position in the Paris peace talks on Vietnam. To that end, Johnson refused to follow through with his commitment to sell Israel Phantom jets until he was forced to give up on the package deal idea because the USSR refused to cooperate.
In one of the newly released phone discussions, Johnson told Goldberg about an exchange he supposedly had with Kosygin in Glassboro. Kosygin, he relates, could not understand the reason the US would stand by three million Israelis “when there are a hundred million Arabs.” Johnson said: “I told him that numbers do not determine what was right. We tried to do what was right regardless of the numbers.”
However, the verbatim transcript of his conversations with Kosygin does not include such an exchange. Kosygin did demand that Israel withdraw from the Sinai so that Nasser would be able to reopen the canal and Moscow’s aid to North Vietnam would not have to be sent around Africa. He never mentioned the Syrian territories. When Kosygin drew a sketch of the Suez Canal, Johnson responded by drawing one of the DMZ.
Be that as it may, by the time Johnson was calling Goldberg he knew that disgusted Jewish voters were drifting away from the democratic party. Matters got even worse once Hubert Humphrey, who supported Johnson’s withholding the sale of Phantoms to Israel, became the party standard bearer. Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy supported the Phantom sale as did all the Republican candidates. A Gallup poll taken between May 25 and June 3, 1968 showed Humphrey with 79% and Nixon with only 4% of the Jewish vote. But a September poll gave Nixon 31% of that vote.
Nixon did not necessarily love Jews or Israel but he argued that the Six Day War proved that merely maintaining the military balance between Israel and it’s neighbors ran the risk of Arab miscalculation. It was much safer to provide Israel with a technological advantage. NYT editors fumed that the American commitment to Israel was “clear and outside the political debate” and chided Nixon’s willingness “to go well beyond that basic pledge to project a new and dangerous, open ended and ultimately self defeating commitment.” An incensed Democratic activist Phillip Klutznick complained that it was “abnormal” for Israeli military needs “to be aired in a national campaign.”
To the annoyance of Jewish democrats, the Six Day War hero and Israeli ambassador to the US, Yitzhak Rabin, attended the Republican convention and to the horror of Jewish Democrats, liked Nixon’s strategic thinking and said so.
Johnson worked hard to get his court Jews to sell his foreign policies to their constituencies. When they reported that “the man in the street” resented Johnson’s policies towards Israel, Goldberg got long phone calls. Others were bullied. Califano reports that spotting Barry Levinson in the White House corridor, “Johnson was jutted out his right fist and yelled down the hall, ‘You Zionist dupe! You and Wattenberg are Zionist dupes in the White House!”.
In the end, Jewish leaders swallowed their pride and mobilized to secure the Jewish vote for the Democratic party. Arthur Goldberg became the co-chairman of the Humphrey-Muskie campaign. Another activist, Jacob Kanter, organized a group of “opinion makers” into the National Coordinating Committee for Humphrey-Muskie.
An Ad supporting the Democratic ticket was placed in the Jewish press which reached 90% of the Jewish voters. It made a reference to JFK but not to LBJ. It emphasized Humphrey’s commitment to law and order, human rights, social reform, Israel (”we know that his commitment is heart-felt and not an election year pasture”) world peace and peace in Vietnam. Jews are not and have never been single issue voters. Indeed, when I asked what it was like to be in the White House during those fateful days prior to the Six Day War when Israel stood alone seemingly readied for the slaughter, Walt Rostow answered: “I was a Socialist, not a Zionist!” In the end 81% of the Jews voted for Humphery (Johnson got 90%) 17% voted for Nixon.
It should be noted that when push came to shove in 1973, Nixon, unlike Johnson in 1967, stood by Israel. Both presidents did what they thought was best for the United States. Neither domestic politics not their personal feelings mattered. Lyndon Johnson may have loved Israel. His good friend, Arthur Krim, refused to give me an interview but when he met my brother in law at a party, Krim asked him to tell me that he really did. The same was probably true about Hubert Humphrey. I very much doubt it is true of Barack Obama. Richard Nixon was certainly no John McCain.
Still, in 2008 as in 1968, the Jewish vote is in play and Democratic operatives are working hard to convince “the man in the street” that voting for Obama does not mean throwing Israel under the bus. I hope they fail. Obama is an appeaser and appeasers do not make trustworthy allies. It is not difficult to imagine who Rabin would recommend. The question is what is the percentage of Jewish Democrats who will heed his advice.
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