Mike Cote as Mitt Romney fights Louis Ortiz as Barack Obama on the Atlantic’s September 2012 cover. (Photo: Alison Jackson/The Atlantic)
Over the next week mainstream Jewish institutions and partisan lobby groups will host pro-Israel events during both the Republican National Convention (RNC) in Tampa, FL and the Democratic National Convention (DNC) in Charlotte, NC, including a special “salute to pro-Israel candidates,” hosted by the Republican Jewish Coalition. But one pro-Israel group, Shalom International, says both candidates are not strong enough on Israel and is planning to protest the conventions.
Shalom International protest at Ground Zero, January 28, 2010. (Photo: Tootsie46/Flickr)
In Tampa and Charlotte, Shalom International, an organization known for staging anti-Obama demonstrations (over 500 according to the group) from Florida to Ground Zero, will demonstrate with 1,000 shofars against the Democratic party’s “sellout politics toward Israel.” The group’s president, Bob Kunst, 70, registered Democrat, also thinks the Republicans—even AIPAC—are too soft on Israel. And he has a message for Romney:
‘It’s not just Israeli culture that makes them economically superior to the Arabs, it’s our 5000 year history.’
Kunst explains his ire in a March 21, 2012 open letter:
Where are the Republicans on all the above and on all of this oil blackmail on the global economy from the Muslims Obama is supporting?….. as timid as could be while focusing on contraception, porno, saving the fetus, gay marriage,ad nauseum, as if any of this matters to the Islamic Nazis wanting to kill all ‘infidels’. Christians are under attack all over the world and still the ‘silence’. The danger is critical. AIPAC wants to petition Congress on Iran when AIPAC supports Obama allowing Iran’s nukes. [sic]
“We don’t have to kiss anyone’s behind,” said Kunst to me in a phone interview, continuing, Obama is “dumping on Israel, [and] being in bed with the Islamic jihadists.”
Kunst is critical of Obama’s policy towards Israel, citing the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) statehood bid and the president’s 2009 speech in Cairo where he, according to Kunst, “equate[d] the Holocaust to Muslim humiliation.” The pro-Israel advocate thinks this background indicates that Obama will endorse statehood in his second term, although Obama has affirmed his opposition to a future PA move for statehood.
Separately, Kunst also says the Obama administration’s financial support to the PA violates the Material Support to Terrorists act, which categorizes donations to Hamas as unlawful.
Voting for McCain in 2008, Kunst found himself for the first time in his life separating from the Democratic pack. He considers himself socially liberal and described to me his history of activism in the civil rights movement, which included marching against segregation with Martin Luther King Jr. Yet for Kunst, Israel and what he views as a very real need to protect Jews against virulent anti-Semitism trump issues like abortion and gay marriage. But Kunst has not switched to the full conservative agenda. He is voting for Romney “not because [he] is the greatest thing that has ever happened.” Instead, “it’s because he is not Obama.”
Kunst’s transition to the GOP is part of a larger trend and in this sense he is representative of many others from his generation. David Horowitz, also a former civil rights activist, is now a staunch Republican and Zionist advocate.
But Shalom International’s rallies will not be the only pro-Israel events in the Southern sates next week. On August 21, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) reported “both parties will feature events with ‘pro-Israel’ in the title,”
Not surprisingly, both parties will feature events with “pro-Israel” in the title: The RJC will have a “Salute to Pro-Israel Officials,” and NJDC will have a similar event. (At past conventions, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee has co-hosted these events; officials at AIPAC did not return multiple requests for information about what they planned for this year.)
“Pro-Israel” also is likely to be a theme during the prime-time speeches by candidates and other top officials. The differences will not be of substance; both parties and candidates are in virtually identical places when it comes to the Middle East peace process and confronting Iran.
Meanwhile the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) is taking a defensive stance and organizing “Why American Jews Will Support Obama/Biden.” In advance of the workshop, the NJDC released a video appeal, highlighting Obama’s recent $70 million Iron Dome anti-missile gift to Israel. The defensive shield was donated to the city of Sderot in a campaign move to counter Romney’s recent fundraising trip to Israel. The video includes messages of support from Israelis, although there is a clear absence of political content. “He is perfect,” “He is a very bright man,” and “He cares about us. No complaints”” said the interviewees.
The JTA also reported AIPAC refused to answer “multiple requests” if they will continue to hosts pro-Israel events at either of this year’s conventions:
At past conventions, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee has co-hosted these events; officials at AIPAC did not return multiple requests for information about what they planned for this year.)
Additionally, the American Jewish Community (AJC) will reach out to minority voters with Jewish-Latino workshops at both conventions. The AJC is also tailoring additional events to the constituencies of each political party by hosting their first ever “Jewish-Mormon” seminar in Tampa, and an “Jewish-African American” event in Charlotte.
Again, from the JTA:
‘This is not something we were doing 20 years ago,’ Jason Isaacson, the AJC director of government and international affairs, told JTA. ‘But obviously, it’s a community America is being introduced to in new ways in the course of this election campaign.’
The AJC has had a “longstanding relationship” with the Mormon groups. Just last week the group went on a delegation to Salt Lake City to meet with leaders from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
As well, J Street will be in Charlotte for a cocktail “Two-State, Two-Olive Martini Bar,” and a panel on “voting patterns and political leanings of American Jewish community.”
Still according to the Solomon Project, American Jewish voters overwhelmingly support Democratic candidates and are more concerned with domestic issues, like the economy, than American foreign policy. In 2008, 74 percent of American Jews voted for President Obama. [PDF]
But as Phil Weiss notes, the fight amongst candidates for the most pro-Israel position is less about winning elections and appealing to voters like Kunst. Instead the row is more of a fundraising tactic. And in the first election following the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, GOP SuperPACS are benefiting from slamming Obama on Israel.
Yet while Jews constitute a fraction of the electorate, only 3 percent according to the Solomon project, in Florida, they comprise a much bigger proportion of the population. By focusing on his home state, Kunst says it gives his organization “a role in the whole campaign, not just here in Florida” moving his platform to the center of the debate. And with Jewish Americans representing 8 percent of the electorate in Florida, there is a chance that the “Jewish vote” could swing the state.
With Romney stating in July his intent to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem– a promise differing from the GOP’s platform– it is clear the Kunst’s views have already entered the debate. Yet Kunst himself is having trouble getting access to convention delegates and media. He described security barriers as an obstacle and lamented that his repeated request to separate his protest from leftist demonstrators were ignored. “We’re here to do what we can to take advantage of the media,” said Kunst, whose group’s protest was to take place in a “free speech zone” outside of the Tampa convention center.