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Perry’s Ascent Heralds Israel’s Rise as Issue

Front-running Texas gov. is not playing to the Jewish crowd

Marc Tracy
August 23, 2011
Gov. Rick Perry campaigning last week in New Hampshire.(Darren McCollester/Getty Images)
Gov. Rick Perry campaigning last week in New Hampshire.(Darren McCollester/Getty Images)

A Texas-sized mezuzah is fun, but Rick Perry should be taken quite seriously: having entered the Republican primary race only the weekend before last, he seems to have zoomed to a comfortable lead—the latest Rasmussen poll has him up double digits on both Mitt Romney and Rep. Michele Bachmann. For a left-of-center but extremely knowledgeable take on the governor, Lawrence Wright is a must-read.

Perry offers an unusually distilled version of everything that has consistently kept Jewish voters away from national Republicans—minus, crucially, his robust support for Israel. If he is the nominee then how he fares among Jews will be a remarkably clean study into how much President Obama’s Israel politics have hurt his standing among Jews and how much the Israel issue matters among Jews, because outside of that issue, there is really no reason for any of the 78 percent of Jews who didn’t vote for Sen. John McCain to vote for Perry. Meanwhile, the frequency and passion with which Perry brings up Israel signals an important dynamic that could see the Jewish state taking center stage in the national debate next year.

It’s not just that Perry has different economic and social views than your typical liberal American Jew. He is arguably the most theocratic national candidate in American history. He held an explicitly Christian rally, called The Response, in Texas, while governor and, importantly, as governor. Conservative blogger Jennifer Rubin called it “not ecumenical” and, given the explicit connection with his office, “inappropriate.” The Anti-Defamation League’s Abraham Foxman said it was “a conscious disregard of law and authority” and added, “What troubles me most is this is his perception of where America is at.” As Tablet Magazine columnist Michelle Goldberg explained in The Daily Beast, Perry (and Bachmann) subscribe to Dominionism, the theological-political theory that Christians should rule secular institutions. “The movement was deeply involved in The Response,” she reported. Then there was his charming suggestion that if Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke were to print more money, it would be “treasonous” and, down Texas way, might provoke a lynching (several Jewish leaders adjudged this not to be anti-Semitic). You will excuse American Jews for not wanting any part of this, and that’s at the very least.

On Israel, there is no question where he stands: “If you’re our friend, we are with you. I’m talking about Israel. Come Hell or high water, we will be standing with you!” is a standard line. That is his path to increasing his take of the Jewish vote. The Jewish vote, however, isn’t that important. Donor money, sure; organizational prowess, definitely; even Florida, fine. But the Jewish vote does not alone explain the beefiness, the swagger, of Perry’s Israel talk, and why he was using it in Iowa and South Carolina (neither big Jew-spots), and why, as Ben Smith noted, “this has become a standard Republican candidate line, and sometimes the only foreign policy line, to GOP audiences.”

Call me crazy, but I think Israel is going to be a major issue in the 2012 general election—maybe bigger than ever before. And this won’t be because of the Jews. Rather, it will be because Israel provides the straightest line from Point A to Point B that every Republican candidate since the Vietnam War has tried to draw: It is the easiest way to come from the right and cast Obama as a dove; as out-of-step with American values; as otherwise untrustworthy on foreign and national-security affairs. Obama can’t, after all, be soft on Al Qaeda—he killed Osama Bin Laden. He can’t be soft on dictators—the Arab Spring happened on his watch. He can’t be lacking in experience—he has been commander-in-chief these past years. He wasn’t coddling Pakistan or China or Russia, and he didn’t normalize relations with Cuba. But on Israel (and, by extension, Iran), Obama can be effectively painted—rightly or wrongly (I’d say wrongly, although it’s partly his fault because his politics have been poor)—as having not stood up for democratic friends against evil foes (the same foes, under a sorta false but compelling narrative, who attacked the United States on September 11).

Israel’s convenience and resonance as a political issue, not only with Jews but with the American people, is why the race to replace Rep. Anthony Weiner, which began innocently as an Ed Koch-created referendum among Jews on Israel, has become a referendum of the American people on Obama. It’s why Perry mentions it all the time, and Bachmann plays up her summer on a kibbutz, and why Obama for the first time hired a formal Jewish outreach director. The Israel issue has been mainstreamed. The good news is that we won’t just be fighting in the shtetl anymore. The bad news is that frequently the people outside the shtetl had even less of an idea of what we were talking about.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.