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CLEVELAND HEIGHTS, Ohio — The stuff Harold Males is saying around his synagogue here might have shocked people’s sensibilities a few years ago.
Like his contention that evangelical Christians make good friends. “They’re not dangerous people, not to me,” he insists. Or that Gov. Sarah Palin boasts some impressive credentials. “Dressing a caribou is no small feat, I can tell you.” (He lived briefly in Alaska.)
But Males, a retired salesman and a longtime Republican, is feeling emboldened. He no longer stands out like a political renegade at his temple nor feels as lonely in the local Jewish community. Both seem to be drifting his way.
A cultural group considered a bulwark of the Democratic Party is flirting provocatively this election season with the conservative right.
Polls find an unusually large number of Jews unsure of the Democratic candidate, Sen. Barack Obama.
Meanwhile, around local synagogues, a vocal minority is declaring its allegiance to Republican Sen. John McCain, sparking a lively and increasingly testy debate.
“I’m not unusual. I’m really not unusual,” said Males, a trace of marvel in his voice. “It’s a different ballgame today.”
Jewish voters play a small but often significant role in national elections. While making up only about 3 percent of the electorate, Jews tend to be concentrated in key battleground states, like Ohio and Florida. Relatively affluent, they often contribute to campaigns. And Jews vote — usually reliably Democratic.
“Most Jews share Democratic values — separation of church and state, pro choice, women’s rights,” said Sarah Mehler, director of the area chapter of the National Jewish Democratic Council. “Typically the broader Jewish community votes 80 percent Democratic.”
Not this time.
A recent national poll for the American Jewish Committee found that Jewish likely voters favor Obama over McCain by the unusually low margin of 57 percent to 30 percent. Meanwhile, 13 percent of American Jews say they are unsure how they will vote Nov. 4.
That contrasts sharply with 2004, when exit polls found 77 percent of Jewish votes going to Democrat John Kerry.
Much of the national conversation resounds in the Jewish community, including the whisper campaign against Obama. Many local Jews say they like McCain’s moderate views and experience, but a few issues and attacks cut deeper.
For Howard Sperber of Pepper Pike, a registered Democrat, the No. 1 issue is the safety of Israel. While both candidates vow to support the Jewish homeland, Sperber said he believes McCain is more likely to fight.
“Israel’s back is against the wall because Iran will go nuclear,” he said. “McCain understands the danger. If Bush won’t do anything about Iran, perhaps McCain will.”
Obama, he said, doesn’t give him the same sense of assurance.
For weeks, the Republican Jewish Coalition in Washington, D.C., has been questioning Obama’s support for Israel and alleging ties to anti-Semites with full-page ads in the local Cleveland Jewish News.
A recent advertisement shows photos of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Ayatollah Khomeini, an Israeli flag in flames and a large block of type that declares, “Concerned About Barack Obama? You Should Be.”
And that’s the nice stuff.
Cleveland Jews say they are being barraged with e-mails bearing the familiar discredited myths: that Obama is a secret Muslim, educated in a madrassa, who swears oaths on the Quran.
Recently, local Jewish households received phone calls from people claiming to be polling but beginning questions with statements that define Obama as a friend of Palestinian extremists.
A backlash may be brewing in a community sensitive to innuendo. Some local Jews accuse McCain supporters of resorting to scare tactics and, worse, spreading loshon hora — malicious gossip of the kind sometimes used to disparage Jews.
In a pique of outrage, Norman and Nina Wain of Shaker Heights paid about $2,000 for their own full-page ad in the Jewish News. The couple posted their names above a statement that begins: “We have watched with dismay the vicious attacks on Senator Barack Obama, paid for by out of state money…”
The ad goes on to argue that Obama shares Jewish beliefs like tikkun olam, a duty to repair the world.
“My wife and I decided, rather emotionally, that we cannot let those ads go unanswered,” said Norman Wain, an independent voter who said he has been deluged with expressions of thanks from fellow Jews.
Rabbi Richard Block, leader of one of the region’s largest synagogues, The Temple-Tifereth Israel, addressed the “poisoning of our public discourse” from the pulpit at a Rosh Hashanah service.
He later said he was motivated to speak out by the growing erosion of bipartisanship but also by the “grotesque advertising” aimed at Obama.
While not endorsing anyone, Block urged the faithful to judge a candidate’s character, in part, by the kind of campaign he allows supporters to run. The congregation applauded.
The Jewish community is also exhibiting its own Palin effect, a nervous reaction to the Pentecostal first-term governor of Alaska, who has never been to Israel.
“The Palin thing has freaked out a lot of Jews, including a lot of Republicans,” said Anita Gray, a community activist. “She’s a heartbeat away from the presidency and she has no foreign-policy experience.”
The American Jewish Committee poll found that more than half of American Jews disapprove of McCain’s choice of running mate.
Mehler and other members of the local Democratic committee say they feel confident that wandering Jews will find their way back to the Democratic fold by Nov. 4.
Males also believes time is on his side. At Orthodox temples like his, he said, support for the conservative Republican viewpoint is growing more obvious.
“It’s a steady slide to the right, and very reluctant,” he said.
“They need constant reinforcement from guys like me.”
By ROBERT L. SMITH
c. 2008 Religion News Service
(Robert L. Smith writes for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland.)
Copyright 2008 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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