Jewish Republicans Fight For Legitimacy

According to political scientists, Jews are the most liberal group in America other than African-Americans. Not surprisingly, the vast majority find themselves comfortable in the Democratic Party and more than 80% voted for Bill Clinton in the last election. But Matt Brooks still maintains that Jews belong in the Republican Party and the National Jewish Coalition (NJC) he leads is trying to give those who already do a stronger political voice and help those who don’t see the error of their ways.

Born in New York and raised in Philadelphia with his mother after his parents divorced, Brooks has a passion for science and medicine. He hoped to attend medical school, but doctors he knew discouraged him and the changes he saw in the medical system he thought would hurt the profession. After winning an award at Brandeis in 1986 that allowed him to work as an intern in Washington, D.C., he began to develop another passion. Spending the summer with Jack Kemp stimulated him to become a political activist. He was also inspired by another politician. “Ronald Reagan rode in on a white horse and had a different philosophy,” Brooks says.

By this time, he had already adopted a conservative political philosophy. His formative years were during "the time of Jimmy Carter, high interest rates, hostages in Iran and general malaise." When Brooks returned to Brandeis he turned the moribund College Republicans from a lonely group of eight into the third largest chapter in the state. That success led him to become state chair.

Brooks developed a close relationship with Kemp, who he now calls his “rabbi, in the true sense of the word. He’s a mentor and advisor.” After graduating, Brooks at 20 became the youngest state chair for Kemp’s presidential campaign. “I had a front row seat for the New Hampshire primary. It was excellent postgraduate training.” During that unsuccessful campaign, Brooks cemented his ties to Kemp.

When the election was over, Brooks was asked to become the NJC’s political director. In less than two years, he became the Executive Director and has led the organization now for almost eight years.

Sitting is his spartan office a few blocks from the Capital, there’s no mistaking his allegiance. Along with pictures of his family, his walls are adorned with autographed photos with Ronald Reagan, George Bush, Dan Quayle and Jack Kemp.

Kemp is more than his rabbi. To Brooks, he is “the Moses of our party. He led us out of Egypt, but may not make it to the Promised Land. Still, the political agenda today is filled with Kemp’s ideas — tax cuts, urban revitalization. He wrote a book that was almost a blueprint for the Contract for America. He changed the face of the party to a more compassionate one.”

Brooks’ inspiration to pursue politics is the same as what motivated him to want to be a doctor, the desire to help people. “Advocating positions that have an impact is like the healing aspect of medicine," he remarks. "We have an obligation to give something back and politics is a vehicle for that.”

This sense of obligation is something he also got from his Jewish upbringing, but it was his mentor who again helped Brooks see the political association. “Kemp was one of the first to make the connection between Judaism and politics. He talked about Maimonides believing in helping people to avoid the need for charity.” It is this type of connection that leads Brooks to argue that Jewish religious teachings are fundamentally conservative. "Tikkun Olam is based on individual views. We think individual reliance and moral values are key. It’s hard to find textual underpinnings for liberalism.”

One of the NJC’s consistent themes has been that Judaism is interwoven in conservative politics, an idea Jewish Democrats find ridiculous. Still, Brooks says that the NJC leadership demonstrates “we’re Jewish Republicans rather than Republican Jews. We side first with the Jewish community.” When asked about some of the policies hostile to Israel that were pursued by the Bush Administration, such as tying loan guarantees for immigrants to settlements, Brooks says “we didn’t apologize, we went to the administration and said they were wrong. We did the same thing when Reagan went to Bitburg. We opposed Pat Buchanan because that was the right thing for the community.”

Quickly turning partisan, Brooks notes the contrast with the Clinton Administration. “A lot more Jewish leaders are inclined to look the other way and not be as critical of the Administration. The Administration has a lack of respect for Israel to make decisions in its own best interests. Clinton crossed a boundary when he interfered in the Israeli elections, and by pressuring Israel. The message our community should send is that interfering in domestic Israeli affairs is wrong and unilateral pressure on Israel is wrong.”

Brooks also insists, and this time with greater justification, that the philosophy regarding terrorism, security and the peace process of the Likud Party is closer to that of the Republican Party than the Democrats. Brooks also feels that it is important for American Jewry to be represented in the GOP. “One of the original reasons the NJC was created was the fear that the Republicans wrote off the Jews and the Democrats took them for granted.”

Though Jews make up a tiny percentage of the Party, they have consistently filled key leadership positions. Detroit industrialist Max Fisher, for example, has long been a confident of GOP leaders and was the original chairman of Team 100, the Party’s largest contributors. Mel Sembler is currently chairman of the Republican National Committee. Shelly Kamins is chairman of GOPAC. “Now,” Brooks says, “there is almost complete integration of the Jews in the Party and record numbers of Jews supporting the Party.”

The last statement seemed dubious given the overwhelming number of Jews who are Democrats, but Brooks said that the mayors of the cities with the two largest Jewish populations, New York and Los Angeles, are Republicans who got 70 percent of the Jewish vote. He also said that Jews played a decisive role in the reelection of New Jersey Governor Christine Todd Whitman.

One of the frustrations of Brooks and other Jewish Republicans are the Democratic efforts to paint the party as a bunch of extremists controlled by the Christian Coalition and pro-life activists. “They play the same card over and over. We talk about crime, education, lower taxes, a strong defense. We’re dispelling the myth that Republicans lack compassion. Democrats have no monopoly on compassion.”

He believes the message is resonating and that is one reason the NJC is enjoying explosive growth and Brooks said it has record revenues. “Our product is selling in the marketplace of ideas.”

Part of the expansion is also due to the realization after the Republican sweep in the 1994 election that it was hard to influence the Jewish community from Washington. “To get people to be more open-minded we needed to take our message locally," says Brooks. "We decided to set up chapters and have grassroots across the country.” Toward that end, NJC is expanding, with 14 chapters nationwide. By the end of the year, chapters will be in almost every major city. The NJC is also reaching out, he says, to women and young Jews.

“The political realignment of Jews is happening.” He adds that about “85 percent of the core message of the party is something we all agree on. A person, like Colin Powell, with the right charisma and policy can get large Jewish support like Ronald Reagan.”

Brooks does have a few kind words for his rivals. “It’s good for Jewish influence that Jews are prominent in both parties. Having an NJDC [National Jewish Democratic Coalition], a Steve Grossman [former President of AIPAC and now co-chair of the Democratic National Committee] are positives for Jews.”

Though it has only happened in extreme circumstances, the NJC has even helped Democrats when it was clearly better for the community. The best example was when David Duke ran for Governor in Louisiana, the NJC helped advise the Democrats in the state and encouraged support for Gov. Edwards.

The 1998 elections should be good for the GOP. Brooks notes that off-years are historically good for the out party and, this year, lots of Democrats are also retiring. He predicts the Republicans will pick up one or two seats in the Senate and a few more in the House. Brooks doesn’t have any predictions about what will happen in the next presidential race, though he is definitely optimistic. He said one analysis found that 38 different Republicans had expressed interest in running in 2000, so he didn’t want to say who would be the favorite, though his heart clearly remains with his mentor Jack Kemp.

In his spare time, Brooks picked up an MBA from Georgetown, but his real goal is to follow in Kemp’s footsteps and run for office himself. For now, he’s enjoying the time he has with his wife Debra and infant daughter Samantha — and playing a good game of politics.