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Kerry's Appeal to Competing Groups Extends to Jewish and Arab Voters, about John Kerry.

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WASHINGTON, Feb. 3 (JTA) - A couple of weeks after eating lox and cream cheese at a synagogue in Des Moines, John Kerry took on bitter Arab coffee and baklava among Muslims in Cedar Rapids.

Both appearances had a salutary effect on caucus night Jan. 19, when the majority of both Iowa's Jews and Arabs helped the Massachusetts senator come out the clear winner.

It's a pattern repeating itself nationwide.

Kerry, who after Tuesday's primaries has solidified his position as the front-runner in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, appeals to competing constituencies otherwise at odds in the battle for the Democratic soul.

He is a friend to Jews and Arabs; a storied veteran of both the Vietnam War and of the movement that ended it; a fiscal conservative and an advocate of government spending for the disenfranchised; an opponent of President Bush's handling of the Iraq War; and a supporter of an assertive U.S. posture in the Persian Gulf.

Kerry's positions on the Israel-Palestinian conflict are a study in his facility for casting his speeches according to his audience, and filling them with knowledgeable terms and detailed anecdotes.

His Jewish stump speech--delivered with vigor and passion, with barely a pause--cites the Roosevelt administration's decision to turn away a ship of Jews fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe as a failure of U.S. policy he would never repeat.

He says he stood atop Masada and felt the echoes of Jewish resistance call to him. He shouts, extending each syllable with his broad Brahmin vowels: "Am Yisrael Chai!"

One on one, Kerry, 60, exudes athletic energy, even returning to play ice hockey since his treatment a year ago for prostate cancer. On the campaign trail, he often stoops over his interlocutors to look them straight in the eye. He never raises his voice.

Arab Americans thrill not just at his condemnation of Israel's security barrier--"We do not need another barrier to peace"--but at how he says he arrived at his conclusion.

Speaking at an Arab American Institute conference in Dearborn, Mich., in October, he described how in the West Bank he witnessed how "Palestinian women, traveling on foot, were forced to stand in long lines at checkpoints with their children tugging at their sleeves and their arms loaded with groceries."

Newman Abuissa, who organized support for Kerry among American Arabs in Cedar Rapids and who is now a Kerry delegate from Iowa, says, "He dealt with the Arab issue on a personal level; he knows names and events."

Across the state in Des Moines, another Kerry delegate, Paulee Lipsman, echos the same sentiment from the Jewish perspective: "He has a good grasp of Jewish history, and understands the historical aspects of where we are today."

People who have known Kerry a long time say that such diversity is natural to any Boston politician, who has to deal with large ethnic communities. That includes a Jewish community of 275,000, about 4.5 percent of the state's total population, and one that reflects the spectrum of U.S. Jewish opinion.

"He's been very accessible to the Jewish community," says Nancy Kaufman, the director of the Jewish Community Relations Council in Boston.

"He's been willing to engage and be challenging, always willing to learn. He's been able to respond to the diversity of the community."

Jim Shaer, Kerry's chief of staff for 16 years, says Kerry often queried him about his background as a Lebanese American, just as he would engage his many Jewish staffers.

"He saw us as resources; he saw that we each had something to contribute," Shaer says of Kerry.

James Zogby of the Arab American Institute says Kerry's experience with Massachusetts' large Jewish and Lebanese American communities has shown him that Jewish and Arab needs are not mutually exclusive.

Zogby cites President Clinton's dedication to bringing peace, and the impression it left on both communities.

"What made President Clinton work was that he left office and both sides said he was the best American president Jews ever had, the best American president Arabs ever had," Zogby says.

But Kerry's opponents say that a man who makes himself all things to all people adds up to nothing.

Mickey Kaus, an influential political columnist for Slate, has said he "loathes" Kerry. "There is a phony, clean facade, and the reality behind the phony facade," he wrote this week. "Courageous soldiers do not always make courageous politicians."

A close examination of his speeches to Jews and Arabs shows they fall short on detail.

Notably, in earning Arab American applause with his line about Israel's security fence, Kerry never said he would suggest Israel remove the barrier.

Characterizing Kerry as a flip-flopper is unfair, say Jewish community professionals who work with him. They say it's an unsophisticated way of understanding a man who carefully considers each position.

"He doesn't usually react or respond in a visceral way, he's very deliberative," says Kaufman of the JCRC.

"His deliberativeness is taken for aloofness, but it really is him taking time to pause, think and balance pros and cons of giving voice to an issue. Once he has totally evaluated and considered an issue, he has no problems taking a position."

Still, there is an ambiguity that is stamped on his public life. He earned ribbons for his heroism as a lieutenant in Vietnam, even as his opposition to the war solidified; he earned headlines for tossing them over a fence in front of the Capitol when he returned and joined the antiwar movement.

Kerry himself bristles at the charge that he wants to stake out both sides of an issue.

After his rivals made much of contrasting Kerry's 2002 vote to give Bush war powers with his later outspoken criticism of how Bush prosecuted the war in 2003, the candidate told reporters to study his Senate speech when he made the vote.

In it, he makes clear his vote is predicated on Bush's willingness to work with the United Nations and the United States' allies. "If he fails to do so, I will be among the first to speak out," he said at the time.

Some of his critics make a connection between the allegation that "he does not know himself" and his failure to research his own Jewish roots until The Boston Globe uncovered his grandfather's Jewish birth a year ago.

"Kerry's confusion about his heritage mirrors a larger confusion about his essence," Globe columnist Joan Vennochi, an especially vigorous Kerry critic, wrote at the time.

"Who is he? What does he believe in? Whether the issue is war with Iraq or support for affirmative action, his political core is hard to pin down, perhaps as difficult as his personal roots."

A closer examination of the record shows that such criticism is unfair, according to a follow-up by Reform Judaism magazine last summer.

Kerry's grandfather, Frederick, had been at pains to hide his Judaism long before his arrival in the United States. He had changed his name from Kohn to Kerry. His business career in the United States rose and then fell; he shot himself to death in a Boston hotel in 1921.

The article suggested that without the considerable research resources of a newspaper like the Globe, Kerry had no way of uncovering his grandfather's origins--although he had tried over the years. He was apparently stunned when he found out a year ago.

Now he routinely mentions the fact when he campaigns among Jews. Lipsman, the recently elected Iowa delegate, recalls telling Kerry, when she first met him, that she favored Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman because she wanted to see a Jewish president elected.

"I'm part Jewish, too," he allegedly said. He also notes his younger brother Cameron's conversion to Judaism 20 years ago after marrying a Boston Jewish woman.

Kerry is sensitive to Jewish issues, his supporters say. Last year, when an Arizona supporter derided Lieberman's Sabbath observance, Kerry wasted no time in cutting off the supporter.

He counts among his backers American Jews prominent in the mainstream Jewish establishment, including Richard Sideman of San Francisco, who has long been active with the American Jewish Committee, and Norman Brownstein of Denver, who is on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council and involved with several Jewish groups, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby.

Most prominent is his key Massachusetts fund-raiser, Alan Solomont, a leading Boston philanthropist who says he was drawn to Kerry because of his Middle East policies.

"He regards the U.S. relationship with Israel as special, in U.S. interests, as the only democracy in the region," says Solomont.

"At the same time, he believes the United States has a very important role to play in trying to assist Israel in ending the conflict, and the current administration is a lot of talk, and not a lot of action."

That means, Kerry has said, that he would emulate Clinton's intensely involved activism.

"In the first days of a Kerry administration, I will appoint a presidential ambassador to the peace process who will report directly to me and the secretary of state--and who will work day-to-day to move the process forward and make an early assessment of how to build on areas of agreement and disagreement," Kerry said in a statement to JTA.

An official in a pro-Israel group described Kerry's record on Israel-related votes during his nearly 20 years in the Senate as "outstanding."

But some pro-Israel activists who have met privately with Kerry worry that, like Clinton, his determined bent to forge peace--even absent a credible Palestinian partner--could lead to clashes with Israel's government, especially the current government led by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

They say Kerry has privately expressed his distaste for Sharon, and point out that Solomont is a leading figure in the Israel Policy Forum, a group that promotes U.S. engagement in the region and has been sharply critical of the Sharon government.

Among the critics' concerns is that Kerry would consider as Middle East emissaries personalities unpalatable to the Jewish community, including former Secretary of State James Baker.

Those concerns have yet to receive much of a public airing, and Kerry has been spared the Jewish communal criticism suffered by former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, his chief rival in the primaries.

Kerry is at pains to underscore his commitment to Israel, and has made criticism of Saudi Arabia--and its closeness to the Bush administration--a centerpiece of his campaign among Jews.

"While Saudi officials and spokesmen have said repeatedly that the Saudi government is opposed to every form of terrorism, the Saudi regime openly and enthusiastically supports Hamas," Kerry said in his JTA statement.

"The Saudis cannot pick and choose among terrorist groups, approving some while claiming to oppose others."

That rhetoric has disappointed some Arab Americans who are otherwise enthusiastic about Kerry's campaign.

"It's a bit flippant," Zogby says. "It may get applause, but I'm not sure it's good policy, and I'm not sure it doesn't feed the anti-Arab rhetoric. We need to have a more substantive discussion on Saudi Arabia and how we can help them move forward and reform."

Beyond foreign policy, Kerry's Jewish supporters note his staunch support for domestic issues supported by the majority of American Jews. He is pro-choice, he wants to extend health care coverage and he is a strong supporter of the separation of church and state.

Despite his mostly liberal voting record, Orthodox activists say they appreciate the lead he has taken with the Workplace Religious Freedom Act, which would encourage employers to accommodate workplace religious needs, including religious garb and flexible time for holidays.

"Kerry has tried to help us move it along," says Nathan Diament, the director of the Orthodox Union's Institute for Public Affairs.

The Orthodox community has also watched with interest Kerry's challenges to teachers unions to promote greater parental involvement--a sign that he is willing to take on vested Democratic Party interests, Diament says.

Critics note that he has been something less then a legislative force on domestic issues such as health care since his election to the Senate in 1985.

Kerry's defenders say that on such issues he defers to the senior Massachusetts senator, Ted Kennedy, and has preferred to take the lead in foreign policy.

His Senate career has also showcased a proficiency stemming from his first job, as a prosecutor. He led the hearings into the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal in the 1980s.

His comeback this election season was no surprise to those who know Kerry.

Many of Kerry's races have been last-minute close, and his supporters attribute it to the "the guy you marry as opposed to the guy you date" factor. Voters excited by Dean-like firebrands eventually return to Kerry's cool, they say.

"He starts making sense when people are looking for stability, when they want to find their comfort levels," says Richard Morningstar of Boston, a former U.S. ambassador to the European Union who has known Kerry since 1980.

Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple."
Ron Kampeas

Ron Kampeas is JTA's Washington bureau chief, responsible for coordinating coverage in the U.S. capital and analyzing political developments that affect the Jewish world. He comes to JTA from The Associated Press, where he worked for more than a decade in its bureaus in Jerusalem, New York, London and, most recently, Washington. He has reported from Northern Ireland, Afghanistan, Bosnia and West Africa. While living in Israel, he also worked for The Jerusalem Post and several Jewish organizations.

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