Biden and the Jews: Strong ties and friendly disagreements | U.S. | Jewish Journal
DENVER (JTA)—Before he announced his vice presidential pick on Saturday, U.S. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) said he wanted someone to spar with but who ultimately would be loyal enough to create a comfortable working relationship.
No one knew then that he had picked U.S. Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.), 65, but his ISO ad fit Biden’s relationship with the Jewish community perfectly.
The loquacious Biden, who has served in the U.S. Senate since 1973, has sparred frequently with the pro-Israel community and with Israelis, particularly on the issue of settlements. But he has a sterling voting record on pro-Israel issues, and has as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee helped shepherd through key pro-Israel legislation.
His straightforwardness is considered an asset, even among those supporters who have disagreed with him.
“He’s open minded, he votes his own conscience,” said Gary Erlbaum, a Philadelphia-based real estate developer who has backed Biden among other politicians, Democrats and Republicans alike. “I don’t always agree with him” but “he does not try to sugarcoat.”
Biden has been especially sharp in criticizing the U.S. and Israeli failure to support Mahmoud Abbas in 2003, when he was the Palestinian Authority prime minister attempting to establish a power base to challenge then-president Yasser Arafat. Abbas was eventually sidelined by Arafat, allowing the Palestinian leader to continue his policies of corruption and stasis until his death—and creating a vacuum ultimately filled in large part by Hamas terrorists.
Biden’s longstanding relationship with the Jewish community should reassure Jews who still feel anxious about Obama, who has deep ties to the Chicago Jewish community but who has been on the national stage barely four years, said Cameron Kerry.
“I’ve seen the enormous respect he commands in the pro-Israel community,” said Kerry, himself a convert to Judaism and a senior adviser to the 2004 presidential campaign of his brother, U.S. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).”He has a well-established record, he knows the issues, and he can talk the talk. He’s may be the best goyische surrogate I’ve seen in the Jewish community.”
Biden’s son married into a Jewish family, but his keen interest in the region dates back to his first visit as a U.S. senator, not long before the 1973 Yom Kippur. He met Israel’s then-prime minister, Golda Meir.
He came away from that meeting understanding that “there is this inextricable tie between culture, religion, ethnicity that most people don’t fully understand—that is unique and so strong with Jews worldwide,” Biden said in an interview with Shalom TV last year, when he launched his own presidential bid. “When I was a young senator, I used to say, ‘If I were a Jew I’d be a Zionist.’ I am a Zionist. You don’t have to be a Jew to be a Zionist.’”
Mark Gittenstein, who worked for Biden from 1976-1989, said no one matched his breadth of knowledge on Israel—not even his Jewish staffers. “He was much more knowledgeable about Israel and its problems than I was.”