When Newt Gingrich recently called Palestinians an "invented" people and refused to take it back, everyone from the liberal advocacy group J Street to the neoconservative Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) pushed back.
But if the Republican presidential frontrunner was trying to throw gasoline on a fire, one small but influential group of voters were stoked by his words: Orthodox Jews.
"People feel very comfortable, very haimish with him," said Ezra Friedlander, a public relations consultant with deep ties to New York's Orthodox Jewish community. "You walk into a room with Newt Gingrich, you don't have to start explaining to him. He can tell you."
Most American Jews -- liberal, secular and stubbornly Democratic despite disappointments with President Barack Obama -- wouldn't be caught dead in the same room with Gingrich or most of his GOP rivals. But if Rick Perry is unlikely to be schmoozing anytime soon with voters on Manhattan's Upper West Side, the Texas governor would feel ideologically right at home among the black-hatted Hasidim of Brooklyn.
Indeed, Perry was given a stage in New York this fall during the United Nations General Assembly meeting to slam Obama's policies on Israel. The event was organized by Orthodox Jewish Republican activist Jeff Ballabon.
Gingrich recently held a quiet visit with New York Orthodox leaders. Mitt Romney, who was in New York Wednesday for a series of fundraisers that included one with Stephen Schwarzman, the Jewish Republican founder of the private equity mega-fund Blackstone, has been rumored to be planning a visit to Borough Park. Many in that Ultra-Orthodox Brooklyn neighborhood still fondly recall Rick Santorum's swing through the area during the 2004 Republican convention.
Back when President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal was still new, there was a Yiddish saying: Dos velt, der velt keyn kumen, un Roosevelt. "This world, the world to come, and Roosevelt."
That was how most American Jews saw politics then -- and many still do now.
But according to a dozen Orthodox and other Jewish leaders interviewed by The Huffington Post, for Ultra-Orthodox Hasidim who still speak the mamaloshen and for modern Orthodox Jews worried about Israel, the Republican Party is where they feel most at home.
Religiously observant, conservative Jews account for only one in 10 American Jews, who themselves make up just 2 percent of the population. More than half of Ultra-Orthodox Jews live in the solidly Democratic New York metropolitan area. Yet Orthodox Jews are emerging as a political force in the 2012 election. Significant enclaves in key battlegrounds such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida, where Obama must win to be reelected, could provide the margin of victory in a tight contest.
Why else would candidates trip over themselves to court support at the recent Republican Jewish Coalition forum? Why else would the White House's new Jewish liaison, Jarrod Bernstein, choose a breakfast sponsored by the Ultra-Orthodox Haredi organization Agudath Israel for his first public speaking event?
"That spoke volumes about the need to do outreach to the Orthodox community," said New York community activist Chaskel Bennett. "We are loyal and appreciate those who show us loyalty."
Jews have long been integral to Democratic fundraising, making up as many as half or more of the party's major individual contributors. While there are wealthy Orthodox donors, it's not clear whether they will have the same impact on the GOP.
If secular Jews are "the ATM for many liberal Democrats, then certainly the Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox are rapidly becoming the ATMs for conservative candidates," said Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran Democratic consultant recently ordained as an Orthodox Jewish rabbi.
Fundraising may not be the community's greatest asset, though.
Tevi Troy, a Romney adviser active in the Orthodox Jewish community, said his candidate is seeking support from Orthodox voters in places like Cleveland. In 2004, conservative Jewish voters helped hold down John Kerry's margin of victory in Cuyahoga County (where Cleveland is located), and George W. Bush won the state.
NEW YORK STATE OF MIND
Hasidic and Ultra-Orthodox religious leaders based in New York have long wielded influence beyond Brooklyn. Menachem Carlebach, a Chabad rabbi from New Brunswick, N.J., who attended the Republican Jewish Coalition forum, said Jews in his movement don't vote as a bloc but still heed the words of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Schneerson, who identified "ideals and values" that his followers could take into the voting booth -- whether in the United States or Israel.
"In the Orthodox community, especially the more fervent the sector, the more likely people are to look to their religious leaders for guidance on every aspect of their lives, ranging from college choices to voting choices," said J.J. Goldberg, a veteran journalist at the Jewish Daily Forward and author of "Jewish Power: Inside the American Jewish Establishment." He added, "People look for guidance, at who gets a smile."
For Orthodox Jews across the country, "the New York community sets the tone," said Troy, the Romney adviser. "There's a lot of Jewish media. Fundraisers are held there. New York is influential even if the state tends to be blue."
On the local level, conservative Jews have long had no problem voting Republican. New York mayors Rudy Giuliani and then-Republican Michael Bloomberg, New York Gov. George Pataki, and, more recently, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie have all been elected with help from right-leaning Jewish voters.
When a sexting scandal forced Rep. Anthony Weiner to resign this year, the heavy concentration of Orthodox Jews in New York's 9th Congressional District was credited with electing a Republican to a seat held by Democrats for nearly a century. Conservative Jewish voters preferred Catholic GOP novice Bob Turner to Democratic assemblyman David Weprin, an Orthodox Jew whose vote to legalize gay marriage had outraged his coreligionists.
On the national level, however, "the Democrats' shtick has been to try to frighten Jews by arguing that the GOP is the party of fundamentalist Christians. That certainly still has some resonance, but it's far less potent among Orthodox Jews," said Ballabon, dubbed by the Forward as "the architect of Bush's 2004 re-election effort in the Orthodox community."
In 2000, when Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore chose Lieberman as his running mate, the Orthodox community was thrilled. But that was an anomaly: Not only was Lieberman the first Jew on a major party ticket, but he even observed the Sabbath. Gore-Lieberman won 79 percent of the overall Jewish vote, although Bush still managed to snag 19 percent.
Ballabon recalls how John Kerry misread the Orthodox community in 2004 when he sent his brother, a convert to Judaism, to speak at an event in Borough Park. Cameron Kerry wondered aloud how voters could tolerate Attorney General John Ashcroft's daily Bible study and prayer in his office. "It was totally tone-deaf," Ballabon said. "We love that. That's what we do ourselves. We can relate to that."
'CLASH OF CULTURES'
Just as the rise of evangelical Christians in the GOP drove out socially liberal "Rockefeller Republicans," the willingness of Orthodox Jews to vote for GOP candidates who share their conservative views on abortion, education and family issues has widened the divide between them and the majority of other Jews. It's even prompted some to declare the end of a unified "Jewish vote."
In 2008, Obama won 78 percent of the national Jewish vote, but Republican candidate John McCain received 80 percent of the Orthodox community, according to Steven M. Cohen, director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive in New York.
"There is a direct conflict between the culture of entitlement and their culture of obligation -- a definitive clash of cultures," said Sheinkopf, the Democratic consultant. "The battle lines with the observant community are very well drawn and very much akin to what the Christians went through in their movement from left to right."
Indeed, beyond support for Israel and a tough stance against Iran -- positions that less religiously observant Jews also share -- the Orthodox favor policies that drive many liberal Jews to distraction.
Take taxpayer funding of private schools. Jewish Democrats, like others in their party, say vouchers siphon off money from public schools that need all the help they can get and giving money to religious schools breaches the constitutional line between church and state. Orthodox Jews have no such worries. They tend to have large families and universally send their children to religious day schools, so most favor school vouchers and education tax credits. Moreover, many men spend years studying the Torah and Talmud in rabbinical school and depend on federal Pell grants and other public funding to help pay tuition. The combination often takes a toll on family finances. Indeed, the country's poorest town was recently reported to be Kiryas Joel, a New York community that is home to Ultra-Orthodox Satmar Hasidic Jews.
Democrats have been more willing to support programs for low-income families, and Obama has tried to protect Pell grants from budget cuts. Yet while Friedlander, the public relations consultant, gives the president points for increasing aid to Israel, he said Obama's positions often are too nuanced for the liking of many conservative Jewish voters. "He's been very parve -- not meat, not dairy," Friedlander said.
Like conservative Christians who admired Lieberman in 2000 even if they voted for Bush, many Orthodox Jews feel more affinity with politicians of faith -- any faith.
"Observant Jews don't have any questions or problems with the Mormon thing," said Troy, the Romney adviser. "We also have strict observances and large families and recognize we like fellow observant people."
Goldberg said the Orthodox with their large families are growing at a faster rate than other Jews. And in each generation, "the kids are more frum than the parents," he said, as the Orthodox increasingly segregate themselves from secular society.
THE DEMOCRATIC MAJORITY
Yet the "silent majority" of Jews remain Democrats. Goldberg noted that when he speaks at synagogues and Jewish community centers, conservatives are always the most vocal and angry. But once he finishes, he is surrounded by liberals. "They may not be in love with Obama like they were in 2008, but they say they really don't like the Republicans," he said.
Support for Obama among Jews is down, but not disproportionately compared to other groups disillusioned with the president's policies. The most recent American Jewish Committee survey, released in September, showed Obama still comfortably ahead of his Republican rivals among Jewish voters. It found the percentage of Jewish voters who identify themselves as Democrats has fallen to 45 percent. But the 16 percent who identify as Republicans has changed little in recent years, while those who call themselves independents has risen to 38 percent.
Goldberg said Republicans have been predicting a major partisan shift among Jewish voters since President Dwight Eisenhower was reelected with 40 percent of the Jewish vote in 1956. The GOP hasn't topped that since. Ronald Reagan came close in 1980 when many Jews abandoned Democratic President Jimmy Carter because they felt he had sold out Israel's interests in the Camp David Accords.
Today, no more than one in four Jews reliably votes Republican. Said Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition: "The Orthodox community is not large enough to move those kinds of numbers in a national sense."
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