Politics: Holy War

A controversial anti-Obama letter that rocked the Jewish community — and the reputations of the prominent Philadelphians who signed it — brought the conflict in the Middle East to the banks of the Schuylkill

When we meet at a City Avenue hotel near his home, a jetlagged Klein tells me deep religiousness isn’t a Zionist prerequisite. “I’m a traditional Jew who goes to synagogue on Saturday, but not as religious as someone who really deserves to be called a religious Jew is,” he says. With his trademark round spectacles and receding gray hairline, he looks more like a tweedy professor at Temple (no pun intended) than the leader of a hard-line movement to preserve, protect and defend Israel at any cost.
 
He arrived home just a day earlier from Israel, where he met with members of the government, including his friend Benjamin Netanyahu, with whom he dined. (Netanyahu’s ties to the area are strong; his family immigrated here when he was a teenager, and he graduated from Cheltenham High School.) Klein believes the media is biased against Israel, and says its focus on Palestinian suffering in coverage of Israel’s recent incursion into Gaza, as opposed to the 50-plus daily rocket attacks on Israel that precipitated it, demonstrates a double standard. I ask him if he has any sympathy for the Palestinians. “Tell me why I should feel sorry for the people who voted for Hamas,” he replies. “Why did they vote for a terrorist organization? If the German people wanted peace with the world, would they have supported Hitler?”
 
It is this line-in-the-sand posturing that led not only to the Obama letter, but to a new definition — at least in Philadelphia — of politics making strange bedfellows. Take Gary Erlbaum: While his philanthropy to Jewish causes is noted, it’s his political involvement with the GOP that’s raised eyebrows. He was a donor to Freedom’s Watch, a lobbying group that the Washington Post reported was “conceived at a Florida meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition” by a group of Bush administration aides, many of them Jewish neoconservatives whose doctrine of preemption defined the Bush administration’s foreign policy. Philadelphia Jews were, in fact, well represented: Richard J. Fox, the real estate mogul who heads the hard-right Jewish Policy Center, which opposes the Middle East peace process in Israel, was a founding donor; so were Ed Snider, chairman of Comcast-Spectacor, and John Templeton of the Templeton Foundation.
 
Erlbaum, who claims to be “unimpressed by zealots of either party,” also helped lead an effort to attract Jews — ­particularly Orthodox ones — to support Rick Santorum in his failed U.S. Senate reelection campaign, helping to raise well more than $1 million. Santorum is a devout Roman Catholic conservative who vehemently opposes abortion and has conflated homosexual sex with bigamy, incest and adultery; in short, he is a man whose ideology would seem almost totally at odds with the vast majority of Philadelphia Jews. “I think that Jews need to be flexible in their thinking, and that our allies and the allies of Israel and the believers in strong national defense are not necessarily in one party or the other,” Erlbaum says. “Nor are they necessarily people we would agree on every issue with.”

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