Honorary Jew

Hillary Clinton becomes kosher for a community that had its doubts

Last month, Yeshiva University presented Hillary Clinton with an honorary degree. Commemorating Yeshiva's 81st annual Hanukkah convocation, a 700-strong crowd of students, alumni, and friends assembled on December 11 in a gilded ballroom at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in midtown. Yeshiva's president, Richard Joel, and seven trustees escorted New York's junior senator to the podium, surrounding her in a sea of caps and gowns, regaling her with ceremonial pomp.

Joel touted Clinton's achievements, singling out not only her "political leadership" on Capitol Hill, but also her "commitment to peace and security for the Jewish homeland." He handed her a diploma and told her, "You are a strong advocate for religious freedom, and in so many ways an inspiration."

His words alone mark an achievement for Clinton. Not many in the Yeshiva crowd—not many conservative-leaning Jews anywhere in New York—would have called her an "inspiration" in 2000. Back then, the first lady–turned–Senate candidate committed a series of deadly sins in the eyes of Jewish voters. Her biggest, by far, was kissing the wife of Yasir Arafat in the West Bank during a 1999 visit. That kiss might have been bad enough for staunch Israel supporters here. It looked worse coming after the Palestinian first lady had accused Israelis of poisoning her people with tear gas.

Hillary Clinton receiving an honorary degree at Yeshiva University on December 11, 2005
photo: Yeshiva University
Hillary Clinton receiving an honorary degree at Yeshiva University on December 11, 2005

For New York Jews of all stripes, the Suha incident cast a cloud of suspicion over Clinton that she couldn't easily shake. In 2000, she received just 54 percent of the Jewish vote, which has traditionally gone Democratic. By contrast, she defeated Republican Rick Lazio by a landslide among such other power blocs as African Americans (taking 89 percent of that group) and Hispanics (85 percent). Says one political observer with ties to Orthodox leaders, "She was the first Democrat to fail to carry the Jewish vote overwhelmingly."

But just as Clinton has worked hard to court conservative voters—upstaters, say, or war veterans—so has she improved her standing in the Jewish community. Today, polling data show 72 percent of the state's Jews give the senator high marks, as compared to 62 percent of New Yorkers overall. That's up from the 52 percent of Jews who had a favorable view of Clinton when she first took office. Among Jewish leaders, you'd have to search far and wide to find anyone who claims Clinton isn't a friend of Israel.

Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic consultant and observant Jew, says Clinton "has redefined herself for many Jewish voters." Gone is the 1999 image of her Arafat kiss. He adds, "She has been able to reverse it all."

Now, when people think about Clinton and Israel, they think about her latest trip there—a journey the senator made sure to emphasize at the Yeshiva event. She spent most of her 30-minute speech recounting her three-day visit to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv last November, focusing more on the personal than the political. She talked about gaining appreciation for the threat of suicide bombs in Israel when she took in the 425-mile security fence with her own eyes, and when she listened to the parents of a volunteer medic who had died in a terrorist attack.

She praised the "deep and lasting" bonds between Israel and the United States and called Israel a "beacon of what democracy means." Her performance was enough to leave the room bewitched. People rushed to Clinton to snap her picture and offer congratulations. As the senator exited, one woman stopped her cold, leaned in, and whispered, "You did great! You said all the right things."

There was a time when Clinton couldn't say anything right. Six years ago, the then candidate was still struggling to emerge from the Suha flap. She condemned Arafat's remarks and blamed her own actions on a faulty translation. But that didn't satisfy a segment of the Jewish community—the most strident Israel supporters.

Ezra Friedlander, a Democratic operative from the heavily Hasidic Borough Park, Brooklyn, says conservative Jews viewed Clinton with suspicion ever since, as first lady, she'd embraced a Palestinian state. Kissing Arafat's cheek, he says, "just solidified the mistrust." People "saw her as someone who holds views anathema to them on bread-and-butter issues like Israel."

One political player close to Clinton says that at public events, people were courteous to her face. But, he recalls, "they were saying to me, 'How could she have the chutzpah to come to Jewish gatherings?' "

Her campaign struggled to get ahead of what Ann Lewis, a longtime Jewish adviser, calls "a pretty steady drumbeat of attack." Critics blasted Clinton for meeting with anti-Israel groups in the White House, for accepting money from a radical Muslim leader, for hurling anti-Semitic insults two decades earlier. To counter, her advisers turned to such Jewish politicians as Ed Koch and Nita Lowey, who vouched for her credentials and introduced her to local leaders.

Her biggest coup came in the summer of 2000, when Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, an Orthodox Jew, orchestrated a visit with Dov Hikind, a Borough Park assemblyman. Hikind had been a vocal detractor, urging Clinton not to run on his WMCA AM radio show. By June, he was blasting her in the pages of The Washington Times. Around then, Silver arranged for the two to meet. "I said, 'Hillary, let me explain why people are upset,' " Hikind recalls. She let him—for two hours. Afterward, he never publicly criticized her again.

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