Honorary Jew

Hillary Clinton becomes kosher for a community that had its doubts

Once elected, her aides say the senator took her weak showing among Jews seriously.

"She knew she had to prove herself to New Yorkers and establish her own record," says her spokesperson Philippe Reines.

Over the past six years, she has rarely missed a chance to demonstrate a commitment to her Jewish constituents. On Israel, she has become a stalwart, boasting a solid record, sticking to the policies of the pro-Israel lobby. The latest example? Pushing the Bush administration to get tough on the nuclear-happy Iran. Last fall, she repudiated Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for demanding Israel be "wiped off the map." When he denied the Holocaust last month, she wrote Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, denouncing his rhetoric as "outrageous" and urging action. Last week, when Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon had a stroke and Ahmadinejad expressed hope that Sharon would not survive, Clinton fired off a statement calling the Iranian president's comments "despicable" and wishing Sharon "a speedy recovery."

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

Mandell Ganchrow, an Orthodox leader from Rockland County who headed the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations, in D.C., says it doesn't take much to be a pro-Israel senator from New York—on paper. "I look at what senators say," he explains. And with Clinton, he likes what he hears—the way she talks about the shared goal the U.S. and Israel face in combating terrorism, for instance. Often, her words have felt, as he puts it, "like gold to my ear." He adds, "She has an understanding of the deeper meaning of the issues."

Interestingly, Jewish leaders who are peace advocates sound a similar note. Ethan Felson, of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, whose ranks include members of the left and the right, says Clinton can talk about the Israeli need for security yet recognize the Palestinian need for self-determination. "She understands how complex the Middle East conflict really is," he says.

Clinton has also given voice to smaller issues dear to the hearts of many local Jews. Consider the plight of Magen David Adom, Israel's emergency services program. For 50 years, it has been excluded from full membership in the International Red Cross because of its symbol—the red Star of David. For almost as long, the MDA has fought to reverse this ban.

Clinton first heard about the ban on the 2000 campaign trail, her aides say, and saw it as a crude form of anti-Semitism. So with characteristic determination, she homed in on MDA's cause and pursued it until she delivered. In August 2001, she led 52 of her Senate colleagues in pushing the Red Cross to accept the MDA. She followed up with letters to the international agency, the Swiss government, and the Bush administration. Two years later, she convinced fellow senators to pass an amendment withholding U.S. contributions to the Red Cross. Last month, the humanitarian community finally relented, voting to allow the Israeli agency to join its ranks.

David Harris, of the National Jewish Democratic Council, says the senator's MDA work isn't likely to garner much attention from the general public. But it registers where it counts. "It's the kind of issue that smacks of real discrimination to American Jews," he says. "It speaks to their hearts."

Clinton's ability to speak to people's hearts may best explain her turnaround within the Jewish community. Substance only goes so far. The rest comes down to old-fashioned retail politics, reaching out to groups, connecting on a personal level. Anyone who has seen Clinton in action, up close, one on one, describes an enchanting quality not unlike that evidenced at Yeshiva University's Hanukkah event. People fawn, they kvell. They may enter the room foes, yet leave friends.

Attests Yitzhak Fleischer, who's organized Clinton events in Borough Park, "When people meet her, and I have seen this, they walk away with a positive opinion."

No one demonstrates this change of heart better than Hikind, the Borough Park assemblyman. He was so impressed by the senator in the summer of 2000 that he kept on having talks with Clinton. When his father died that year, Clinton paid him and his mother, a Holocaust survivor, a shivah visit, which struck him as "decent." He raised issues with her, and she responded. Once, he presented her with translations of anti-Semitic passages from Palestinian textbooks. She not only denounced them on the campaign trail, but urged the Bush administration to do so in her first year in office.

Hikind still turns to Clinton today; last fall, her office facilitated the long-awaited release of a Jewish immigrant stuck in a detention facility. "I've just got to respect her as a person," he says.

Ganchrow relays a similar transfor-mation. When Clinton first launched her campaign, he'd resisted meeting with her. A lifelong Republican, he had embraced her would-be opponent, Rudy Giuliani. Yet when Ganchrow attended a White House state dinner at the time, the former first lady greeted him as if he were her best friend. "Hillary was royal and magnanimous," he says. "I thought this was very warm on her part."

Over the years, he's seen the senator operate in other intimate settings—with Jewish leaders on Capitol Hill, with Jewish worshippers in synagogues. Today, he regards her as a baalat teshuva, or someone who returns to the fold. He's even devoted an entire chapter in his 2004 memoirs to their evolving relationship.

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