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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 crowdnot many conservative-leaning Jews anywhere in New Yorkwould have called her an "inspiration" in 2000. Back then, the first ladyturnedSenate 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.
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 votersupstaters, say, or war veteransso 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 therea 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 communitythe 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 himfor two hours. Afterward, he never publicly criticized her again.
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."
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 Yorkon paper. "I look at what senators say," he explains. And with Clinton, he likes what he hearsthe 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 symbolthe 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 settingswith 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.
"I don't think she has changed for people like me," he says. "I think she has changed because she has listened."
It's the kind of talk any New York politician would covet. The state's Jewish population may represent just 15 percent of the electorate, but they're more likely than other voters, by two to one, to cast a ballot. They're also big givers to campaignstwo-thirds of all Democratic donations came from Jewish sources last year. The value of the Jewish vote seems obvious to any politician, let alone a prospective presidential contender like Clinton. And her 20-point gain among Jewish voters over the past six years bodes well not only for her Senate re-election bid, but for possible campaigns down the road.
But will her inroads among Jewish leaders translate with the average Jew on the street? In the Orthodox community, Hikind and others say, people still have a gut reaction to the Arafat kiss. And they still cannot understand why she'd be so popular. Just three weeks ago, Hikind went before a group of rabbis in Flatbush, Brooklyn. The first question he fielded? "Are you going to endorse Hillary Clinton?" he says.
Hikind said yes, stressing how great a friend she is. "In the very pro-Israel Jewish community," he says, "there are some people who hate the Clintons and nothing Hillary can do is right." The rest, she's working on.