In the latest political storm swirling about Hillary Rodham Clinton’s likely senate candidacy, the crown heights Jewish community council has branded the first lady an “anti-semite” and “banned” her from visiting the hasidic stronghold because of her rapprochement with former mayor David Dinkins, the Voice has learned.
The powerful ultra-orthodox group, which shapes the political opinions of some 18,000 members of the Lubavitcher Hasidic sect, advises Mrs. Clinton not even to attempt to seek its endorsement. The Council’s anti-Hillary sentiment is reminiscent of Ed Koch’s statement during the 1988 New York presidential primary that “Jews and supporters of Israel would be crazy to vote for Jesse Jackson.” In the last general election, Jews overall accounted for one of eight votes cast in New York. Although Lubavitchers are a tiny minority of Jews in the city, they influence a larger Jewish constituency.
The ban and the advisory— more symbolic than enforceable— are not the only extremist responses fueling Lubavitcher backlash politics in Crown Heights, which is also home to an estimated 150,000 African Americans.
In an early test of wills, the Council says it will caution its black political allies, such as Assemblyman Clarence Norman, the Brooklyn Democratic boss— who is expected to campaign in the racial hotbed for Mrs. Clinton— that it will not entertain any entreaties from them on her behalf. “There are a lot of nice black politicians who support Hillary Clinton, but they come to me when they want to meet,” claims Chanina Sperlin, the blunt-talking point man for the Council. “If they try to seek a meeting with me about her, I won’t accept it.”
Mired in the fallout, too, are the election chances of some black candidates who have been aggressively courting “the Jewish vote.” Hasidic support appears to be in jeopardy with Council leaders declaring they will require political hopefuls and incumbents to make plain their positions on the allegation that Dinkins did not do enough to protect Jews during deadly race riots in Crown Heights eight years ago.
Council leaders say Crown Heights Jews felt “100 percent” insulted upon learning last week, in a story first reported by the Voice, that Mrs. Clinton had assured Dinkins he will play a prominent role in her campaign.
“She will never get a meeting here in Crown Heights!” vows Sperlin. “She is not welcome! I will give you a million dollars if she gets a meeting with the Jewish community. She is an anti-Semite. She doesn’t have the tact to be a senator. Let her go back to Arkansas. She doesn’t know the first thing about New York.”
What would happen if Mrs. Clinton bypasses the Council and reaches out to less confrontational Jewish leaders in Crown Heights? “My community is solid,” Sperlin boasts. “Anybody who wants a meeting comes through me. If it’s another Jewish activist, he comes to me.”
It seems that every time the First Lady flies into New York, she is engulfed in the turbulence of a crosswind landing. Every special-interest group demands that she touch down in its backyard— or else. Charges of preferential treatment began to dog Mrs. Clinton in Crown Heights two weeks ago after she appeared at the Concord Baptist Church in mostly black Bedford-Stuyvesant, the first New York City stop on her so-called listening tour. “Hillary Clinton was about 15 minutes away from Crown Heights,” declares the combative Sperlin, contending that a meeting with Hasidic Jews apparently was not a top priority for Clinton organizers.
“She showed her true colors, not that she had to show it,” he asserts. “We all knew what her color was before she did.”
Before Mrs. Clinton announced that she might run for the Senate in New York, many Orthodox Jews had been suspicious of her. But like any Senate candidate from New York, she is courting the state’s influential Jewish vote.
Recently, the Methodist Mrs. Clinton revealed through Howard Wolfson, a spokesman for her exploratory committee, that members of her family were Jewish. When Wolfson told The Forward, a Jewish weekly, that Mrs. Clinton “has very fond memories” of her step-grandfather, Max Rosenberg— a Russian-born Jew— Jews like Sperlin reacted in disgust.
“How many years has she been in the White House?” the activist asks. “Did we ever hear about those Jewish roots before? Why not? It’s because she wants something from the Jewish community at large. This is plain bullshit!”
Mrs. Clinton angered potential Jewish voters last year by voicing support for a Palestinian state. The Palestinians intend to establish a state on the West Bank and Gaza, with its capital in Jerusalem. In an about-face, Mrs. Clinton recently told Jewish leaders she considers Jerusalem “the eternal and indivisible capital” of Israel. She has also said she favors moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Sperlin describes Mrs. Clinton as a “two-faced” politician who, in effect, flip-flopped on the question of Jerusalem. “The place where my forefathers are buried? I should give this away? I mean, is she nuts? When you lie once you can’t be trusted . . . ,” he says, referring to her statements on Palestinian statehood and Jerusalem. “She went against the Israeli government.”
A flip-flop by Mrs. Clinton on the issue of David Dinkins seems out of the question. But even if the First Lady were to make contradictory statements about Dinkins’s role in Crown Heights to placate the Hasidim, he would still be held responsible by a community that, in Sperlin’s words, “went through a holocaust for four days and nights.”
“We know exactly who David Dinkins is,” Sperlin insists.
In August 1991, racial tensions exploded after a Hasidic driver in a motorcade escorting the Lubavitcher rebbe accidentally struck and killed Gavin Cato, a seven-year-old African American child. Yankel Rosenbaum, an Australian rabbinical student, was fatally stabbed during four days of clashes between blacks and Lubavitchers.
Last year, the city paid $1.35 million to settle a lawsuit brought by Rosenbaum’s family, several people who were injured, and three Jewish institutions that claimed property damage. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani also apologized for the actions of his predecessor, who was blamed for not ordering a quicker and tougher police response. Although Dinkins, the city’s first black mayor, and then police commissioner Lee Brown, who is black, both denied that a “no arrest” policy was in place during the riots, Giuliani’s criticism of their handling of the crisis contributed to Dinkins’s defeat in 1993.
Sperlin calls Dinkins a “racist,” reiterating that Dinkins “did not do anything the first night or the second or third night after school buses got burned, people got hurt, windows got shot out, and the police put their hands in their pockets.”
Dinkins says he did nothing wrong and points to the conclusion of a federal judge who found that he and Brown “acted reasonably” in their efforts to end the violence.
“The same thing that he did the third night he could have done the first night, and if he couldn’t do it the first night he definitely should have done it the second night,” Sperlin argues. “He waited and let them [blacks] riot for three nights. We will never forgive Mayor Dinkins for that.”
So it is obvious who the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council intends to throw its support behind in the upcoming Senate race.
“Our community has a close relationship with Mayor Giuliani, and we’re gonna do what the mayor wants us to do,” Sperlin offers. “He is a friend in good times and bad times. And we’ve only had good times with the mayor.”
Sperlin denies that as a result of the apology and settlement, Giuliani has inflamed tensions between blacks and Jews in Crown Heights. He says Giuliani remains optimistic that the neighborhood’s two dominant ethnic groups will patch up their differences. Sperlin recalls that at a picnic sponsored by the 71st Precinct in 1995, Giuliani turned to him and said, “Mr. Sperlin, we have to seek to build a bridge together with African Americans.”
He says one has been built and is being fortified by events that rarely get reported by the media. “I speak to my neighbors,” he says. “I have a lot of African American neighbors: ‘Good morning Rose, can I help you?’ There is another lady, Ira, an old lady across the street, who my wife checks up on every couple of days. We have very nice African American neighbors. Every Friday afternoon, from spring to summer before the Sabbath, black and Hasidic youths play baseball. This is something the mayor initiated. The mayor built this bridge.”
But at least one associate of the mayor refuses to cross that bridge. Early this summer, Bruce Teitelbaum, Giuliani’s political action director, declared that the advisers surrounding Mrs. Clinton are the same people who advised Dinkins when he was mayor, suggesting that in a potential Senate contest involving Giuliani and Mrs. Clinton, Jewish voters won’t want to return to “failed policies” of the past.
The impact of the Lubavitcher backlash, according to Sperlin, will reverberate among African American candidates seeking an electoral edge in 2000.
He claims that last year Assemblyman Clarence Norman was able to beat back a strong challenge— defeating former cop James Davis 55 to 45 percent— after Norman made a desperate appeal to the Crown Heights Jewish Community Council for votes. At the time, Norman was overseeing a bitter race between Councilmember Martin Maleve Dilan and Dilan’s onetime close friend, Assemblyman Daryl Towns. The race reportedly was fueled by a rivalry between Towns’s father, Congressman Edolphus Towns, and Dilan’s sponsor, Norman. Dilan lost his primary battle against Towns, 57 to 30 percent. “I told Clarence Norman that my community was behind him and they were,” Sperlin says. (Norman did not return a Voice phone call for comment.)
But feisty Councilmember Una Clarke, who represents parts of Crown Heights, says that regardless of what the Jewish Community Council demands in return for its support she won’t grovel. “They wouldn’t dare ask me to condemn David Dinkins,” says Clarke, who is mulling a run in the 11th Congressional District against veteran lawmaker Major Owens. “I was in the streets for four days and four nights [during the racial upheaval],” she adds. “It was not a one-sided affair and I am not in the business of condemning others so that I can be promoted.”
Additional reporting: Karen Mahabir