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It’s a peculiar yet time-honored dance in New York ethnic politicking: Appeal to a slice of the Jewish vote by trying to outdo your opponents in trumpeting your steadfast support of Israel, even if it means embracing positions far to the right of most New York Jews (and even of most Israelis). But it’s a strategy bound for obsolescence, some analysts warn, as several leftist Jewish groups are beginning to reprove otherwise liberal candidates for buying into it—and as Muslim and Arab American voters begin to assert a place in the political process.
The current round of damage control over endorsement meetings with Muslim groups among Democratic mayoral hopefuls shows plainly enough that candidates can still be cowed by accusations that there are cracks in their support for Israel. But, analysts say—citing Rick Lazio’s desperate attempts to taint Hillary Clinton as supporting terrorism last fall—closing out Muslims and Arab Americans can end up costing more than it gains. The Arab American Institute estimates as many as 200,000 voters of Arab background in New York, while the Muslim Political Coordinating Committee (MPCC), acknowledging some overlap, counts some 500,000 potential voters.
Still, the MPCC felt forced to withdraw its July 22 endorsements in the mayoral and borough president races on August 3 in the face of allegations that the coalition of some 15 local groups included members that support militants hostile to Israel. And it was state assembly member Dov Hikind—himself once a protégé of anti-Arab extremist Meir Kahane—who led the charge.
“We are concerned only with local issues,” says an exasperated Ali Mirza, a leader of the MPCC. “I don’t understand why some people keep wanting to bring the Middle East into it. Our issues are like other New Yorkers’—racial equality, inclusiveness, education—and particular to our group, such issues as making sure Muslim kids don’t have to take regency exams on Eid, the end of Ramadan.”
But distancing themselves from Muslims is only the half of it when it comes to pandering on Israel. Three of the four Democratic hopefuls—Fernando Ferrer, Alan Hevesi, and Peter Vallone—have made financial contributions to Jewish settlers in the West Bank, a long-standing taboo even for the mainstream Jewish welfare federations that funnel millions of American dollars into Israel each year. The U.S. also steers its massive, $3 billion aid package to Israel to projects within the 1967 borders, or “green line,” maintaining that the settlements are “an obstacle to peace.”
Even so, at the behest of—who else?—Dov Hikind, who courts candidates with the dubious promise of delivering 5000 to 10,000 Orthodox votes from his Boro Park district, Ferrer, Hevesi, and Vallone (along with Carl McCall, Hillary Clinton, George Pataki, and other officials) shelled out at least $1200 each for bulletproof vests for medics and teachers in settlements in the Occupied Territories. (Green declined the invitation. “Mark is a longtime supporter of Israel,” says spokesperson Joe DePlasco. “He doesn’t need Dov Hikind to decide for him what donations to make.”)
Touted as earmarked for non-controversial “life-saving equipment” for embattled Jews, the contributions went through the One Israel Fund, a U.S.-based charitable organization, which gave $913,000 in 1999 to the Yesha Council, the governing body of the settlements in the West Bank and Gaza. Even so designated, the vest-money frees up funds for other settlement pursuits, including “immigrant absorption,” as it’s termed on One Israel Fund 990 forms filed with the State Attorney General’s office—bringing more people into the settlements. The 990s also show that in 1999 the One Israel Fund gave $97,957 to American Friends of Ateret Cohanim, the extremist group that surreptitiously buys up and inhabits Palestinian homes in Jerusalem to assure, as the group’s Web site declares, that “stone by stone, house by house, the Old City is restored to its rightful owners.”
“This is like supporting the most recalcitrant Afrikaners at the height of apartheid,” says Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz, co-chair of the grassroots group Jews for Racial and Economic Justice. “It’s beyond the pale even in the Jewish mainstream. Yet the far right of the Jewish community ends up defining the discourse and yanking the candidates around by the nose.”
The candidates go along, explains Jeremy Burton, deputy director of Jewish affairs under Mayor David Dinkins, because there’s a specific swath of Jewish voters they think they can win. Jews turn out to vote at a high rate and can represent as much as a fifth to even a quarter of the vote, especially in a primary. There’s a solid chunk of progressive Jewish voters—the 27 percent that supported Ruth Messinger in 1997. And there’s a solid chunk of conservative Jewish voters—the 16 percent that went for Dole in 1996. “The half in the middle is often up for grabs,” says Burton.
In Vallone’s case, there’s some ideological consistency as he plays to the traditional three I’s of New York white ethnic politics—Italy, Ireland, and Israel. At least since his 1998 run for governor, he has staked out a far-right position on Israel. He has made solidarity visits to some of the most extreme West Bank settlements; in 1998 he made an official visit to Har Homa, the highly controversial building site on Jerusalem’s outskirts, dismissing Palestinian—as well as U.S. government—objections to the Jewish expansion into contested territory.
After a visit this past February, he sent out a letter on City Council stationery that bragged of meetings not only with Jerusalem’s mayor and former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but also Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, one of the Israeli far right’s most notorious figures, a man known for recommending the execution of a dovish Israeli education minister and calling Arabs “snakes” whom God regretted creating. Why does Vallone surround himself with such extremists? Says spokesperson Jordan Barowitz, “That’s the leadership he has exemplified in the City Council. He is always open to discuss issues with all sides.” Vallone has not met, however, with Palestinians, or even with the Israeli peace camp.
Hevesi, as a former member of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations—an umbrella body that claims to speak for American Jewry but whose current leadership does support some right-wing Zionist causes—is rather more versed in Israeli politics, and thus knows full well what it means to give across the green line. Spokesperson Josh Isay did not answer why he would make such a provocative donation, except to point out that other candidates had done so.
For his part, Ferrer defends his purchase of two bulletproof vests as protecting “innocent teachers and medics as they seek to serve those in need,” says spokesperson John Del Cecato. It doesn’t wash with Arab Americans. “Palestinians could use some life-saving equipment, too,” suggests Jeanine Shama, former director of the New York chapter of the Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. “If you take such a one-sided approach there, how will you act when there are ethnic or racial conflicts here in New York—especially if you are beholden to Dov Hikind?”
Whether Hikind’s support would help much is another question. A Quinnipiac College poll, conducted July 17 to 23, which asked registered Democrats whom they’d choose if the primary were held then, showed only 5 percent of Jews choosing Ferrer. Vallone and Hevesi polled 21 and 20 percent respectively—a statistical tie—and Green polled a whopping 33 percent. (Twenty percent remained undecided.)
To David Pollock, associate executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, one thing those numbers reveal is that there’s no meaningful concern in the community about any candidate’s Israel position. “If voters don’t think a candidate wants to jeopardize the security of Israel—and none of the candidates in this race has that reputation—then the issue just drops off the table.” The question is, will the candidates let it?