Posted by on August 02, 2011 in News Clips

Debating Israel with a congressman from Brooklyn isn’t easy, then or now.

Asked about the tone of the debate over Israel-hawk credentials in the upcoming special congressional election to replace Anthony Weiner, James Zogby, head of the Arab American Institute, recalled a run-in he had more than 20 years ago.

“In 1988, when I raised the plank at the Democratic National Convention, I went up against Chuck Schumer,” said Mr. Zogby, who was a delegate from the Jesse Jackson campaign at the time. “They were telling me, ‘Zogby, if you even raise this at the convention you’ll never have a place in the Democratic Party again’ and blah blah blah. The plank was actually quite modest,” Mr. Zogby recalled. “The plank actually read, ‘mutual recognition, territorial compromise and self-determination for both people.’

“Schumer, after I spoke at the convention, he got up to the platform and he said, ‘Zogby is duplicitous, Zogby is this and Zogby is that.’ Afterward, he came up and put his arm around me and said, ‘[You] have no idea how much money you made for me back home.’”

A year later, according to Mr. Zogby, the two met again. “I was at a fund-raiser for Dave Dinkins at Pamela Harriman’s, and I was talking to Mrs. Harriman,” said Mr. Zogby, “and he comes up and puts his arm around me and calls me ‘the guy who made him a hero in Brooklyn.’” A spokesman for Mr. Schumer did not immediately comment on Mr. Zogby’s version of events.

Still today in New York’s Ninth, Mr Schumer’s old district, there is something of this attitude recognizable in the race between Democratic assemblyman David Weprin and Republican challenger Bob Turner, which former mayor Ed Koch declared to be a referendum on Barack Obama’s position on Israel, endorsing Mr Turner as a means for Jewish voters to express their displeasure. Mr Weprin, an orthodox Jew with family in Israel, duly took pains to respond that he too disagreed with President Obama’s position on Israel, importing Senator Joseph Lieberman to appear with him as a counterweight to Mr Koch.

Logic doesn’t have much to do with it in these situations. The district has one of the highest concentration of Jewish voters in New York—and many of those voters are elderly, and presumably inclined to take Ed Koch’s word for things. (In fact, what Messrs. Koch, Turner and Weprin imply about the president’s position on Israel is not precisely correct; they criticize him for saying that the 1967 border between Israel and a Palestinian state ought to be a basis for negotiations over a permanent border, whereas Mr. Obama actually said the basis should be the ’67 border with “swaps” that would allow Israel to retain heavily settled parts of the West Bank. The latter is a far less controversial proposition.)

Thus stymied, Mr. Turner’s campaign has ratcheted up the militancy somewhat by dredging up the issue of the “World Trade Center mosque,” calling on Mr. Weprin to explain why he supported the project. The Weprin campaign, for its part, has attempted to guide the campaign back to economic issues and job creation, but only after having made the case that no Republican will out-hawk him on Israel-Arab relations.

“I’m one of the few [Democrats] who has been very strongly criticizing Obama on the statement he made that the starting point [in Mideast peace talks] is Israel going back to the pre-‘67 border,” Mr. Weprin told Jewish Week recently.

Which is the funny thing (or the sad one, depending on how you look at it): Mr. Weprin’s reputation before the campaign on these issues was that of a conciliator, secure in his Jewishness but evenhanded in his outreach.

“David Weprin has actually been quite liberal—I would call him progressive—on a lot issues, particularly pertaining to the Arab and Muslim community,” said Linda Sarsour, a steering committee member of the Arab-American Democratic Club of New York, based in Bay Ridge.

Ms. Sarsour recalled seeing Mr. Weprin at the Fifth Annual Bay Ridge Arab Bazaar “the largest festival in Brooklyn celebrating Arab culture and heritage.”

“He played up his co-sponsorship of incorporating Muslim holidays into schools, how he’s very friendly with Muslim Americans and how he supported the building of the mosque and how this is about religious freedom and that he believes whole-heartedly in the constitution and blah blah blah,” said Ms. Sarsour.

“You should have heard him,” Ms. Sarsour gushed. “You thought he was like the Muslim-lover.”

Ms. Sarsour said she is disappointed at how Mr. Weprin responded to the criticism from Mr. Koch and Mr. Turner. “I’m just like, ‘Come on, David Weprin, you’re better than that.’”

Referring back to the bazaar—which another one of Ms. Sarsour’s group’s organized—she noted, “We didn’t even invite him.”

“Right now, I’m not seeing a difference,” Mr. Zogby said of the candidates, “and they’re doing their darndest for there to not be a difference.”

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