Posted on May 27, 2002 in Washington Watch

The lead sentence in a national Jewish newspaper said it all:

“The Democratic primary in Alabama’s Seventh Congressional District, is being closely watched by Israel’s supporters, who view it as a chance to unseat an incumbent with ties to Arab countries and a spotty record of support for the Jewish state.”

On June 4th, 2002, voters in the Seventh Congressional District of Alabama’s Democratic primary elections will do more than determine the political future of Democratic congressman Earl Hilliard. They will also determine whether, once again, pro-Israeli groups around the U.S. will be able to claim that they defeated a supporter of Palestinian rights.

The Seventh Congressional District of Alabama is the historic home of many of the legendary civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s. It was in Montgomery, Alabama, that a young African American minister, Reverend Martin Luther King, led the bus boycott against racial segregation–a campaign that energized the movement. And it was from a Birmingham, Alabama jail cell that Martin Luther King wrote the famous open letter that served as one of the most important statements challenging the conscience of a nation to address the injustice of racial discrimination.

Hilliard was one of the participants and beneficiaries of those early civil rights struggles that gained voting rights for African Americans. In 1974 he was elected to the Alabama State Legislature, becoming one of the first African Americans to serve in that body. After leading many successful efforts to bring economic benefits to his district, he was elected to Congress in 1992, becoming the first African American to represent Alabama in the U.S. Congress in the 120 years that had passed since the end of the post-Civil War period.

Early on, Hilliard antagonized supporters of Israel by traveling to Libya and voting against economic sanctions against that country. He defended his visit by quite simply noting “Libya is an African nation. It carries no negative connotation in my community.” Hilliard also noted once that “I see more and more blacks identifying with Arabs and Muslims than I do with Jews. They see Arabs…being profiled like we are.”

While Hilliard has sometimes voted for pro-Israel positions–for example, he did support a 1996 resolution to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem–in recent years, he has consistently supported a more balanced position.

In December of 2001, he was only one of eleven members of Congress to vote against a congressional resolution “expressing solidarity with Israel in its fight against terrorism.” Once again, on May 2, 2002, he was one of 21 members of Congress to vote against the notorious and one-sided pro-Israel and anti-Palestinian resolution that passed in the House of Representatives.

All of this, of course, has encouraged some Jewish leaders to try to target Hilliard for defeat. In 2000 the Congressman was challenged by a young Birmingham lawyer, Artur Davis. The Harvard-educated Davis has let it be known that he shares many of the same views as Congressman Hilliard except those regarding Middle East policy. This has enabled Davis to raise support from the Jewish community. In 2000, Davis won 34% of the vote in the Democratic primary against Hilliard’s 54%.

Two factors, however, have served to weaken Congressman Hilliard’s position during the past year. He was reprimanded by the House Ethics Committee for irregularities in his handling of campaign funds, and his position has been further harmed by recent redrawing of the Seventh Congressional District. By law, congressional districts are reconfigured every ten years–to account for population changes. This year’s redistricting has hurt Hilliard by taking away some of the areas that contain his strongest support, and by adding rural areas that have given him less support. So with redistricting having changed the Seventh Congressional District in Davis’ favor, and the Jewish community nationally having raised substantial funds for his campaign, the young attorney is back again to challenge Hilliard’s reelection bid.

In a fundraising appeal to supporters of Israel, two of Davis’ Birmingham’s supporters, David Kahn and Jeffrey Snyder, wrote:

“We have a very important opportunity in Alabama to help challenger Artur Davis (D) defeat an incumbent five term congressman, Earl Hilliard (D-AL-7) who has not been a friend of the U.S./Israel relationship…Hilliard has been extremely dangerous to not only our community but the U.S./Israel relationship. As Chairman of the Black Caucus he has lobbied members of the Black Caucus to oppose initiatives supporting Israel…Two years ago in 2000, Artur Davis challenged Earl Hilliard in the Democratic Primary. Artur took 34% of the vote and Hilliard won 54% of the vote. Artur ran an under funded campaign. Since then the district has been re-drawn with some of Hilliard’s strongest counties removed and replaced with areas that Artur ran stronger in.”

Having so far reportedly raised $300,000 to purchase TV ads attacking Hilliard’s record, Davis stopped by the AIPAC convention a few weeks back to say:

“I have received support from the Jewish community in Birmingham and the rest of the country, and I wanted to thank them personally.”

The Middle East issue came out even more forcefully in a pro-Hilliard flier that had been reportedly passed out at different locations in the Seventh District. Under the inflammatory headline “Davis and the Jews: No Good for the Blacks,” the flier charges that Davis supports Israel’s “policy of complete domination.” It goes on to note:

“Lest we forget, it was Israel that stood with apartheid in South Africa…If the current invasions, murder and abuse within the Palestinian territory sound familiar, it’s only because we’ve seen apartheid do exactly the same in the black villages of South Africa with Israel’s support.”

While Davis’ campaign has denounced the flier, Hilliard personally distanced himself from it.

For their part, Arab Americans have recently stepped up their effort to assist the embattled Congressman. Some major fundraisers have been held in Birmingham and around the U.S. and the local Arab American community in Alabama has become engaged to work on the Congressman’s behalf.

As one Arab American leader from Birmingham, Alabama, recently noted in an appeal for support, “it’s time to do something…this is our one chance to make a difference.”

With Alabama’s primary election only one week away, activity will be quite intense in the coming days. We will learn a great deal from the outcome of this vote. Stay tuned.

For comments, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org.

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