Posted on September 18, 2000 in Washington Watch

It is now what reporters and political analysts call “the silly season” in New York politics. It is “silly” because of the bizarre antics that politicians engage in an attempt to win the support of Jewish voters.

Now, while there is no question that Jewish voters make up a major bloc in New York–some estimate that Jews are 12 percent of that state’s total vote–serious questions must be asked regarding the tactics used to attract these voters. And the impact that the “silly season” has on New York’s 250,000 Arab Americans must also be understood. Because to this community, the “silly season” is no laughing matter.

This courting of Jewish voters has long been characteristic of New York elections. This year, it is especially pronounced because Mrs. Clinton’s prior declaration of support for a Palestinian state and her husband’s Middle East peace efforts made Republicans think that they could make inroads into the traditionally Democratic Jewish vote.

Thus, the effort to court Jewish voters began early in the campaign. In recent weeks, however, it has become especially intense and quite ugly.

From the beginning, Mrs. Clinton has done all she could to win Jewish support even to the extent of stating that she recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. She hesitated, however, with regard to moving the U.S. Embassy to the city, a fact which Republicans have exploited in their appeal to Jewish voters.

Recently, Hillary Clinton, in an effort to win additional Jewish support for her Senate campaign, met with Democratic State Representative Dov Hikind. Hikind, a former follower of the notorious Meir Kahane, is an intense critic of Middle East peace efforts. He supports total Israeli control of all of Palestine and has been found guilty of having sent money from his campaign funds to extremist settler groups on the West Bank.

Though nominally a Democrat, in the past, Hiking has often endorsed Republican candidates. He is believed to be able to influence a few tens of thousands of like minded conservative voters and has not, until now, declared his support for either of New York’s two candidates for the U.S. Senate, Mrs. Clinton or her Republican opponent Congressman Rick Lazio.

The issue that Hikind has been promoting as the litmus test for his support is the effort to free convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard. Pollard, a former U.S. naval officer, was sentenced to life in prison for his crimes in the mid 1980s. Three U.S Presidents have refused all appeals to release him.

After their meeting, Mrs. Clinton, while not willing to break with the President’s position on the Pollard case, attempted to reassure Hikind that she was troubled by the case and would continue to study it. She went further and protested efforts that were underway to move Pollard to a more restrictive prison.

In an effort to launch a “silly season” offensive of his own, Lazio took advantage of a photo that appeared in the press of President Clinton shaking hands with Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Lazio sharply rebuked the President for this gesture and his campaign used this occasion to revive the old attack against Hillary Clinton for kissing Palestinian President Yasser Arafat’s wife Suha during a 1999 visit to Ramallah.

In an effort to neutralize these attacks, the White House countered by releasing a photo of Congressman Lazio in a friendly handshake with President Arafat. Lazio had accompanied President Clinton on his trip to Gaza in December of 1998, where he had greeted the Palestinian leader.

The original intent of the White House was lost and the matter degenerated into an ugly debate over kissing and shaking hands with apparently “untouchable” Palestinians. New York City’s Mayor Rudolph Guiliani, a Republican and former candidate for the New York Senate seat, only made matters worse when he joined the fray and denounced Lazio for “shaking hands with a murderer.”

The final blow in this sordid saga came last week when the Lazio campaign revealed that it had discovered that former Arab League Ambassador Clovis Maksoud, a U.S. citizen, had contributed $500 to Mrs. Clinton’s campaign. They denounced Mrs. Clinton for accepting the contribution and stated, “We believe Mrs. Clinton should return this contribution immediately. Given her well-documented flip-flops on issues of critical importance to Israel, and therefore the New York Jewish community, it is very troubling that Mrs. Clinton would accept this contribution from an individual who has historically spouted harsh and even venomous rhetoric against Israel.”

What is most disturbing is the steep downward trajectory that this “silly season” campaign has taken. In the early part of the campaign the candidates sparred who was the “best friend of Israel.” It then devolved into anti-Palestinian attacks and now, with this latest thrust by the Lazio campaign, into outright baiting against Arab Americans.

While all of this grotesque behavior is designed to win votes, two serious issues must be raised.

Does it work? Apparently not. A recent poll for the New York Post found that New York’s Jewish voters were not very impressed with these antics. In fact, the results of the poll are quite interesting. The poll, conducted by Zogby International (ZI), a New York based firm, found that Mrs. Clinton already has the support of 61 percent of New York’s Jewish voters. Lazio has the support of 33 percent. The strength of her support is even clearer when it is seen that she has the support of 71 percent of the New York Jews who are Democrats. Lazio’s support, in other words, comes from those Jews who are, in fact, Republicans.

Were Jewish voters troubled by Mrs. Clinton’s kiss of Mrs. Arafat? Apparently not. 94 percent of those who support Mrs. Clinton were not bothered by the kiss. The only Jewish voters who said they were offended by the kiss were Lazio’s Republican supporters who were not going to vote for Mrs. Clinton anyway. A similarly high 91 percent were not affected by Lazio’s handshake with Yasser Arafat.

The most revealing question in the poll asked New York’s Jewish voters, to state what, “in your own words, is the most important issue in this race for the U.S. Senate.”

The results are fascinating because only one percent of the 401 interviewed gave Israel as their answer.

The results in full are:

The most important issue in the race for Senate in New York

Education 31%
Economy 8.4%
Social Security 6%
Taxes 5%
Crime 2%
Environment 2%
Israel 1%
Other issues 35%

In other words, all of this bizarre behavior is, apparently, for naught. New York’s Jewish voters, like other Americans, make their voting decisions on other issues. There are liberal Jews who traditionally vote Democratic because of their commitment to a liberal political and social agenda. More conservative and orthodox religious Jews, on the other hand, increasingly vote Republican because of their agreement with the Republicans overall political agenda.

As the Clovis Maksoud example points out, however, there is another lesson to learn from all of this. The most significant by-product of the antics of the “silly season” is that New York State’s 250,000 Arab Americans become disenfranchised from the political process.

Because New York politicians falsely stereotype the Jewish community as a single-issue pro-Israel bloc, they appear fearful to risk alienating that group by reaching out to Arab Americans. Thus far, no Arab American events with New York politicians have been scheduled in this election campaign.

I recall in 1989 a prominent New York politician’s’ campaign told me that they would not welcome Arab American support, for fear of alienating Jewish supporters. In effect they had hung a “no Arabs may participate” sign over their campaign’s door. When a New York City newspaper interviewed every Jewish leader in the City about whether it was right to exclude Arab Americans and whether including Arab Americans would cost a candidate Jewish support, it became clear that most Jewish leaders were offended by this effort to exclude Arab Americans. I had hoped that a lesson had been learned. From the antics of the past few weeks, it appears not to have made a dent in the thinking of some politicians.

Now, to set the record straight, it must be noted that this exclusion of Arab Americans is not a universal feature in this year’s election. It’s not the practice in Michigan, Ohio, Illinois or Pennsylvania–where Arab American are a recognized presence in politics. Only in New York does this silliness persist to such a damaging degree. It, of course, is quite hurtful to that state’s Arab Americans and damaging to America’s democracy. But, one might suggest that it is foolish for the politicians as well. In an election as close as this year’s Senate race will most likely be, 250,000 Arab Americans could make the difference in determining the outcome. But to take down the “no Arabs” sign and reach out to the community will take a bit of courage–which up until now has been in short supply, in New York’s “silly season.”

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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