After voting with 36 other members of the House in November against a resolution that the Goldstone Report to the UN was unfair to Israel, Brooklyn’s Yvette Clarke reportedly told Jewish leaders in her district that she’d consult with them on Middle East issues in the future.
But last month, after she signed on to two letters critical of Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip, those same leaders were skeptical about that pledge.
Clarke’s district includes much of Crown Heights and Flatbush, two of the most heavily Jewish neighborhoods in New York. Days before the letters to President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were released, signed by 53 members of Congress, Clarke had joined Orthodox leaders at a press conference announcing aid to earthquake victims in Haiti.
“The Gaza letter had been floating around for weeks by then,” said one person who met with her, who requested anonymity to avoid harming his relationship with the congresswoman. “But there was no mention of it.”
After a second meeting with Jewish leaders in mid-January, described as tense, Clarke, a former city councilwoman who succeeded Major Owens in the House in 2006, released a public letter repudiating her signatures on the two letters.
“Recently my signature was added to two sign-on letters that, I regret, do not reflect my record with regards to Israel,” Clarke wrote in an open letter to constituents released last week. “These letters have a provocative and reactionary impact, as they do not provide a complete, and therefore accurate, picture of the situation…
“While I do have genuine concerns about the situation within the Gaza Strip, I have also not forgotten how it developed. Hamas, after having won democratic elections in 2006, turned Gaza into a launching pad from which to terrorize Southern Israel by firing thousands of rockets onto civilian targets.”
The open letter did not address the November Goldstone vote. Sources quoted Clarke as saying privately that she did not like the language in that resolution.
The letters to Obama and Clinton had been spearheaded by Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison and backed by the left-wing pro-Israel lobby J Street, Rabbis for Human Rights and several Christian and Palestinian groups.
“I am pleased that Representative Clarke has taken a step that most other politicians would not do … expressing remorse for having signed on to letters that she now regrets she had signed onto,” said Michael Miller of the Jewish Community Relations Council, who took part in the meetings with Clarke.
Leon Goldenberg, a board member of both the Council of Jewish Organizations of Flatbush and Agudath Israel of America, says he told Clarke in the meeting that Middle East policy was “not just theoretical in the district.”
“Everyone in [the Jewish communities of] Crown Heights and Flatbush has a very close member of the family there,” he said. “I told her I just put my son, daughter-in-law and three grandchildren on a plane to Israel. So for us the security of Eretz Yisrael is not a theoretical thing. This is family.”
A call to Clarke’s office was not returned as of Tuesday evening.
Hadar Susskind, a spokesman for J Street, said the organization understood Clarke’s “need to balance her own thinking on this issue and the opinions of her constituency.” But he added, “The real issue here is not Congresswoman Clark, but rather the need for those in the Jewish community who for so long have looked at this as a zero sum game, to understand that improving the situation in Gaza helps, not hurts, Israel and will ultimately help reach a peaceful two-state solution.”
The Goldstone Report and Iran were predictably the two hot topics at Sunday’s annual JCRC Congressional Breakfast.
Rep. Gary Ackerman, a Democrat representing parts of Queens and Nassau County, called the report a case of “the tail wagging the dog, the dog in this case being the United Nations. The Palestinian issue is big in the United Nations since the Arab states are the dominant force in the the Muslim bloc, which is the majority of the non-aligned nations, and the non-aligned nations are the majority of the whole UN.
He added “nobody is paying any attention to the fact that for the first time the report actually accuses the Palestinians of violating human rights. That’s in the report, but who cares? Nobody pays any attention. It’s what Ronald Reagan called the soft bigotry of low expectations.”
Sen. Charles Schumer, in his remarks, praised the Senate’s passage of the Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act and insisted tougher measures could topple the current regime in Iran.
“If we were to squeeze the country economically, there is a real chance we can bring the regime down, and almost a certain chance we can make them more accommodating than they have been until now.”
Noting that Germany, France and Britain were aligned with the U.S. on Iran sanctions, Schumer said that the White House needs to ratchet up pressure on Russia and China to get on board.
“Most boycotts require the participation of the most major trading nations,” said the senior senator. “The Russians and Chinese continue to play games.”
One of the provisions of the sanctions bill allows the government to prevent oil companies that refine gasoline for Iran from doing business in the United States. “This should be copied in other areas, “ he said. “It may well be that we can bring regime change in Iran before it has the full ability to deliver nuclear weapons.”
Rep. Nita Lowey, a Democrat from Westchester, in an interview, credited the Obama administration for a “consistent effort to try and move the negotiations forward. Israel needs a partner, and unless the Palestinians understand, and unless they are supported by other countries in the region, such as Saudi Arabia and Dubai and Qatar, who you can’t always count on, there’s not going to be a peace agreement.”
She added that she was confident that President Barack Obama “understands that all options [regarding Iran] must be on the table, noting that the national security advisor, Gen. James Jones, and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates were in Munich that day “making clear statements that the sanctions have to proceed.”
Rep. Anthony Weiner, a Democrat representing parts of Queens and Brooklyn, told The Jewish Week the Obama administration has “made some missteps early on” such as focusing on settlements in the peace talks, but said Obama and Secretary Clinton had “almost overnight taken the perception of us around the world and turned it around.”
Asked if he regretted his decision not to run for mayor last year, given Michael Bloomberg’s slim margin of victory, Weiner said he did not.
“I said I wanted to work on health care [legislation] and we haven’t crossed the finish line on that yet, but I would not have been able to be involved on that level if I had not made that tough choice,” said the congressman, a likely candidate in 2013.
The race to fill the vacant 24th Assembly District seat in northern Queens took an ugly turn last weekend, heading into Tuesday’s election.
Republican Robert Friedrich and his supporters denounced a mailing linked to Democrat David Weprin that included a swastika behind police tape.
“Extreme conservative Bob Friedrich doesn’t think hate crimes deserve special punishment,” the mailing warned.
A man who answered the phone at Friedrich’s home Monday morning called the flier “repugnant and despicable” but declined to discuss Friedrich’s position on bias crime. Friedrich and a supporter, Republican State Sen. Frank Padavan, denounced the mailings in local media over the weekend.
Weprin, a former councilman trying to succeed his brother, Mark, acknowledged sending the flier but couldn’t explain why his name wasn’t on it. The return address was his campaign office. “It was a decision made by someone in the campaign,” Weprin said in an interview Monday. “We didn’t deny it came from us.”
Weprin said he sent the mailing after seeing a copy.
“[Friedrich] hasn’t denied his position,” Weprin said. He said he had seen a copy of a questionnaire Friedrich filled out to get the Republican endorsement.
The stance, Weprin said, mattered because New York’s hate crimes statute, signed by then-Gov. George Pataki in 2002, might be challenged in the future.
He said the mailing was not targeted to Jewish voters, but to prime voters — those who regularly show up at elections, big and small.
Weprin said Friedrich responded to the mailing with automated calls condemning it, one of which came to the Weprin home.
David Greenfield, candidate for the open City Council seat in Borough Park and Flatbush, was expected to get Bloomberg’s endorsement this week. Bloomberg’s 2009 campaign Jewish coordinator, Mark Botnick, now works for Greenfield. n
Check The Jewish Week online for an update on the outcome of Tuesday’s election in Queens.
A report on the JCRC’s Congressional Breakfast is the next installment of the video blog MetroPolitics, online at www.thejewishweek.com.