Jewish voters in New York overwhelmingly backed Sen. Hillary Clinton in her historic presidential bid. But it remains to be seen if she would retain that support should she become the Democratic nominee, since many voters gave her mixed reviews even as they pulled the lever for her.
“I never thought I would say so, but I voted for Hillary,” said Avi Rosman of West Hempstead in Long Island, one of several dozen Jewish voters interviewed across the city after they cast their primary vote. “But more importantly, I voted against [Illinois Sen. Barack] Obama. He scares me.”
Rosman says he’ll vote for the Republican nominee, whoever he is.
But there are those who voted for Obama as a protest against Clinton, widely seen as a polarizing figure.
“Hillary has a lot of baggage behind her,” said a Staten Island voter at P.S. 54 in the Willowbrook section, who asked to remain anonymous because he works for an elected official. “This isn’t the same Democratic Party as in the days of JFK, when America was into a die-hard, athletic candidate. Obama has a more consistent voting record, as liberal as it is. Hillary is too much of a flip-flopper.”
As predicted, Clinton carried her home state.
The nation’s first viable female presidential candidate had the support of 69 percent of New York Jewish voters, who made up 17 percent of the turnout, according to exit polls. Her Democratic rival garnered only 29 percent of Jewish votes.
At polling places throughout New York City and Long Island, many Jewish voters said they were unenthused about Obama, who has been the target of an anonymous e-mail campaign trying to stress Muslim ties that the senator denies.
“I feel Obama doesn’t have the experience,” said Cynthia Bakst outside P.S. 299 in Midwood, Brooklyn. “If he pulls the troops out of Iraq there’ll be chaos, Iran will get the upper hand and that’s no good for Israel, that’s for sure. Israel’s a big concern, it has to be.”
In Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, Danielle Holtz, a 24-year-old graduate student, said she voted for Obama “because I like his platform of media reform and I also like his background in poverty work and that he is a constitutional lawyer.” (Obama has taught constitutional law.)
But Only on Manhattan’s Upper West Side did Jewish voters appear to show a significant level of support for Obama (see accompanying story).
In several cases Jewish voters suggested that antipathy toward Obama, who is black, was based on race.
Outside Forest Hills High School in Queens, a couple, senior citizens born in Romania, said they are both voting for Clinton. “Because I don’t trust blacks,” said the husband, who declined to give his name. His wife said she voted for Clinton “because I trust a woman.”
Another retiree, using a walker, said he too favored Clinton. “I liked her husband,” former President Bill Clinton, “and I like her too,” the man said.
Among the issues of importance were social security and the state of the U.S. economy.
“I’m thinking about what’s going to happen in the future with the kids, the national deficit’s piling up,” said Emanuel Grunfeld, an elderly man in Midwood.
But Israel was never far from voters’ minds.
“We need someone who’s for Israel,” said Grunfeld. “Hillary Clinton is better for the job — she has a track record of always being for the underdog, she wants to preserve social security, preserve minimum wage, I think her heart is in the right place, she’ll be able to accomplish something and Obama hasn’t accomplished so much.”
Grunfeld added: “She’s saying the eternal capital of Israel should be Jerusalem.”
Similarly, Shoshana Lazar, 30, a yoga instructor, said as she left the public library in West Hempstead that Clinton would be “strong on Yerushalayim. She has promised to move the [U.S.] embassy.”
But Lazar said she would be “torn” in the general election if Clinton faces Sen. John McCain, the Republican frontrunner whom she finds “very pro-Israel and good on domestic policies.”
Another West Hempstead resident, Jonathan Ezor, 40, initially supported Democrat John Edwards, but switched to Clinton after the former North Carolina senator suspended his campaign.
In the calculus between Clinton and Obama, Ezor, a law professor at Touro College, decided that “Clinton’s additional years of service in the Senate and her knowledge of the business of the president and her being more seasoned weighted me toward her.”
Obama, he said, “is a very smart, capable good person but for me the idea of hope and change is not a governing strategy.”
Another Edwards supporter, Chaim Pretter of Staten Island, cast his vote for the ex-senator despite his withdrawal. “They didn’t take his name off the ballot. I wanted to make sure that Clinton didn’t win.”
At the Candlewood Junior High School in Dix Hills, in Suffolk County, Gladys Stone said she voted for Clinton.
“I feel she’s competent. She knows what’s going on. She stands her ground on what she believes in and she’s also willing to compromise. I don’t feel [Obama] is really qualified. But in the future, I can foresee him becoming president of the United States.”
Jerry Schneider of Melville said Clinton is “the better of the two. Her opponent has no experience and no record to back him up. When he was an Illinois legislator, he always voted present [instead of taking a position]. I’ve been inclined to vote for her all along.”
Lee Grebstein, also of Dix Hills, said Obama would “make a nice vice president but he has no experience.”
Some of those interviewed chose Clinton in order to make history.
“I think that it’s important that a lady starts running things around here,” said Rachael Pollack, a Staten Island resident and first-time voter.
Added another Staten Islander, Laura Sued: “From a feminist point-of-view, I think it’s important that a woman has the opportunity to run our country.”
At the Shorefront Y in the Brighton Beach, the heavily immigrant voter turnout appeared to be for Clinton, though with little palpable enthusiasm, with several openly stating that they voted for her mainly to keep a black man out of the Oval Office.
On the Republican side, several voters bemoaned the exit of former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, saying they had looked forward to voting for him in the primary and general election. These voters said they will now switch to McCain, who, they believe, shares Giuliani’s hawkish perspective on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the issue of Iran.
According to the latest data from Sam Kliger, head of the Research Institute for New Americans and director of Russian Jewish Affairs at the American Jewish Committee, just under 60 percent of more than 100,000 Russian-speaking voters in New York city are registered as Democrats.
Nevertheless, the Russian-speaking community is far more conservative than its American Jewish counterpart. More than 75 percent supported George W. Bush over John Kerry in 2004.
Valentina Hirshman, 70, a retired teacher who moved here 15 years ago from Moscow, said she is supporting Clinton because “I believe she cares about protecting benefits like Medicaid and helping more retirees like me qualify for [government-subsidized low-income] Section 8 housing.”
Bella Ahkmechet, 69, a former bookkeeper from Odessa based her choice on fear. “I came here after Giuliani came to power, but those Russians who were here during Dinkins’ time told me things really got bad in New York in those days. Many fear that will happen if Obama wins as well.”
Akhmechet said that as a registered Democrat, she is backing Clinton, in part because “I would like to see a woman elected,” but added, “I’d definitely support [New York Mayor Michael] Bloomberg if he runs as an independent. If it turns out to be Hillary against McCain in the general election, I’m not yet sure which one I’ll support. I will probably go with the one who is the staunchest in backing Israel.”
Yefim Shukhin and his wife Faina, a retired couple in their 70s, said they both voted for Clinton because, according to Yefim, “She has a great deal of experience and was the right hand of Bill Clinton, who we both think was a good president.”
But Yefim expressed consternation that some Russians are rejecting Obama primarily because of his race. “Let’s not forget that Martin Luther King stood up for the rights of all minorities, including Jews,” he said. “Obama seems to me a good man, but I don’t think he is ready yet to be president.”
With reporting by Stewart Ain, Debra Nussbaum Cohen, Steve Lipman, Walter Ruby, Tamar Snyder and Carolyn Slutsky.