It was barely noticed, but Hillary Rodham Clinton took a significant step, albeit a clumsy one, while campaigning in Queens last week. Addressing a group of elderly Holocaust survivors, the first lady and Senate candidate noted that her friend and supporter, Rep. Tom Lantos of California, was always "kavelling" about his grandchildren.
With a little coaching, Clinton might have properly pronounced the Yiddish word for boasting (kvelling). But the utterance was still a milestone in Clinton’s long and tumultuous courtship with Jewish voters.
Tossing around a phrase or two in the mama loshen is a classic New York political move, but one the first lady (balancing her carpetbagger aura with a hesitation to pander) had thus far avoided.
But with barely a month until Election Day, and no exploded landmines in her immediate past, Clinton seems to be reaching a new comfort level with Jewish voters.
Last June she attended the graduation ceremony of a girls’ yeshiva in Brooklyn (clad in one of her trademark dark pantsuits) and offered congratulations to the students and their families, without once uttering the universally vernacular "Mazel Tov." Now, she’s tossing out "chutzpah" and "kvelling" like a Williamsburg Shabbos goy.
While opposition to Clinton in some segments of the Jewish community remains vehement, she is clearly facing a new level of acceptance. Assemblyman Dov Hikind says the anti-Clinton rhetoric in Borough Park is largely subsiding (although he may simply be paving the way for his expected endorsement of her). Poll numbers are also encouraging: she’s reached as high as 70 percent among Jews in some surveys, about what she needs to win, although still short of the 80 percent enjoyed by her husband in his two campaigns and Al Gore this year.
"My impression is that Hillary Clinton is gaining some momentum within the Jewish community," said Julius Berman, a former chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, who is not publicly supporting either candidate. "Although the right [wing] seems almost impenetrable, that does not reflect the majority of the Jewish community."
Marist College pollster Lee Miringoff is skeptical about poll numbers that show Clinton topping 70 percent of Jews: some were taken during holidays or on Shabbat, excluding the Orthodox, he said. But there is evidence, he believes, that Clinton is making progress, largely because of the attention she is paying to Jewish voters. "My sense of it is that her numbers are inching up, but still has a ways to go," says Miringoff, whose Sept. 21 poll gave Clinton 51 percent of Jews. "She hasn’t had any major problems lately and she’s been very visible in the Jewish community, visiting senior centers."
Former Mayor Ed Koch, a Hillary booster, has a different theory. "When I talk to Jews, what’s turned them around more than anything else is not so much her emphasis in Jewish mattters but a recognition that abortion and other liberal matters are on the line, when it comes to picking the next Supreme Court judges."
But the most important factor may be Lazio’s lackluster appeal to Jews. Even the anti-Hillary, right-wing Jewish Press has noted that Lazio’s main message to the community is that he is not Hillary. His main pitch for Jewish support centers on a House voting record on Israel indistinct from other members of the New York delegation while noting that Clinton, as of yet, has no record.
"When she starts with the basic liberal base within the Jewish community, you need someone to oppose her who had substantial credibility and recognition in the Jewish community prior to her candidacy, such as [Mayor Rudolph] Giuliani," said Berman. "Lazio started with a totally nonexistent base. His only Jewish constituency are the few Jewish Republicans and the anti-Hillary group."
Even Rabbi Yehoshua Balkany, dean of the Bais Yaakov of Brooklyn, who generally supports Republicans said Lazio’s campaign "in some respects, with regard to the Jewish community, has been sleeping."
As for Clinton, the rabbi said, "The community has cozied up to her, very surprisingly. Maybe it’s the aura of her office as first lady or the fact that she is very soft-spoken. But the issues have not been addressed … Jonathan Pollard, the Palestinians … in a certain sense she is being given a free ticket."
The State Department be damned, both candidates placed the blame for this week’s Arab-Israeli violence squarely on Yasir Arafat and the Palestinians.
"Violence as a tool of intimidation and terror to try to bring about an agreement on terms that are unfair will not be tolerated by America," said Lazio. "America is not going to finance the Palestinian Authority if it resorts to violence."
Clinton said it was "incumbent upon Chairman Arafat to do everything in his power to stop the violence and to maintain the cease-fire it was reached yesterday." She later reiterated her comments with Jewish City Comptroller Alan Hevesi in Manhattan.
The State Department had chastised Israel’s right-wing political leader, Ariel Sharon, for a controversial visit to the Temple Mount that preceded the outbreak of violence.