Activists in the large Orthodox community that lies in the center of two contested congressional districts in Tuesday’s Democratic primary have launched a massive campaign in support of one incumbent and an embattled candidate, citing Israel as a primary concern.
The campaign consists of mailings, phone calls and posters and home visits in support of Rep. Edolphus Towns, the 12-term incumbent running in the 10th Congressional District, and David Yassky, the white city councilman who is running to succeed retiring Rep. Major Owens in a district intended to empower blacks.
Both districts include parts of Midwood and Flatbush, believed to have nearly 14,000 Orthodox households — enough to have a strong impact in a tight race, though voting turnout in the Orthodox community has been low.
“Our study has found about 6,500 Orthodox households in Ed Towns’ district and close to 7,000 in [the Owens’ 11th Congressional District],” said Mordechai Avigdor, a lawyer in Flatbush who is volunteering to help Yassky and Towns.
A former official of Agudath Israel of America, Avigdor cited a candidate running against Yassky, Chris Owens (the son of the incumbent), as a “disaster” because of comments criticizing recent Israeli military action. “He said just because Hezbollah throws a couple of rockets, that doesn’t mean Israel has the right to invade Lebanon,” said Avigdor.
In an interview Tuesday, Owens said that while campaigning he had been confronted by some voters over his comments in a recent debate about the Lebanon war, in which he said Israel’s response to Hezbollah was disproportionate.
“People came up to me in the street and one person walked into my headquarters seeking clarification,” said Owens. “I told them of course I support Israel, but that’s not the issue … Mistakes were made and that concerns me because I’m concerned about Israel’s future. There are concerns within Israel about what happened in Lebanon.”
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, confirmed on Tuesday that he would speak on his own behalf to a large gathering in Brooklyn to “discuss issues” related to the races. “It’s important for people to be involved,” he said, adding that the location of the talk had yet to be decided. “I will urge people to be vigilant on how they vote.”
Asked if the discussion would concern Israel, Hoenlein said, “I don’t address domestic issues. I’m not an expert. Others will.” He insisted he was not supporting any candidate in either race, but said “there are candidates running whose positions are inimical to the interests of the Jewish community.”
He declined to elaborate.One of the two candidates challenging Towns this year is Councilman Charles Barron, who has blasted his Council colleagues for being “too pro-Israel.” Refusing to vote for various resolutions in support of Israel, Barron sparked an impassioned debate in the Council in 2002 when he sponsored his own measure calling for an end to violence between Palestinians and Israelis and for United States diplomacy to treat the Mideast crisis in an evenhanded manner.
In defeating the measure, critics said it suggested moral equivalence between Israel’s self-defense measures and Arab terrorist attacks on civilians.
Leon Goldenberg, a Flatbush-based realtor and political activist working on behalf of Yassky and Towns, said, “Barron is very anti-Israel, very openly so. On a regular basis he has been opposed to Israel.”
In an interview Tuesday, Barron said, “I’m not anti-anyone. It seems any criticism of Israel makes you anti-Semitic even if you have legitimate criticism. … It’s a way for people not to deal with the contradictions and criticism of the state of Israel … the government of the state of Israel, not the people of Israel.”
Asked if he supported Israel’s right to exist, Barron said “Israel does exist … the world acknowledges that Israel exists as a state. I acknowledge that Israel exists as a state. I don’t have to get into the political right or wrong. But America is too pro-Israel and doesn’t support the Palestinian people enough. I believe in a negotiated solution.”
The third candidate in the Towns race is Assemblyman Roger Green.
Speaking on his own behalf Rabbi David Niederman of the United Jewish Organizations, the social service group for the chasidic community in Williamsburg — part of Towns’ district — said the incumbent “understands the needs of the community. “Green I don’t really know, and Charles Barron on the other side has not been a friend of the Jewish community at large. For 24 years Ed Towns has been a real friend of the communities he represented.”
Rabbi Joseph Potasnik of Congregation Mount Sinai in Brooklyn Heights said he was upset about Barron’s controversial statement at a 2002 rally advocating reparations for African slaves. A former Black Panther, Barron was quoted as saying: “I want to go up to the closest white person and say, ‘You can’t understand this, it’s a black thing’ and then slap him, just for my mental health.”
“Charles Barron has a very troubling history when it comes to race relations and relations with the Jewish community,” said Rabbi Potasnik, who is president of the New York Board of Rabbis.
But Barron said he had no regrets about anything he has said in the past, including the “slap a white person” crack. “I don’t have a racist bone or anti-Semitic bone in my body,” he said. “But I reserve my right to express my righteous indignation about slavery and reparations.”
He said he was anxious to discuss his views with members of the Jewish community, who might appreciate his stands on affordable housing, public education and health care and against police brutality, but “I’ve never been invited to a synagogue or a Jewish group. I would love to sit down and let them know who I really am.”
Avigdor, who is volunteering for Yassky and Towns, noted that support for Yassky — who leads the field in fundraising — has heavily increased in his community since the councilman picked up the New York Times endorsement, making him more viable.
A few days after the Saturday endorsement, the Political Action Committee of Crown Heights’ chasidic community — which had been on the fence, professing inability to decide — announced its support for Yassky in a race against City Councilwoman Yvette Clarke, state Sen. Carl Andrews and Chris Owens.
“For sure, it added a lot of wind to his sails,” said Avigdor of the Times endorsement. “It confirmed what a lot of people are thinking.”
There is also likely to be a concerted effort in Flatbush on behalf of Andrews, who has the backing of Assemblyman Dov Hikind.C
iting low turnout figures among Orthodox Jews in recent races, Goldenberg said for whom they vote was less important than whether they show up on Tuesday.
“The main thing is to get the vote out,” he said. The Brooklyn-based Sephardic Community Federation was to mail out 25,000 fliers this week emphasizing the need for strong Jewish turnout.