The Annual Congressional Breakfast of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York is normally a tranquil event with few, if any, surprises. A dozen or more members of Congress from both major parties, most from the city and others from nearby suburbs, parade before a packed room sounding much the same note on issues of Jewish concern, especially Israel and the threats facing her.
But the possibility of a different scenario hung in the air Sunday as JCRC held its 33rd Congressional Breakfast, drawing 14 members of Congress. Hosted by UJA-Federation of New York, the event was taking place not only in a presidential election year, but in one that seems particularly charged. Contributing to that atmosphere are the apparent breakdown in consensus over the country’s domestic agenda and, locally, the stunning upset victory by a Republican, Robert Turner, in a special election for the city’s 9th Congressional District, an area of Brooklyn and Queens once considered a shoo-in for any Democrat.
In the end, no sparks flew, though during his time at the podium Turner — one of only two Republicans in the city’s Congressional delegation — was certainly critical of President Barack Obama.
Turner, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, expressed that criticism while discussing the threat to Israel posed by Iran’s nuclear program, a subject that came up frequently at Sunday’s event. The president’s economic sanctions against Iran “are working,” Turner said. But he added that he doesn’t know “how big a push we’re making and how big a push we should be making.”
Meanwhile, the congressman said, the president “has seen fit” to send a secret letter to Iranian leaders calling for direct talks over their country’s nuclear ambitions — an approach Turner said he would oppose. Americans know about that letter, he told his audience, because an Iranian official “told us.”
The White House, though, has flatly denied the existence of any such letter, as Turner was informed later by a Jewish Week correspondent. Asked if he believed Iranian officials over the president, Turner repeated his opposition to any diplomatic engagement with Iran, saying “a letter wouldn’t be acceptable,” but said he would “accept” the president’s denial. “The Iranians have a long history of not telling the truth,” he said.
During the same interview, Turner also touched on the battle for the GOP nomination, which took yet another turn Saturday with Newt Gingrich’s victory in the South Carolina primary. The congressman declined to make an endorsement in the race, telling The Jewish Week he would “support the winner.”
In addition to Turner, 13 other members of Congress addressed the JCRC event, including one other Republican — Nan Hayworth, a physician who now represents parts of five suburban and upstate counties, including Westchester. Michael Grimm, the Republican freshman from Staten Island, couldn’t appear, as scheduled, because of illness in his family.
One of the most gripping moments came as Carolyn McCarthy, the Long Island Democrat whose husband was killed in a shooting spree 18 years ago, discussed her belief in government and her commitment to programs that “help those who need our help.”
Noting that she once worked as a nurse, McCarthy said her job in Congress “is still taking care of people,” the only reason she remains in Washington. She favors lowering the deficit, she said, “but you also have to be like a surgeon” while approaching that task, being careful not to hurt people in the process.
McCarthy also personalized the issue by referring to her son, who was seriously injured in the same massacre and receives disability payments through Social Security. “I worry about my son” and whether he’ll continue to get help, she said.
Nita Lowey also spoke of spending cuts in Washington, acknowledging that she and her colleagues “need to deal with the debt.” But cutting foreign aid, as some of her colleagues want to do, could have serious implications, warned Lowey, who represents parts of Westchester and Rockland counties. Moreover, she said, “We have work to do here,” rebuilding the country’s infrastructure and helping people in difficult straits.
One congressman, Jerrold Nadler (Manhattan-Brooklyn), warned that the consensus that once governed Washington is now gone, pointing to talk among some Republicans of doing away with child-labor laws. But others, such as Hayworth, spoke of cooperation across partisan lines. She’s voted for Obama’s position several times, Hayworth said, calling herself “a very ecumenical person.”
Like many of his colleagues, Nadler also spoke of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, calling settlement activity in the West Bank a “pretty irrelevant” issue. What’s holding up peace talks is that the Palestinians “simply don’t want to recognize Israel, period,” said Nadler, one of the most liberal members of the House.
McCarthy said she would introduce a resolution in the House this week calling on the White House to shut down the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s official office in Washington. Following her remarks, she told The Jewish Week she was doing so because she believes the PLO is trying to establish a state “through the back door” rather than through peace talks with Israel. “It’s pushing the president a little more to use his authority.”
In other remarks that appeared to move the audience, Gregory W. Meeks, whose district in southeastern Queens is made up largely of middle-class black neighborhoods, said he and his 12-year-old daughter were recently watching a film about the “Freedom Riders” of the 1960s when she expressed surprise to see non-black faces on the bus. He explained to his daughter that white people, too, were active in the Freedom Rides and that many of those faces were Jewish.
“Here,” he said, is where ending bigotry “has to start” — with parents educating their children so they, in turn, can educate their friends and speak out at any hint of anti-Semitism.
In the same vein, Meeks said he and Hayworth are pushing a bill that would bestow the Congressional Gold Medal on Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Jewish lives during the Holocaust.
“Here’s where we forget about party labels,” or about downstate and upstate, Meeks said. “Here’s where we remember we’re all human beings.”