Israel managed to stay virtually out of the picture at the last City Council meeting, when members approved a resolution opposing the U.S. war against Iraq.
The final vote was 31-17, after members passionately argued for and against the heavily modified bill.
But although that the anti-war movement has been inundated with anti-Zionism, and members of the Council have not hesitated to criticize the Jewish state, there was only one veiled reference to Israel during the hour-long debate.
"This war is about hegemony in the Middle East, it’s about oil, and itís about protecting a single ally," said Councilman Charles Barron of Brooklyn, about midway through the debate.
There was no reaction to Barron’s statement until shortly after the vote, when Alan Jay Gerson of Manhattan rose to denounce the comment, which he called "scapegoating at a time of crisis." The two later engaged in a lengthy but polite exchange on the subject in the hallway outside the Council chamber.
Sources said that Speaker Gifford Miller and other Council leaders lobbied members before the vote to avoid attacking each other or making comments that would detract from the issue at a hearing that was carried live on CNN and covered by media from around the world.
For the most part, the discourse was civil, although some members could be seen snickering at each other’s comments.
Support for the measure was strongest among representatives of heavily minority neighborhoods, who noted that blacks and Latinos make up the bulk of the all-volunteer army, and that the massive fiscal cost of war should be applied domestically.
"If you are looking for a fight, fight poverty, fight racism, fight sexism," said Yvette Clarke of Crown Heights, who urged President George W. Bush to "get your house in order before you burn down someone else’s."
Jewish members of the Council were divided over the measure. Supporters included Oliver Koppel of the Bronx, Gerson and, David Yassky of Brooklyn. Opposing the measure were Lewis Fidler, Michael Nelson and Simcha Felder of Brooklyn and Melinda Katz and David Weprin of Queens. Eva Moskowitz of Manhattan was absent from the meeting, but was a sponsor of the resolution.
In his comments, Felder, of Borough Park, said the Council should avoid resolutions "that have no real impact." He added that he was "incensed about the vile, despicable anti-Semitic sentiment that has crept into the anti-war movement." Before sitting down, he declared "I’m a proud Jew, and if you don’t like it, too bad."
Koppel, who is from Riverdale, said he supported the measure only because it had been modified from its original message. "This is not a resolution that says no war ever at any price." Instead, the measure said war should be a last resort if "it is demonstrated that Iraq poses a real and imminent threat to the security and safety of the United States or its allies" or all other options for disarming Saddam Hussein have failed.
Members of the Council used the terror attacks of September 11 to argue both for and against the need to attack Iraq. "I don’t want to be back here in a few months naming more streets after dead New Yorkers," said Fidler, who represents Canarsie and Marine Park.
Weprin, who is from Northern Queens, said opposing the war because it might increase terrorism at home, an argument made by some supporters, would send the wrong message. "That’s exactly what the terrorists want,"said Weprin. "Fear can’t decide what action we take."
Yassky, who represents Williamsburg and surrounding areas, said "Iraq has never posed a threat to the United States" and said "democracy will only flourish if there is a concerted effort by the community of nations to push the world in that direction." He insisted "there is no compelling purpose at this time" for the war.
Nelson, who represents Midwood and Sheepshead Bay, said that if Hussein were watching the debate on CNN he’d be enjoying the spectacle, while calling on his colleagues to choose between "Churchill or Chamberlain."
Gerson said his opposition to the war stemmed from his experience during first Gulf war as a lawyer in the military Judge Advocate General’s Corps. Gerson said he helped dozens of soldiers prepare battlefield wills. "I saw the effects of war on 18 and 19 year-olds," he said.
A key component of the resolution was a paragraph that recognizes the "service and valor of our military personnel" and hopes for their safe return. In the view of Councilman James McMahon of Staten Island, who voted no, that clause should have been the only part of the resolution to reach the floor.
The Council is hardly finished with resolutions. Gerson and Councilman James Gennarro of Central Queens are each working on versions of a measure that would condemn Democratic Virginia Rep. Jim Moran for inflammatory comments about Jewish support for the war.
Moran, who has since apologized, told a church group that the Jewish community could stop the war if it chose to do so.
Gerson’s version of the bill says that Moran’s remarks "came too uncomfortably close to historic anti-Semitism" for the Council to remain silent and calls on "all individuals and organizations" to refrain from interjecting religion or "the issue of support for Israel" in discussion on foreign policy and Iraq.
Despite his earlier statement on U.S. support for Israel, Councilman Barron told The Jewish Week after the meeting that he disagreed with Moran. "I don’t think the Jewish community could stop the war," said Barron. "It’s not just to protect Israel. That’s only one reason. It’s mainly about hegemony in the Middle East and oil."
Barron previously opposed several pro-Israel resolutions, sponsoring what he called an "evenhanded measure" that also supported Palestinian statehood. That measure was defeated.
He said he did not understand why his comments last week would offend anyone.
"What’s wrong with saying the U.S. wants to protect Israel? The president has said that. But when some of us mention the word Israel we are called an anti-Semite."
The international boycott of Israel is back, and gaining momentum, says Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-Manhattan). Noting that last October, 18 members of the Arab League agreed to strengthen the reactivated boycott, and 114 member nations of the Non-Aligned Movement agreed to take concrete measures against Israeli products, Maloney has organized a bipartisan congressional letter calling on President Bush to take a stronger stand against the boycott.
"We are expressing our strong hope that the Administration will continue to send the message that the United States has very strong laws against those who participate in the boycott," said Maloney in a statement.
Drafted with Rep. Mike Pence (R-Indiana), the letter asks Bush to reiterate that "there are serious consequences" under U.S. law for boycott compliance. Thirty-one House members have signed on.
Assemblyman Dov Hikind is opening his Borough Park office for those who don’t have e-mail access but want to send a message of support for the war to the White House or U.S. troops. "We need to show our troops who are defending democracy and fighting terrorism that we are with them all the way," said Hikind, who will provide the e-mail access during selected hours from Monday to Thursday.