Council’s Jewish Caucus Eyes Role

Council’s Jewish Caucus Eyes Role

It has no set agenda, an unclear number of participants and a history of inactivity, but the City Council’s Jewish caucus has no shortage of leadership.

When Brooklyn’s Michael Nelson called for a meeting of the Jewish Study Group following Wednesday’s meeting of the full Council, sources say David Weprin of Queens sprung into action, asking to co-chair the group.

As the senior Jewish Council member, some saw Nelson as a natural chairman.

But Weprin, who chairs the Finance Committee and reportedly has an eye on the speaker’s chair in 2004, has made an effort to be closely involved in Jewish affairs.

The Jewish Study Group was founded by former Councilman Herbert Berman in the early 1990s at a time when the Council was fighting to protect Jewish social service groups that were fighting to keep contracts threatened by then-Mayor David Dinkins.

The group met sporadically; it was often better attended by gentiles who wanted to learn about Jewish concerns than by Jewish legislators.

Nelson said Tuesday that he did not know how many of the nine current Jewish Council members would join the caucus, but hoped to raise such issues as anti-Semitism, public safety and whether to take a stand on Mideast affairs.

“I’m hoping we will come together as a unified voice,” he said, adding that non-Jewish members, including Helen Sears of Queens and Gayle Brewer of the Upper West Side, had expressed an interest.

Councilwoman Melinda Katz of Queens said she is looking forward to participating in the group, which she called “important.”

Weprin said he viewed the group as more of a forum than a caucus.

“We want to keep our Jewish identification, but it’s not something every political and ethnic group should do, form its own caucus,” he said. “I see us inviting everybody to all our events and inviting different speakers on Israel.”

One of the first matters before the Jewish Study Group could be whether to support a controversial measure proposed by G. Oliver Koppel of the Bronx calling for the closure of Palestinian diplomatic offices here.

Weprin, a cosponsor, said it was “legitimate” for the Council to take up foreign affairs subjects on which it has no impact.
“We are players in the city,” said Weprin. “It is legitimate for us to take positions on all matters and bring them to the attention of the public.”

Weprin sits on the intergroup relations committee that must approve the anti-Palestinian motion before the full Council can vote on it. He said the committee recently heard informal testimony from Riverdale activist Rabbi Avi Weiss in support of the resolution. But this week the Anti-Defamation League released a statement that was less than supportive.

“We welcome the sentiments of and understand the reasons behind the Koppel City Council initiative,” said Joel Levy, the ADL’s New York director. “[But] while the United States government and the State of Israel are examining their relations with the PA, both continue to maintain that relationship.”

* * *

Some supporters of Comptroller H. Carl McCall reportedly were not pleased to learn that he would be touring West Bank settlements with Assemblyman Dov Hikind during his trip to Israel this week. Sources say he was urged by moderate voices to reconsider.

McCall spokesman Steve Greenberg would say only that “people have expressed their opinion about various portions of the trip” and that the itinerary was “still a work in progress.”

The trip originally was announced as a three-day solidarity mission coordinated by State of Israel Bonds. McCall has invested $68 million of state pension funds in the securities.

Hikind, who is supporting McCall in the Democratic primary and Republican Gov. George Pataki in the general election, said the comptroller asked him to come along on the Israel jaunt.

“I said I would if he would do something meaningful,” which to Hikind meant visiting the settlements. “These are areas where there are a lot of Americans who are victims of terror.”

Greenberg said that while Hikind provides advice to the comptroller, the “vast majority of the trip has come from the people at Israel Bonds.”

* * *

Some 100 Jewish communal leaders gathered Sunday at the Avenue Plaza Hotel in Borough Park, Brooklyn, to discuss the issues with Sen. Charles Schumer.

Topics included federal budget cuts, domestic matters and, of course, the situation in Israel.

But was it a coincidence that Schumer, who is said to fear the shadow of his celebrity junior senator, scheduled the event while Hillary Rodham Clinton was touring Jerusalem?

Schumer press aide Jenni Engebretsen said the meeting was “something our New York City office was working to coordinate for some time.”

One participant said he got the notice of the meeting two weeks ago, around the same time Clinton announced her Israel trip.

William Rapfogel of the Met Council on Jewish Poverty, who was among the dozens of communal leaders, said he thought the timing “appears purely coincidental.”

Schumer’s visit to Israel last fall received only scant media coverage.

Clinton’s, however, was somewhat more noticed, given her history of controversy on Israel.

Line Items:
* We may not know where he is the rest of that weekend, but Mayor Mike Bloomberg is the scheduled guest of honor at the annual breakfast of the Council of Jewish Organizations of Flatbush Sunday, March 10.

* Greg Menken, 29, has been named assistant to the governor on Jewish affairs. Menken’s last job was deputy campaign manager of former Councilman Berman’s bid for city comptroller. Berman was to be formally named a special assistant to the governor on Thursday.

* Is Governor Pataki supporting Staten Island’s secession from New York City?
In a Feb. 8 advisory of the governor’s schedule, his press office noted that Pataki would be visiting New York City and Richmond County, a k a Staten Island [emphasis added].

The release did not refer to New York County, Kings County or Queens County in references to Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens.

The hot-button issue of secession was a key to Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s victory in 1993, when thousands of mostly conservative Staten Islanders turned out to vote for a secession referendum during the tight race against Dinkins. A similar referendum might boost conservative turnout this year.

The governor’s press office had no immediate comment about the reference.

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