Council’s Jews To Reinvigorate Caucus

Council’s Jews To Reinvigorate Caucus

The City Council’s Jewish Study Group, founded in response to a rash of Jewish concerns in the early ‘90’s, will take on a higher profile in coming months, says its founding chairman, Councilman Herbert Berman (D-Brooklyn).

“We are planning a whole series of meetings to reinvigorate” the group, which has been virtually inactive since shortly after its inception, said Berman. “It’s important that members be educated as to the problems facing the Jewish people in city, state, federal [issues] and Europe and Israel.”

Although the name may conjure up images of Talmudic and biblical exegesis, the study group is actually a political caucus similar to the one established by black and Latino members. “A few people felt that if we call it a caucus it would be seen as a cabal, the Jews secretly meeting,” said Berman, who represents Canarsie and surrounding areas, and chairs the Council’s powerful Finance Committee.

The study group, he recalled in an interview last week, was founded during a time of tension between Jewish agencies and members and city officials during the administration of former Mayor David Dinkins. “There was an out-and-out attack on Jewish institutional life,” said Berman. ”Many voices were attempting to divert funding allocated toward Jewish social institutions.” After the 1991 Crown Heights riots, Berman said, “it became apparent that there was an attempt to try and totally obliterate Jewish impact on government.”

The alleged attempts were made by members of Dinkins’ administration, but were not sanctioned by the mayor, Berman said.

While the atmosphere of the era is a far cry from the cozy relationship Jewish groups enjoy with the current administration of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Berman said it was necessary to revitalize the study group for the sake of vigilance.

“I have no reason to believe that the specter of anti-Semitism will again rise,” said Berman. “But the most effective way of keeping it that way is having an ever-vigilant group [to] monitor that.”

There are currently 10 Jewish members of the City Council, all of them well-entrenched Democrats, and each to be forced out of office in 2001 by term limits. Berman has been mentioned as a likely candidate for city comptroller.

Revitalizing the Jewish study group could be a way for the councilmembers to raise their profiles in anticipation of races for higher office. At least one former member of the study group, speaking anonymously, speculates that this is Berman’s intention.

Berman said that the Jewish study group’s events, which included speakers from Israel, were a way to foster understanding between Jewish representatives and other communities, noting that Washington Heights Councilman Guillermo Linares, a Dominican native, was a regular attendee.

# Even as Westchester Rep. Nita Lowey basks in the spotlight as the undeclared Democratic frontrunner in the 2000 race to succeed Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, another Jewish representative is quietly jockeying for position.

But Democratic insiders say Rep. Jerrold Nadler of Manhattan has been getting a cool reception. “He is limited by his own politics and those of his congressional district,” said one operative. Although the progressive Nadler’s district includes the ultra-conservative Borough Park in Brooklyn, he is closely identified with the liberal Upper West Side. Moderates fare better in statewide races, noted the Democratic insider.

Nadler did not return several calls to his Capitol Hill office Tuesday.

A former state Democratic chair, John Marino, said Nadler would have to raise “a significant amount of money” to enter the race, but if he did so, he would be a viable candidate.

Marino said, however, that the strongest candidate mentioned so far was First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has declined to quash rampant speculation that she’ll enter the race, unlikely as it seems.

Brooklyn Councilman Noach Dear, who has forged strong ties with the Clintons, told The Jewish Week that the first lady laughed at the suggestion of a race when he mentioned it to her in December. “I think this is being done to give her moral support” during the impeachment trial of her husband, said the Borough Park councilman. “I can’t believe her mind is on it. I walked away convinced that she felt it was nice [that] people were talking that way. She is going through a very difficult time.”

Dear agreed with speculation that Clinton’s support for a Palestinian state would factor into the race. “It’s an issue that has been raised and she would have to deal with it,” he said. The Democratic councilman said he would likely support Republican Giuliani in the Senate race. “He’s been good to me and my community,” said Dear.

# The American Jewish Congress reacted viscerally this week to the mayor’s recent tuition voucher proposal for parents who send their children to private schools. The program would be modeled after one in Milwaukee, Wis., which has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Hinting at Giuliani’s plans for higher office, AJCongress President Phil Baum denounced the program as “a blatant appeal to those elements of the Republican Party which have adopted the program of the religious right as their own.” Baum, whose organization has long supported strengthening public education and opposed tax dollars for religious schools, said the program would drain students and funds from the school system Giuliani is responsible for improving, “in fact, if not form.”

But as Giuliani’s expected bid for the Senate gains momentum, he is likely to find in tuition aid a core issue for large blocs of Jewish voters. Some 34 percent of Jewish children in the New York area attended day schools in 1991, the last time UJA-Federation conducted a demographics survey, and the number has likely climbed during the past decade.

“The mayor’s adding his considerable weight to the ranks of voucher proponents is very welcome news, particularly because of the number of Jewish children in New York whose families are struggling,” said Richard Stone, chairman of the Orthodox Union’s Institute for Public Affairs and a Giuliani appointee to the City University of New York’s Board of Trustees.Stone decried as “outmoded” the view that voucher programs in any form are unconstitutional. “Voucher support has become a mainstream position,” he said.

The mayor’s special adviser on the voucher issues, Anthony Coles, did not respond to a request for comment on the AJCongress statement.

# Once again, Assembly Democrats called for the enactment of an anti-bias crime bill this week, legislation they have now passed for 10 straight years. This year, however, there is the expectation that the Republican-led state Senate, which has never voted on such a bill, is softening its resistance.

A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno (R-Renssalaer) said he was “open to discussing the legislation” and that negotiations to allow a vote on the bill were likely to take place. Gov. George Pataki called for passage of the bill in his State of the State address earlier this month.

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