Washington — First Lady Hillary Clinton touched all the Jewish and pro-Israel bases and avoided treacherous curve balls in a Tuesday appearance before more than 2,100 delegates at Hadassah’s 85th national convention here.
In a speech laced with nods to the Jewish community’s core issues — including Jerusalem, terrorism and anti-Semitism at home and abroad — the all-but-announced candidate for the U.S. Senate from New York appealed to what political scientists say is her Jewish political base: Upper West Side liberals, Westchester soccer moms and pro-Israel moderates. Seeking to bolster her pro-Israel credentials, which have come under sharp attack from the Jewish right, she said that any peace in the Middle East “must come with a guarantee of Israel’s security.”
“If there is peace, it must come with the parties’ commitment to fight terrorism wherever and whenever it strikes,” she said. “The people of Israel have lived far too long with bombs. They have lived with the awful fear their children will not come home from school alive.”
An hour earlier, Clinton rallied the partisan troops at a fund-raiser for the National Jewish Democratic Council with a spirited defense of the administration’s policies and a stump-style attack on Republican-sponsored tax cut proposals that she said jeopardize the record economic boom under President Bill Clinton’s watch. Hadassah gave the first lady its highest humanitarian award despite protests from some members upset about the decision to honor a candidate for political office and agitation by right-wing Jewish activists who claimed Clinton is anti-Israel.
But Hadassah leaders insisted the decision to present the Henrietta Szold Humanitarian Award was made before Clinton began her exploratory campaign in New York, and that she was being honored for her work on behalf of women and children, top issues on Hadassah’s agenda.
In introducing Clinton, outgoing Hadassah president Marlene Post described her as a “woman of valor” and said “we could have no better friend in the White House.” Clinton showed her gratitude by rearranging her schedule to spend more time speaking to the group, which has 300,000 members, and mingling with its top leaders.
Despite warnings of possible protests, Clinton received an enthusiastic welcome. She was interrupted by applause numerous times in her 40-minute speech, especially when she talked about women’s issues and the other domestic concerns that are expected to be the dominant issues in her campaign.
But she also touched on most items in the pro-Israel political credo, including Jerusalem. She referred to the fact that Szold, the Hadassah founder, died in a hospital on Mount Scopus that was later lost to Israel and regained only after the Six-Day War and the reunification of Jerusalem.
“That must never change,” she said. “We all look forward to the day when, as Prime Minister Barak said on his recent visit, Jerusalem will be home to the embassy of the United States and all other nations.”
That came several weeks after her letter to the Orthodox Union stating her belief that Jerusalem is Israel’s “eternal and indivisible capital” and her hope that the embassy will be moved.
She spoke glowingly of Barak, who visited the Camp David presidential retreat with the first family last week, and echoed his plea to the president for a diminished U.S. role in the Mideast negotiations, saying that Washington “must do everything in our power to facilitate, not dictate the peace process.”
Clinton also warned that all parties “must honor the Oslo process and oppose any unilateral actions that circumvent the negotiating table,” although she offered no details.
She urged Congress to “make good on the promises the president made at Wye River, and continue our nation’s commitment to the foreign aid that is necessary for Israel’s security.” She pressed for support for the overall foreign aid program — and for paying this country’s arrears to the United Nations.
Clinton spoke about her first trip to Israel in the early 1980s with her husband and the pastor who told Bill Clinton “that he must never let Israel down, that God would never forgive that.”
“Like Bill, I have always remembered those words and tried to live up to them,” she said. “So as Israel continues to take risks for peace, I believe the United States must stand beside her as any good friend does.”
Clinton then touched on a long list of other issues of special concern to American Jews, including rising anti-Semitism in Russia.
“I am deeply concerned about the recent surge in anti-Semitic acts and statements in Russia, and especially the bomb attack against the synagogue this weekend in Moscow, which the United States has strongly condemned,” she said. “It is important the Russian government bring to justice those responsible for this cowardly act.”
And she attacked recent eruptions of hate violence in this country.
“Every American, not just American Jews, should be outraged by the fires set to the synagogues in Sacramento,” Clinton said. “We have seen too many acts of hatred and violence recently in California, Wyoming, Texas, Illinois and Alabama. Now we must see to it that the Hate Crimes Prevention Act becomes law.”
She offered a rousing defense of public education and said that “mandatory prayer has no place in our schools.”
The Hadassah audience responded positively to her pro-Israel statements, but it was her focus on domestic issues — including education, gun control, a patient’s bill of rights, abortion rights, breast cancer research and bars against the misuse of genetic testing, a top Hadassah issue — that provoked the strongest and most sustained applause.
Kean University political scientist Gilbert Kahn said Clinton is doing all the right things to cement support from Jewish voters.
“Since her [Palestinian statehood] faux pas, she’s covered herself very effectively on Israel by making only the right statements, saying only the right things,” he said. “The important thing at this stage is to avoid making mistakes, which she is doing. She’s being very careful, but not overly cautious. In politics, there’s a difference.”
The Hadassah speech was an ideal forum for striking Jewish themes, Kahn said.
“Her political base in the community are Jewish liberals and Jewish soccer moms. The right-wing campaign against her doesn’t make a dent in that base,” he said.
But Kahn warned that “she’s in a 26-mile marathon, not a sprint. She’s just cranking up. There’s a lot of ground left to cover.”
That seemed to sum up the views of a longtime Hadassah member from New York City who asked that her name not be used.
“It was very well done. She obviously has a lot of people who are able to educate her about the interests of a group like Hadassah,” the member said.
Does that mean she would vote for Clinton against Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, the front-runner for the Republican nomination?
“It depends on what she does. The speech was nice and very comprehensive, but there’s a lot of time left,” the member said. “I want to hear more details from her and from the mayor.”