In an appeal to Russian-speaking voters on Tuesday, two candidates in the House race to succeed Rep. Edolphus Towns offered stark contrasts in their views on Israel and the Middle East.
But the two, in consecutive appearances before representatives of Jewish Russian-speaking media and community activists, were confronted mostly with questions about other issues, suggesting the long history of harsh Israel criticism by Councilman Charles Barron may not hurt his chances of garnering that community’s vote.
Russian-speaking Jewish immigrants could make up between 20 percent and 25 percent of the turnout in the newly configured 10th Congressional District, which includes Coney Island as well as Sea Gate, Brighton Beach, Manhattan Beach and Sheepshead Bay which have “major pockets of Russian speakers,” said David Pollock, associate director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, which hosted the morning forum with the two men vying for the Democratic nomination.
Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries appeared prior to Barron, and the two exchanged pleasantries when they briefly overlapped, despite the acerbic tone of their public comments about each other. Jeffries has depicted Barron as a divisive figure, while Barron has painted Jeffries, who was elected in 2006, as a political novice.
It was the first time Barron appeared at a forum organized by the JCRC.
Focus groups convened by the JCRC indicated that the key issues for Russian immigrant voters are housing, services for the elderly and support for Israel.
Barron — who came within 4,000 votes of unseating Towns in 2010 and has his endorsement this year — stressed the first two issues, but left his positions somewhat vague on the third.
“The Middle East is very complex; I don’t agree with anyone about the Middle East,” he said. “There is no more complex situation in the world. No one has the answer. We all know there has to be the establishment of a Palestinian state.”
When asked specifically about the security of Israel, Barron later said, “I believe the best way to keep Israel safe is to have a humane foreign policy coming from the U.S. The issue is how you deal with the effects of the 1967 war.” He said Israel must not “annex” territory it conquered during that war.
Jeffries, 41, referred to Israel several times, both in his opening remarks and in response to questions, saying the country is “the strongest and most responsible ally in the region and very important to the Middle East.” He added, “You can’t have a real negotiation unless people in Palestinian Authority are willing to recognize the right of people to exist in a Jewish state. That’s not just international diplomacy but common sense and the position I believe is the right one for the U.S. to take.”
He cited his own visit to Israel in 2008 with JCRC when missiles were falling from Gaza and his experience with air-raid warnings there. “I have experienced the kind of terror-filed environment Israelis face day after day.”
But Barron implied that both Israel and the Palestinians were guilty of terrorism, noting that in the past he has introduced resolutions in the City Council “denouncing any form of terror, whether it’s an organization or state terror.”
According to background information collected by the Anti-Defamation League, Barron on June 1, 2010, at a rally outside the Israeli Consulate here, said, “Well, you want to stop terrorism? The biggest terrorist in the world is the government of Israel.”
He also told the Amsterdam News in July 2009 that “Gaza is a virtual death camp, the same kind of conditions the Nazis imposed on the Jews.”
In his remarks Tuesday, Barron, seemed to acknowledge his reputation for controversy when he said, “I’m known for my rhetoric and comments, but what people don’t see is effectiveness and leadership and the ability to get things done and show up when people are in need. My opponent has been around for five years, I’ve been around for 40.”
When asked by The Jewish Week if he had reconsidered any of the comments and rhetoric he alluded to, or would express them differently with the benefit of hindsight, Barron replied: “I’m not a wishy-washy kind of guy. I’m not going to sit here and say I regret anything. When I said things there was a context. If you have a problem with something I said, bring it and we’ll discuss it.”
After the question-and-answer session, The Jewish Week asked Barron whether he considered Iran’s nuclear program a threat to Israel and the United States. “You can’t ask other people not to have nuclear weapons when you have it yourself,” he said.
Barron, 61, in his remarks stressed his 40 years of experience fighting for the underprivileged, including the last decade in the Council. He stressed his role in training young leaders through his own consulting firm, saying, “Anyone can be elected, selected, anointed or self-appointed … but how did you help people assess, gain, attain and maintain power?”
He also said he was “the No. 1 councilmember in terms of partnering with developers in building affordable housing in my district,” stressing his funding of grants to the Jewish Association of Services to the Aged.
Jeffries pledged to have Russian-speaking staff “at the highest professional level” and in response to a question said he was independent from the Brooklyn Democratic party establishment, which has been rocked by several recent corruption scandals.
“When I first ran, I ran against the political machine,” said Jeffries. “I haven’t been a product of the establishment.” As proof he cited an unsuccessful attempt by party insiders to draw his home out of the district he now wants to represent.
“Congress is a serious office, and the choice is clear about who I am and what I represent and who my opponent is and what he represents,” he said.
When asked by The Jewish Week if he dissented in any way from the Obama administration’s policy regarding Israel, Jeffries said “the situation is so volatile, so delicate, so complicated that you can’t [make progress] by superimposing the 1967 borders as a starting point.”
Both candidates are black, and African Americans account for 58 percent of the district. Since the district is overwhelmingly Democratic, the primary will likely decide the election. Non-Hispanic whites, including Jews, make up 22 percent of the vote, which could make Russians an important swing vote in the election.
Russian-speaking voters overwhelmingly participated in the hotly contested Brooklyn race for State Senate that resulted last week in the victory of Republican David Storobin after a long recount in the tight match.
About 271,000 of the 360,000 registered voters in the 10th Congressional District are Democrats, Pollock said.
Another point of disagreement between Barron and Jeffries is taxpayer assistance to families who pay for private school tuition. Jeffries said he did not regard tax credits for people paying for religious school as different from allowing deductions for charitable donations, and that people who keep their children out of public schools help relieve the system of overcrowding.
Barron said that in all cases he did not favor any program that takes money away from public schools.