A resolution calling for restraint on Iraq has once again pointed up sharp divisions in the views of City Council members where the Middle East is concerned.
It was unclear Tuesday whether the Council would vote on the resolution at its scheduled meeting the following day, as members were said to be divided on the issue. Council leaders generally avoid votes when the outcome is unclear.
But as if the matter of sending U.S. troops to topple Saddam Hussein’s regime wasn’t controversial enough, a freshman councilman from Harlem caused a furor last week when he told a radio interviewer that support for the resolution was weak in New York because "it will not be in the best interests of the state of Israel."
Robert Jacksoní’ colleagues, including several Jews, were quick to declare that he is not anti-Semitic, while rejecting his choice of words.
"He’s a real mensch," said Simcha Felder of Borough Park, Brooklyn.
But the comments seem evident of a sense among some new Council members brought into office by term limits last year that Israel supporters have a disproportionate influence on city politics.
Last fall, when Councilman Charles Barron of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn tried unsuccessfully to pass a resolution calling for recognition of a Palestinian state and an end to the killing of both Arabs and Jews, he declared at a hearing that "there’s a lot of pressure in New York when you want to say you want to see a Palestinian not killed." During the same debate, Councilwoman Margarita Lopez of Manhattan’s Lower East Side cited "economic interests" that influenced her colleagues" voting on the resolution. She later declined to elaborate.
Such pronouncements were rare in the past, when veteran Council members generally rubberstamped each other’s resolutions, in the interest of amity, then moved on to more substantive matters on which they banked on each otherís support. The resolutions rarely made news.
But with 38 of 51 members, including the speaker, replaced due to term limits last year, contentious debate and grandstanding is increasingly common, and Israel is anything but a sacred cow.
"We have individuals representing communities who may not have the relationships with the Jewish community that their predecessors did," said the executive vice president of the Jewish Community Relations Council, Michael Miller. "They view us through stereotypical lenses. The organized Jewish community needs to work aggressively to educate these members as to [its] true nature. When matters such as this resolution are brought up it accentuates the role we should be playing."
Miller recently escorted a dozen City Council members, mostly black or Hispanic, to Israel.
Miller said he had spoken to Jackson Sunday and was assured that the Councilman regretted his choice of words. Rabbi Marc Schneier of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding also said he had spoken to Jackson and declared that it would be "irresponsible" to label him anti-Semitic for expressing the view of his community.
The chairman of the Councilís Jewish Caucus, Michael Nelson of Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, said he was more concerned with Jackson’s statement in the same radio interview that "New York City is home away from home for most Jews." He said the comment implied Israel was a first home.
"It’s extremely troubling," said Nelson. "I am Jewish and I live in New York City and love New York City. It is my home."
Nelson also said it was wrong to assume that all Jews supported the war on Iraq. "I’ve gotten six calls [supporting this] resolution, and five of them were from people with distinct Jewish names."
Jackson’s chief of staff, Susan Russell, said in a phone interview that the Councilman, whose district also includes heavily Jewish Washington Heights, felt his words "left too much room for negative inferences."
She added: "What he was trying to say is that elected representatives must listen to their constituents, and many people are concerned about the impact of [a war] on the state of Israel. Certain council members are responding to that, and rightfully so."
Council sources said the Iraq resolution had been overhauled several times to become more palatable to the mainstream, for example removing criticism of the Bush administration. The latest version of the bill as of Tuesday called for the United States to refrain from a strike against Iraq unless there is an "imminent danger" to national security, or a vote by the United Nations Security Council in favor of such an action.
George Spitz knows what it’s like to be a long shot candidate. Maybe that’s why he’s become an activist on behalf of Dennis Kucinich.
The Ohio congressman and former mayor of Cleveland is seeking the Democratic nomination for president. He’s so unknown, he’s trailing Al Sharpton in the polls.
But Spitz, who gave himself an outside chance of winning the 2001 Democratic primary for mayor but won only 8,500 votes, insists Kucinich can pull it off.
"He has a much better chance than I had to win," says Spitz, who has also run for Manhattan borough president, state Assembly and City Council. Spitz has lost seven elections, Kucinich nine.
But Spitz says it’s more than just kinship between two uphill crusaders. "I identify with him in a way, but I also like his policies. He’s the most progressive candidate in the race, the only one who opposes all wars and is for free tuition, and against privatization," says Spitz.
Kucinich, he adds, is also a fellow vegan.
Like Jimmy Carter in 1976, Spitz believes Kucinich, with strong support from labor unions, can pull a surprise victory at the 2004 Democratic convention. "There will be nine candidates," says Spitz. "This could be the first time in years the convention makes the choice."