With N.Y. Votes In Play, Jews’ Concerns Seen At Fore

With N.Y. Votes In Play, Jews’ Concerns Seen At Fore

Area residents hone questions on Israel, Iran deal and tenor of Trump’s campaign.

Following Tuesday’s five so-called Super-Duper primaries, New York’s April 19 primary with its 95 Republican delegates (the fourth largest) and 291 Democratic delegates (the second largest) looms as the next big hurdle — the first time in decades New Yorkers’ votes will matter.

There are only three other state primaries in the next five weeks; the last is April 5. Between then and April 19, when New York will be the only state voting, New Yorkers and the media will have a chance to zero in on issues yet to be fleshed out.

Among the issues candidates will be asked to detail will be those about foreign affairs — particularly Israel, which has received scant attention from the two Democratic candidates, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

New York businessman Donald Trump will undoubtedly be pressed to name his foreign policy team, as well as other advisers.

In addition, the New York Jewish community will want to know about Trump’s equivocal statements about former Ku Klux Klan Wizard David Duke and other white supremacists who support his candidacy; his perceived racist and bigoted comments about Mexicans, Muslims and others; and his failure to renounce a supporter who yelled “go to Auschwitz” at protestors outside his recent Cleveland rally.

In addition, Trump is sure to be asked about the comments of televangelist Mark Burns, who said in a speech at a Trump rally in North Carolina Monday: “Bernie Sanders, who doesn’t believe in God, how in the world we gonna let Bernie — I mean really? Listen, Bernie got to get saved, he got to meet Jesus, he got to have a ‘coming to Jesus’ meeting.” And Burns, who is African American, insisted that Trump is “no racist bigot.”

Rabbi Jack Moline, president of the Interfaith Alliance, issued a statement later in the day condemning Burns’ “anti-Semitic and hateful” rhetoric and called on Trump to reject it.

“It is profoundly un-American to use a campaign platform to denigrate and demean the faith of a candidate for president,” he said. “It is unbecoming of a member of the clergy to do so when these rallies have increasingly resulted in violence toward religious and racial minorities.”

Both Trump and Clinton are scheduled to speak at the annual policy conference of the American Israel Affairs Committee that begins Sunday in Washington. As of Tuesday, Sanders had not accepted AIPAC’s invitation to speak.

In the past, speakers at the conference delivered their remarks and left without taking questions from the audience. But the Union for Reform Judaism issued a statement Monday suggesting that may change when Trump speaks. It said he has run a campaign “replete with naked appeals to bigotry, especially against Hispanics and Muslims.

“Previous comments he has made — and not disavowed — have been offensive to women, people of color, and other groups,” it continued. “In recent days, increasingly, he appears to have gone out of his way to encourage violence at his campaign events. At every turn, Mr. Trump has chosen to take the low road, sowing seeds of hatred and division in our body politic.”

However, some Jews have voiced support for Trump. Fred Zeidman, a major Republican Jewish donor who has not settled on another candidate after initially backing Jeb Bush, said the violence at Trump’s rallies are not his fault, but rather the fault of protestors who are attending for the sole purpose of disrupting the proceedings “for their own political benefit.”

Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, director of the URJ’s Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, told The Jewish Week that the thousands of Reform Jews who will be in attendance “want to be supportive of the AIPAC agenda” and at the same time “be clear to Mr. Trump that this kind of atmosphere of bigotry, racism and Islamophobia are not acceptable.”

Asked how they planned to communicate that to Trump, Rabbi Pesner said, “I don’t know — we’ll see. … We’re trying to balance living out our values and making them clear in a respectful environment to advance the U.S.-Israel relationship.”

Does he expect to be arrested?

“We don’t know,” the rabbi answered.

As for Sanders, among the reasons Jewish leaders are interested in learning more about his position on Israel is that many are troubled by the little that is known:

n A local Vermont newspaper reported that while mayor of Burlington in 1988 Sanders said the U.S. should refrain from selling weapons to Israel.

n In 1991, he said the U.S. should cut off Israel’s $80 million in aid if it did not stop settlement activity, according to the Israeli newspaper Maariv.

n He said Israel should lift its blockade of the Gaza Strip, according to the Arab American News.

Last week, he discussed the prospects for a peace deal, maintaining that there are people of good will in both “Israel and the Arab communities” with whom he as president could negotiate a treaty.

“For decades now there has been hatred and warfare in the Middle East, everybody knows it,” he said. “I will make every single effort to bring rational people on both sides together so that hopefully we can have a level playing field — the United States treating everybody in that region equally.”

That position would be a dramatic departure for the U.S., which has unequivocally stood with Israel in the conflict.

Several of Sanders’ Jewish supporters told The Jewish Week they did not know about his position on Israel, and that Israel is not paramount in their thinking.

“The main issue for me is campaign finance reform,” said Ken Dolitsky, 23, of Wantagh, L.I. “Israel is an issue I care about, but the most important thing to me is America, and I feel he is the candidate who has policies that can make a change.”

Jon Cohen, 25, of Oceanside, said he traveled to New Hampshire to help Sanders win the primary.

“He is the voice of the people — the only honest politician out there,” he said. “I haven’t read much about his views on Israel.”

Asked if there was anything about Sanders’ views on Israel that could change his mind about supporting him, Cohen replied: “Probably not.”

Andy Mager, 55, a spokesman for Syracuse for Sanders, a locally funded campaign office, said he is Jewish and “would like to hear him [Sanders] address foreign policy positions more.”

He said he supports Sanders because he is “consistent in advocating for social justice and economic policies that benefit the poor.”

He also said that Sanders’ general likability makes him a stronger candidate.

“Bernie has spent a lot more time in Congress than Hillary and he does not bring a tremendous amount of baggage with him. Unfortunately, there are many in Congress and in the general public who have what I call an irrational hatred of Hillary Clinton, and that will be an impediment for her moving forward.”

But when it comes to Israel, Clinton is “less critical than Bernie and more supportive than Trump,” said Aaron David Miller, a Middle East analyst and vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

“She knows when to have productive and non-productive fights with Israelis,” he said. “She may share Obama’s views, but she has a different temperament. She has said that if elected she would invite Bibi [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu] in the first month to the White House.”

Peter Joseph, a New Yorker active in Democratic politics, said he never really considered supporting Sanders because of Clinton’s “experience and knowledge of the issues, her past work and [the strength of] those who are advising her.”

Seymour Reich, a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said Clinton could be expected to espouse positions “closer to Bill’s than Obama’s.” And he said he does not like Sanders’ “level playing field” position.

Reich added that he is upset by the “missteps” Clinton has made in recent days, such as when she misrepresented Nancy Reagan’s stance on AIDS and for failing to remember that Sanders literally stood right behind her during her proposed health care overhaul in the 1990s.

Trump, too, has said he would remain “neutral” on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in order to better negotiate a settlement once he is president, but he has said also that he is “totally pro-Israel.” He touts the fact he once served as grand marshal of the Israel Day Parade, that he has “many” Israeli friends, and has “won so many awards from Israel.”

Both Clinton and Sanders advocate a two-state solution to resolve the conflict. As the junior senator from New York, Clinton supported Israel’s separation barrier between Israel and some Palestinian areas, calling it a barrier against “terrorists.” After leaving the State Department, she criticized the Obama administration’s 2009 settlement freeze imposed on Israel, saying peace talks cannot have preconditions.

All of the Republican candidates said they oppose the Iranian nuclear agreement. Both Clinton and Sanders support it, a fact that disqualifies them from being president, according to Helen Freedman, executive director of Americans for a Safe Israel.

Although she and all of the representatives of groups interviewed for this article said they do not endorse candidates, Freedman said, “Anyone who supports the Iranian deal has proven himself [or herself] to be an enemy of Israel because Iran says the rockets it is now testing will cause Israel’s destruction.”

Ori Nir, a spokesperson for Americans for Peace Now, said the Iranian nuclear agreement is now “irrelevant” because it has been codified as an international agreement.

Asked about presidential candidates who say they will be “neutral” on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, Nir said: “An American president cannot be neutral because of the historic alliance between the U.S. and Israel. That does not mean he can’t be fair if he takes the role of a broker. … We strongly believe there is a way to do that and to support a two-state solution.”

But it is unlikely the issue of Israel will be key for most Jewish voters, according to Daniel Kalik, J Street’s chief of staff. He cited an American Jewish Committee poll from last August that found only 7 to 9 percent of American Jews listed U.S.-Israel relations as their prime concern in choosing a presidential candidate.

He noted also that Jews have a long history of voting for Democrats “because the party’s views are more aligned with the values of American Jews.”


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