Behind the Headlines: Jews Favoring Moderate Incumbent over Black Liberal in New York Race

A majority of Jewish New Yorkers are likely to pass up a chance to nominate the city’s highest-ranking black official in the Sept. 12 mayoral primary.

Instead, polls show they prefer by a margin of 3-2 the man who has been the outspoken symbol of New York Jewish liberalism for 12 years and three consecutive terms, incumbent Edward Koch.

The Jewish vote is pivotal, since as many as one-third of New York’s registered Democrats are Jews.

In bypassing the current, narrow front-runner for the Democratic nomination, Manhattan Borough President David Dinkins, Koch’s Jewish supporters are challenging definitions of what it means to be a liberal.

Like Koch, they take traditional “liberal” stances in support of civil liberties and personal freedom. But they are increasingly moderate to conservative on law-and-order issues and equal-opportunity programs.

The Jewish vote in New York is by no means monolithic. Upper West Side liberals are expected to back Dinkins in the primaries, just as many Brooklyn Orthodox will support the likely Republican candidate, former U.S. Attorney Rudolph Giuliani, in the November general election.

And there remain pockets of support for the other major candidates, all Jews. City Comptroller Harrison (Jay) Goldin, a former regional president of the American Jewish Congress, calls himself “a liberal on social issues, a conservative on fiscal issues and Attila the Hun on drugs and crime.”

Businessman Richard Ravitch, the founding president of the city’s Jewish Community Relations Council, also touts fiscal responsibility and a crackdown on drugs. Goldin and Ravitch each poll less than 10 percent among Jews.

CONCERN ABOUT URBAN PROBLEMS

On the Republican side, Ronald Lauder, the former U.S. ambassador to Austria and a major philanthropist of Jewish causes, is running a distant second to Giuliani. The heir to the Estee Lauder cosmetics fortune has distinguished himself mainly by spending a whopping $10 million of his own money on the campaign.

But whomever they support, Jews and other New Yorkers are looking for answers to a daunting array of crises: rising homelessness and a lack of affordable housing, a deteriorating school system and a hospital system pushed to the brink of collapse.

Most of all, they seem to want someone who can contain the epidemic of drug abuse and the violence that accompanies it.

Jews may be consistent supporters of the positions of the American Civil Liberties Union, but a majority — as high as 70 percent in some polls — would support a return of the death penalty in New York state.

Many are also firmly against affirmative action and housing plans that they see threatening the stability of small businesses and middleclass neighborhoods.

Milton Himmelfarb, the neoconservative analyst who has long bemoaned the Jewish tendency toward liberalism, said Koch’s endorsement by the Police Benevolent Association may mean more to Jews than labor unions’ endorsement of Dinkins.

“Where the thing cuts close to the bone — crime in the streets, ‘Am I gonna be killed?’ — Jews have more confidence in Koch,” he said.

Another analyst said Jewish support for Koch could reflect an even sharper turn to the right.

Koch has “touted his alliances with conservative and neoconservative elements of the Jewish community, from Menachem Begin to Norman Podhoretz,” even while “lashing out at minorities, reformers and insurgents of all races,” Jim Sleeper, deputy opinion editor of New York Newsday, wrote in the progressive Jewish magazine Tikkun.

ONE THIRD OF DEMOCRATIC VOTE

Dinkins, meanwhile, knows he will need more Jewish support to guarantee a victory over Koch and then win the November election.

Jewish support has proved a decisive factor for black mayoral candidates in cities such as Chicago, Los Angeles and Philadelphia. And Jews have shown a willingness to vote for blacks or other non-Jews over Jewish candidates if the non-Jews seem closer to their values, seem more like “one of their own” on the issues.

That is perhaps why, in his appeals to Jews, Dinkins plays down his more progressive ideas and plays up his sensitivity to the Jewish community.

Knowing that Jews distrust his support for Jesse Jackson, Dinkins has come out strongly against the anti-Semitic statements of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan. He reminds Jewish audiences that his support for Israel goes back 14 years, when he founded the Basic Black Americans in Support of Israel Committee.

And he is proud to have received a blessing, if not the only blessing, of the Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Schneerson.

Dinkins, like all of the candidates, denies that he is pandering to the Jewish vote when he talks about Israel, Soviet Jewry or President Ronald Reagan’s trip to the German war cemetery at Bitburg.

But in their appeals, each of the candidates has run far afield of city issues to include foreign policy and even echoes of the Holocaust.

Seeing a chance to wound the popular Giuliani, they have hyped allegations that in 1986 the prosecutor’s investigators used a Nazi slogan to intimidate an Auschwitz survivor into cooperating in a corruption probe.

NO BLACK-JEWISH CLASH YET

Giuliani, who traveled to a yarmulke factory this summer to announce his endorsement by a coalition of mainly Orthodox Jewish groups, says he found out about the incident only three weeks ago. Both Koch and Dinkins have called for a complete investigation.

The New York Jewish Week called the candidates’ campaign tactics for Jewish votes “shameless,” adding that Jews are being seen as “a narrow-minded but powerful bloc that care nothing for education, or the homeless, or crime, subways or a failing economy.”

Jewish leaders have been heartened that the Koch-Dinkins rivalry has not been played out as a competition between blacks and Jews.

David Pollock, associate executive director of the JCRC, said polls show Jews are still more likely to vote for Dinkins than other white ethnics, such as Catholics.

The election results may determine whom Jews really consider to be “one of their own.”

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