NEW YORK, Dec. 14 (JTA) — In a conversation that ranged from blood libels to school vouchers, Hillary Clinton this week addressed the issues at the forefront of the Orthodox Jewish community’s agenda.
Tuesday’s meeting with 100 representatives of the Orthodox Union continued an exchange begun in letters this summer between the first lady and the Orthodox congregational movement’s president over the subject of Jerusalem.
“I think we had a constructive dialogue,” Dr. Mandell Ganchrow said following a news conference after the meeting.
“She was well prepared” and had “complete command of the issues,” he said of Clinton, who this month announced her intention to run for the U.S. Senate from New York.
O.U. officials said the meeting showed that Clinton has not written off the Jewish community, despite what could be seen as an uphill battle, given some of her past dealings with the Palestinians and perceived support among many New York Jews for Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, her expected opponent in the Senate race.
Clinton most recently rankled Jewish sensibilities when, during a visit to the Middle East in November, she sat silently as Suha Arafat, wife of the Palestinian Authority president, accused Israel of poisoning Palestinian women and children.
Last year, the first lady had angered many Jews when she appeared to endorse a Palestinian state, a position she has since backed away from, saying the issue should be left for Israel and the Palestinians to decide.
This was the first face-to-face meeting between Clinton and the O.U., a regular practice for political candidates in New York.
“We don’t really know her,” Ganchrow said, “We don’t know where her passion lies” in terms of Jewish issues.
During the meeting, Clinton got a sense of the emotions running beneath the surface of certain issues, such as the status of Jerusalem and the release of Jonathan Pollard, who is serving a life sentence for spying for Israel, O.U. officials said.
But she also learned that there are other issues of concern to Orthodox Jews, including freedom of religion, physician-assisted suicide and education, said Nathan Diament, director of the O.U.’s Institute for Public Affairs.
“This is part of her learning about New York and about Orthodox Jews in particular,” he said.
The meeting was closed to the press, reportedly by mutual agreement between the O.U. and Clinton.
Among her positions stated, according to Ganchrow and Diament:
• Clinton came out in support of a bill banning physician-assisted suicide, which is co-sponsored by Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), an Orthodox Jew who attended the meeting.
• She said she was open to constitutionally approved programs that support parochial school families, but contrary to the O.U.’s position, she said she does not support school vouchers;
• She endorsed the Workplace Religious Freedom Act, a particular lobbying effort of the O.U.’s institute;
• Clinton declined to say if she would press for Pollard’s release.
She said that as a U.S. senator she would have access to classified material that would better inform her decision on the matter
• She would halt U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority if it did work to end anti-Israel incitement, an issue she said she raised with the Palestinian leadership;
• She also voiced support sanctions against Iran. Speaking directly to Stephen Flatow, whose daughter was killed in a 1995 terrorist attack in the Gaza Strip, Clinton reportedly went against her husband’s stance by supporting Flatow’s right to collect money against terrorist countries through their assets frozen in the United States. Flatow has sued to get that money from Iran;
At the meeting today, Clinton reportedly reiterated her position that Jerusalem is “the eternal and indivisible capital of Israel,” but said that, in the interest of the peace process, the timing was not right to move the U.S. Embassy there from Tel Aviv.
President Clinton had made a similar pledge about the status of Jerusalem in the 1992 campaign, but changed his policy after the Palestinians and Israel signed the 1993 Oslo accord. President Clinton now holds that the issue should be resolved in final-status talks, which are now under way.
Regarding Suha Arafat’s controversial comments, Ganchrow said he explained how the incident brought to many Jewish minds the history of blood libels, in which the Jews of many countries at many times were accused of killing Christian children.
Ganchrow said Clinton explained that she had not gotten a full translation of Arafat’s words until later and that “she said she felt she had been used.”
When asked how she would respond to a similar situation in the future, Clinton reportedly said there would never be such a circumstance.
In assessing the meeting, Ganchrow said the O.U. does not support, endorse or raise funds for candidates.
“Our job is to meet with people, meet with candidates,” he said, get to know them, “to have them appreciate our point of view on the issues” and “to bridge the differences.”
Leaving the O.U. headquarters in Manhattan wearing a raincoat against the winter rain, Clinton was heard to characterize the discussion as “frank and honest.”
Lieberman, who escorted Clinton from the meeting, said that in an informal poll of the people in the room during the meeting, she did pretty well.