NEW YORK, July 18 (JTA) — The ongoing flap over an anti-Semitic epithet allegedly hurled by Hillary Rodham Clinton 26 years ago lays bare two essential facts about the U.S. Senate hopeful and her relations with New York’s Jews.
First, many among the 1.7 million Jews in the state continue to harbor concerns about the first lady’s stance on issues most personal to them — issues such as Israel, the Palestinians, school vouchers and convicted spy Jonathan Pollard.
Second, the Clinton team’s strenuous denial of the alleged remark seems to acknowledge that she has yet to assuage these concerns.
It is conventional wisdom that Clinton must win a lion’s share of New York Jews — some analysts say as much as 80 percent — to capture a seat in the U.S. Senate.
Jews constitute 9 percent of the state’s population, and generally from 8 to 15 percent of voter turnout, making the “Jewish vote” vital.
According to pollster John Zogby, Jewish support for Clinton has fluctuated from a low of 43 percent to close to 60 percent. As of June, she held a 58 to 32 percent Jewish advantage over her opponent, Rick Lazio, a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Overall, polls generally show Clinton and Lazio are about even.
“The nature of the Jewish vote is such that Jewish voters are an important swing constituency in New York state and often make a difference in close elections,” said Michael Miller, executive vice president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, an umbrella organizations of 60 Jewish groups spanning the political spectrum.
And neither Democrats nor Republicans can take that Jewish vote for granted.
Miller noted, for example, that while 78 percent of New York City’s 1 million-plus Jews voted for President Clinton in 1996, the next year 76 percent backed Republican Rudolph Giuliani for mayor.
“It means that Jewish voters will often concentrate on the issues and candidates, rather than party affiliations,” Miller said.
Giuliani was Hillary Clinton’s opponent in the Senate race before he withdrew in May after announcing he is suffering from prostate cancer.
This week’s brouhaha began with reports about a new book, “State of a Union: Inside the Complex Marriage of Bill and Hillary Clinton,” by former National Enquirer reporter Jerry Oppenheimer.
Oppenheimer’s book says Clinton called Paul Fray, her husband’s then-campaign manager, a “Jew bastard” after Bill Clinton lost his race for Congress in 1974.
As soon as reports of the alleged remark began circulating over the weekend, the Senate hopeful took the unusual step of calling a news conference at her Westchester county home on Sunday to deny she ever said such a thing.
“I have spent a lifetime devoted to increasing tolerance. This never happened,” she said, with a Jewish congresswoman, Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), by her side.
Her husband also weighed in, telling the New York Daily News, “My wife has never, ever uttered an ethnic or racial slur against anybody, ever.”
Clinton’s press secretary, Howard Wolfson, further sought to quell the damage, making an appearance at an anti-Clinton event outside her Manhattan campaign office on Monday.
At an event billed as ” ‘Jew Bastards’ To Hold Press Conference Today,” a small group of Jews vehemently criticized her more for past actions they deemed offensive to Jewish and Israeli interests.
The handful of speakers — whose most prominent member was state Assemblyman Dov Hikind, a Brooklyn Democrat who represents several Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods and has been critical of Hillary Clinton in the past — appeared at lunchtime before a crowd of reporters and dozens of television cameras.
Hikind told reporters that Clinton is not an anti-Semite and said she had visited him following his father’s death several months ago.
However, he said, “I’m very concerned about her record.”
When Wolfson took the microphone at the end of the rally — at the request of reporters — he said most New York Jews support both Clintons and the peace process.
“It’s unfortunate that people would lie about something like this,” he said of the allegations, adding, “Most New Yorkers will see this for the garbage that it is.”
Observers say Clinton’s efforts at damage control further reaffirms the importance she places on the Jewish vote.
Given the weight of that Jewish vote, some observers say it oversimplifies the controversy to chalk up it up to the work of a muckraking media or a “vast right-wing conspiracy” — to which the first lady once famously ascribed her husband’s troubles.
“The Clinton campaign and the media understand this hits upon a very deep nerve,” said Dr. Mandell Ganchrow, president of the Orthodox Union.
“Although I don’t know anyone in our community who can ascertain the veracity of this statement, it arouses within our consciousness the issues that we discussed not too long ago, like her reaction when Ms. Arafat claimed the Israelis poisoned the air, the water and the food of Palestinian children.”
Ganchrow was referring to Clinton’s November 1999 visit to the West Bank with Suha Arafat, the wife of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.
Clinton was criticized for not immediately denouncing Arafat’s remarks, and for kissing her on the cheek afterward. In a news conference the next day, Clinton attributed her slow reaction to a poor translation that had interpreted the comments differently. She went on to criticize Arafat’s comments as “inflammatory rhetoric or baseless charges” that might do harm to the Middle East peace process.
It wasn’t the first time she riled some segments of American Jewry.
In 1998, Clinton drew howls of protests for saying she supported the creation of a Palestinian state. She was later forced to revise her position, bringing it in line with American foreign policy, which states the issue is up to Israelis and Palestinians to decide.
Concern over these issues led to a series of closed-door meetings with Jewish organizational officials, including one with Ganchrow’s group.
In that December 1999 meeting, Clinton expressed her opposition to school vouchers, which the O.U supports.
However, members of the O.U. audience also said Clinton appeared “open to and possibly supportive of” two other O.U.-backed forms of federal support for parochial schools: tuition tax credits and subsidies for textbooks and computers, for example.
A Clinton spokesman was later forced to clarify her position, saying that her position was more in line with the United Federation of Teachers, which opposes such federal support.
Then in January, Clinton attended a gathering in New York hosted by an African American leader often criticized for alleged anti-Semitic comments.
Before Clinton took the stage, she was reportedly informed that a black preacher had earlier made a remark perceived as anti-Semitic.
Clinton, without referring to the remark or speaker directly, said during her speech, “We know that anti-Semitism still stalks our land as well.”
Later, she told reporters, “I heard that one of the speakers made some divisive comments, which I soundly reject.”
Finally, some Jews have chastised Clinton for enjoying too-close relations with and accepting donations from Arab Americans.
“Every politician makes statements and promises,” said the O.U.’s Ganchrow.
“Each individual voter has to look at the candidate and their history, look at the charges and the countercharges, and after looking the candidate in the eye, ask: ‘Do I believe this candidate?’ Then they have to make a choice.”
Clinton supporters say she is not given credit for the positive things she has done, such as visiting Holocaust sites in Poland, denouncing New York’s Independence Party for anti-Semitic activists within its ranks, or the scores of Jewish events and activities to which she has lent her support.
Rather, these are seen as “pandering” to the Jews.
All of which illustrates how polarizing a figure Clinton and her husband are.
Some observers suggest that the electorate generally breaks down into pro-Hillary and anti-Hillary camps, and that the damage control mounted by the Clinton team would not have much effect.
“I’ve never seen such an intensity in an election. Either people like Clinton or they hate her,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti- Defamation League, which immediately came to her defense with a statement Monday accepting her denial.
“I don’t think” the controversy “will impact the campaign one way or another, because it won’t change” peoples’ views of her, he said.
“If you don’t like her policy regarding the Middle East, say it, but to accuse her of anti-Semitism is reprehensible,” said Foxman, whose organization received a couple dozen phone calls Tuesday assailing its statement.
“Even under the worst of circumstances — if she said it — one act does not an anti-Semite make. Over the past 25 years, she’s shown just the opposite — a sensitivity, caring and building of relationships with Jews.”
(JTA staff writer Julie Wiener contributed to this report.)