Congress urged to pass hate crimes law

NEW YORK, Aug. 23 (JTA) — Jewish groups are joining in a last- ditch effort to push through federal hate crimes legislation before the 106th U.S. Congress is history.

If they fail, advocates would practically have to start over again in the next Congress.

In a news conference on the steps of New York’s City Hall, Hillary Rodham Clinton, the state’s Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, joined civil rights leaders and members of New York’s congressional delegation in supporting the Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

They also unveiled a Web site, unitedagainsthate.org, devoted to arm grass-roots activists with hate crimes-related information as they lobby their local representatives, who are now off on August recess.

The Senate already passed a version of the bill June 20. But it must also pass the House of Representatives between the time it reconvenes Sept. 5 to the time the session ends, around Oct. 1. If not, the entire process must be repeated.

“This is the farthest we’ve ever gotten; after events like this, we know it’ll pass if it’s brought to the House floor,” said Jody Rabhan, associate director of Washington operations for the National Council of Jewish Women, which co-sponsored Wednesday’s press event.

Republican leaders oppose the proposed measure because they say it would designate special classes of citizens, particularly gays and lesbians, who are already protected under existing state laws against violence.

But Rabhan said the new law would serve as better “protection and deterrence” than the current law.

It would widen the scope of crimes in which federal agencies could assist local authorities, mandate longer jail terms and expand the existing law — which focuses on violence motivated by race, color, religion or national origin — to include crimes based on gender, sexual orientation or disability.

“If people are specially attacked” for these reasons, “they must be specially protected,” said New York Public Advocate Mark Green, a Jew who reportedly intends to run for mayor of New York in 2001.

At Wednesday’s event, Clinton was clearly the prime attraction, as photographers and television-camera operators jostled for prime spots and local officials crowded the first lady to be included in the camera frame.

The hate crime law, she said, is a key plank on her platform.

She also spoke of meeting with victims of the August 1999 shooting spree by a white supremacist at the North Valley Jewish Community Center in California, describing it as a “personally wrenching experience.”

Support for this law is clear, said Clinton, “if you’ve ever held the hand and looked in the eye of victims.”

Serving as backdrop to Clinton’s appearance, her campaign is angling to pick up more Jewish voters following a few highly publicized incidents that have earned her scorn from some corners of the community.

Analysts suggest, however, she may benefit from a “Lieberman bounce” among Jewish voters — a result of the nomination of Sen. Joe Lieberman as Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore’s running mate.

“I don’t really care what her reasons are for being here,” Rabhan said.

“I think she, like most Americans, feels very deeply about this issue.”

Speakers at the event signed a letter to representatives who have not yet supported the bill.

Among the Jewish signatories are the American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress, Anti-Defamation League, Hadassah: the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, Jewish War Veterans of the USA, Jewish Women International, Jewish Council for Public Affairs, Jewish Labor Committee, Na’amat USA, National Council of Jewish Women, National Jewish Democratic Council, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, and the Women of Reform Judaism.

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