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Black, Jewish ties under strain in Congress

WASHINGTON, June 20 (JTA) — Black-Jewish relations on Capitol Hill have never been the easiest to maintain, and a hotly contested primary in Alabama and the volatile Israeli-Palestinian conflict are making things more tense than ever. On the surface, Jewish and black members of Congress maintain a strong alliance that has its roots in the civil rights movement. Behind the scenes, however, groups and individual members are struggling to shore up what many say is a battered relationship. Matters have come to a head over Jewish support for the challenger to Rep. Earl Hilliard (D-Ala.), a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, and frustration from Jewish legislators who do not understand their black colleagues´ lack of support on Israel votes. The two issues come together in the case of Hilliard, who voted in the U.S. House of Representatives against resolutions expressing American solidarity with Israel and blaming Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat for violence in the region. Jewish groups also point to Hilliard´s longtime voting record against Israel. Jewish supporters have rallied behind challenger Artur Davis, a lawyer. Though Davis also is black, members of the Black Caucus see the rejection of the incumbent as a slap in the face. Democratic activists say Jewish support simply is swinging to someone who will vote for Israel, especially during a period of crisis in the Middle East. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee notes that many caucus members have strong records on Israel. "Some individuals have an interest in making a bigger issue out of the status of black-Jewish relations than what really exists," one AIPAC official said. A number of caucus members joined with Hilliard in voting against a House resolution backing Israel and condemning Palestinian suicide bombings. But black and Jewish lawmakers often find themselves on the same side on many issues — such as housing, education, and gun control. Indeed, it seems much of the problem is one of perception. Some black members believe Jewish representatives are not supportive of black candidates, and some do not seem to realize the importance of votes on Israel, said a senior staffer for a Jewish legislator. Yet at the same time as Jewish and black lawmakers recognize that tensions are mounting, they also are sure relations will improve. Signs of strain were evident at the Black/Jewish Congressional Awards Ceremony on Thursday, sponsored by the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, but lawmakers still spoke with optimism about the future. The black and Jewish members of Congress are "like a family," said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), chair of the Black Caucus. "The family needs dialogue right now." Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) said each side needs to show respect for the other. Legislators need "to figure out what causes others pain," he said. The chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Nita Lowey (D- N.Y.), who did not sign a letter encouraging members to contribute to Hilliard´s campaign, said Jewish and black legislators still have a strong bond. Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) speculated about how the outcome of the June 25 runoff between Hilliard and Davis could affect relations betwen the two groups. Tensions will recede if Hilliard wins. Others predicted that the fissures in the black-Jewish relationship could widen if Davis emerges on top. Like many others, Nadler promised there would be more meetings and private conversations among black and Jewish legislators. Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), a member of the caucus, was upset over Jewish support for Davis, and hinted that he might not support aid to Israel. After a recent meeting with Howard Kohr, the executive director of AIPAC, Hastings backed away from his remarks. But Hastings still has reservations about the repercussions of the Hilliard race. Asked Thursday about Jewish support for Davis, he said "I understand it, but I don´t like it." Rabbi Marc Schneier, who heads the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, said part of the problem is generational, as older black and Jewish members of Congress fought together in the civil rights movement and also understand the importance of support for Israel. "We need to sensitize younger black members to our support for Israel and other issues of importance to the Jewish community," he said. Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said the "eruptions of anger" from the black side come around election time, but that the Jewish community has a right to be upset with candidates who do not support Israel. When legislators vote against Israel, "The Jewish community feels the same way, whatever their color," Foxman said. Most members of the Black Caucus understand that, Foxman said, but they have to convince others. The ADL is meeting with members of the caucus, as well as other black and Jewish legislators, so "this does not become a crisis," Foxman said.