WASHINGTON (Aug. 13)
With Israel under attack and seemingly at its most vulnerable in decades, American Jews are trying to ensure that the next U.S. Congress maintains a strong pro-Israel bent.
Education, health care and the economy probably will be the key issues for most voters when they go to the polls in November.
But candidates also want to have a strong anti-terrorism platform in the election — the first since Sept. 11 — and “support for Israel is one way to do that,” Democratic pollster Mark Mellman said.
The election also comes after an upsurge in anti-Semitism in Europe and at international forums such as last year’s U.N. World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa.
The dual concern over Israel and anti-Semitism is spurring special interest in the elections — and fund-raising for candidates “far from home” — among Jewish activists.
The race has attracted the involvement of members of the local Jewish community in Georgia and the national Jewish community.
McKinney’s vote against a pro-Israel resolution in May added to a record of remarks over the years that the pro-Israel community has considered insensitive, even outrageous at times.
In the shadow of Israel’s Operation Protective Wall in the West Bank in the spring, McKinney was one of only 21 representatives who voted against a resolution that expressed solidarity with Israel, reaffirmed Israel’s right to self- defense, supported additional defense assistance for Israel and condemned Palestinian terrorism.
One instance that particularly rankled American Jews was connected to a $10 million disaster relief donation from a Saudi prince who sought to tie the Sept. 11 terror attacks to U.S. support for Israel.
New York’s former mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, rejected the gift because of its political message, but McKinney, who agreed with the Saudi’s assessment, asked for the prince’s check.
Denise Majette, a retired state judge, is challenging McKinney in the Democratic primary. She has taken a strong pro-Israel stance and is now neck-and-neck with the five-term incumbent.
Several pro-Israel groups have contributed to Majette’s campaign, and a number of individuals who have donated to the campaign in recent months have Jewish-sounding surnames.
Morris Amitay, a pro-Israel activist and founder of Washington PAC, a pro-Israel group, said there is “a lot of activity” by Jews on behalf of Majette.
“There is mounting interest in the race by pro-Israel observers,” said Alan Sechrest, a Democratic strategist.
McKinney’s campaign, by contrast, shows a number of donations from individuals with Arab- or Muslim-sounding surnames, including many from outside McKinney’s district. The campaign also has received contributions from Muslim advocacy groups.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations has asked its members to support McKinney because she supports a Palestinian state and is against U.S. aid to Israel.
Some of the contributors to McKinney’s campaign have come under federal investigation for suspected links to terrorist organizations.
McKinney’s campaign coordinator told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the individuals were “American citizens learning to use their money like the very small population which sways a lot of opinion with their money — the Jewish community. That’s the American way.”
The McKinney race follows a triumph for Jewish involvement in an Alabama congressional race in June.
Jews from around the country opened their pocketbooks for attorney Artur Davis, who defeated Rep. Earl Hilliard in the Democratic primary runoff for Alabama’s 7th district last month.
Activists considered Hilliard anti-Israel because of his voting record in Congress.
The hundreds of thousands of dollars that Davis managed to raise from the Jewish community underscored Jewish concern that pro-Israel legislators get elected or stay in office when voters go to the polls Nov. 5.
Some Jewish officials said they would not be surprised if Majette gets at least as much support as Davis did.
“McKinney is the leading anti-Israel voice in Congress today,” one Jewish official said. “She is far more vulnerable than Hilliard ever was.”
With other congressional races looming, Jewish voters are continuing to look beyond their own backyards and past the usual foreign and domestic concerns to focus on just how good on Israel a candidate can be.
People are looking at a number of races with an interest to getting involved, activists say.
“There is a willingness to get active,” said Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition. “There is a tremendous amount of political fund raising.”
While both candidates are Jewish, Coleman’s pro-Israel stance has gratified Jewish leaders, who are troubled by the Arab American community’s support of Wellstone.
Other races garnering attention include New Hampshire’s senatorial race, where much of the talk about the Republican primary between Rep. John Sununu and incumbent Sen. Bob Smith has revolved around the candidates’ records on terrorism and Israel.
Sununu has come under fire for supporting U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority, though he also has voted for U.S. aid to Israel and has returned campaign contributions from Arab leaders who backed Hamas.
Smith has accused Sununu, who is of Lebanese and Palestinian descent, of being soft on terrorism and supporting radical, anti-Israel causes.
Smith has signed on to pro-Israel legislation and supports the Arafat Accountability Act, which would freeze the PLO and Palestinian Authority assets in the United States.
But in many races, voters find it hard to distinguish between the candidates’ records on Israel.
In South Dakota, for example, the Senate race pits Democratic incumbent Tim Johnson against Republican Rep. John Thune; the two are about even in polls.
Johnson has a “perfect record on Israel-related issues,” but Thune also is “good on Israel,” according to the pro-Israel Joint Action Committee.
Analysts agree that Jewish voters are looking harder at a candidate’s record on Israel because it’s more salient with the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian violence.
But the issue is not going to make or break most races, said Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, echoing the view of others.
David Fink, a Jewish Democrat running for a congressional seat in Michigan’s 9th District, said both he and his opponent are pro-Israel.
It will be domestic issues of import to the Jewish community — such as abortion and school prayer — that voters will look at when they decide, he said.
“There are very few races where Israel is the deciding factor,” Fink said. “It will come down to domestic issues.”
Jewish sites in Prague, Vienna
try to deal with rising flood waters PRAGUE, Aug. 13 (JTA) — Prague’s Jewish leaders are waiting anxiously to find out whether the city’s worst floods in more than 100 years will cause serious damage to Jewish buildings and artifacts.
Dozens of volunteers, including visitors from Israel, worked virtually around the clock along with community staff Tuesday in an attempt to protect synagogues and other sensitive Jewish sites from being engulfed by flood waters from the Vltava River, which is flowing at 30 times its normal rate.
One of the biggest concerns was that flood waters could seriously damage the Pinkas Synagogue, where the names of 80,000 Czech Holocaust victims are painted on the walls.
“I am afraid that the names at Pinkas will peel off if the water comes,” said Tomas Jelinek, chairman of Prague’s Jewish community. “At the moment, there is no water around the synagogue, but you never know what will happen.”
Volunteers began building sandbag barriers around synagogues on Monday, when it became clear the city was facing a high risk of flooding.
However, there were reports that sandbags were in short supply as city officials focused on other areas of Prague facing the greatest threat.
Because of flooding fears, Torah scrolls and religious artifacts were removed from several synagogues around the Old Town and taken to the Jewish Town Hall for safety.
Prague’s Jewish Museum canceled a number of exhibitions in the city center and moved paintings and other artworks to higher levels in the buildings where they were on display.
Community staff worked until the early hours of Tuesday morning moving items to safety — and then resumed work just a few hours later.
Leo Pavlat, director of the museum, said some objects were still at risk.
“There are some Jewish books held in depositories that are on a level that can be reached by water,” he said. “All we can do is pray not only that the rain stops but that the Vltava River becomes less wild.”
In an attempt to hold back the floods, city officials have erected large steel barriers on the river embankment leading to the Old Town, where the old Jewish quarter stands.
An official said it was too early to estimate whether the precautions would work.
At least eight Czechs have died in 10 days of flooding, and more than 70 other people died as near-record summer rains brought flooding to many European cities this week.
Some of the worst flooding occurred in Austria. In Salzburg, more than 1,000 buildings were reportedly under water.
In Vienna, the city’s oldest Jewish cemetery was closed Tuesday due to emergency conditions brought on by days of torrential rain.
“Several trees fell because the ground became soft in the aftermath of prolonged rain, and there was imminent danger for visitors,” said Jewish official Avshalom Hodik.
“We closed the Central Cemetery temporarily so we can check for damage and have it repaired, and cut the trees that need cutting.”
He said the local Jewish community had not received reports of deaths or major property damage due to the severe weather.
A community spokesperson said none of the historical sites of the Viennese Jewish community had been flooded.
The Central Cemetery, which dates back to the 1870s, contains about 50,000 graves, not all of them marked with stones.