Although Jesse Jackson has not yet indicated that he will speak directly to Jewish leaders or organizations in New York, it appears his campaign has not given up on attracting Jewish supporters prior to the April 19 primary here.
In fact, staffers at Jackson campaign headquarters refer questions on Jackson’s relations with the Jewish community to Suzanne Ross, a psychologist of Orthodox Jewish background who heads New York Jews for Jackson. The "loose-knit" organization, as Ross calls it, will run a pro-Jackson advertisement in this week’s edition of the Village Voice, signed by between 150 and 170 Jews.
Asked if Jackson will meet with Jewish groups, Ross responded, "The question is not whether he will meet, but with which Jewish individuals, which organizations? I’m sure it will happen. The question is what form it will take."
If Ross’ response is accurate, it indicates a shift within the Jackson camp. Gerald Austin, Jackson’s national campaign manager, last week dismissed notions that there is a need for the Democratic presidential candidate to address specific Jewish concerns about his positions.
Jackson is the only Democratic presidential candidate to have declined an invitation, issued in October, to speak before the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
Sen. Albert Gore Jr. of Tennessee spoke to the umbrella group of 44 organizations two weeks ago, in what was perceived as a direct appeal for Jewish votes. Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis is to address the group Monday afternoon.
According to Malcolm Hoenlein, executive director of the Conference of Presidents, Jackson’s staff turned down its invitation in mid-March, apologizing that they had taken so long to respond. He knew of no other plans for a meeting between Jackson and Jewish organizations.
The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater New York is still awaiting Jackson’s response to an off-the-record meeting with selected New York Jewish leaders, according to Michael Miller, JCRC executive director.
Gore, Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois and former candidates Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri and Bruce Babbitt of Arizona have previously attended the series of closed-door meetings.
Miller said he is expecting a response this week to the invitation.
According to Ross, the fact that Jackson has so far declined to speak to those groups does not imply, as some have suggested, that the candidate has turned his back on a vote that he feels he is not likely to get anyway. Ross indicated as proof the Jews that Jackson has selected as campaign aides, including Austin; Stanley Hill, co-chairman of the New York campaign; and campaign adviser Ann Lewis.
Ross acknowledges that Jackson "made mistakes" during his last presidential campaign. In 1984, Jackson angered Jewish voters with his reference to New York as "Hymietown" and his then close relationship with Black Muslim leader Louis Farrakhan.
But Ross said, "I think he’s learned a lot in the last four years, and has grown close to Jewish positions as a member of another oppressed group."
Ross cited a number of examples of what she called positive efforts Jackson has made to reach out to the Jewish community, including a disassociation from Farrakhan.
In the wake of President Reagan’s controversial visit to the graves of SS soldiers at West Germany’s Bitburg cemetery, Jackson made eloquent statements on the meaning of the Holocaust, said Ross.
She said his views on the Middle East, which include support of the Camp David accords, an international peace conference and self-determination for the Palestinians, place him firmly in the camp with such Israeli liberals as writer Amos Elon and Knesset member Abba Eban.
And in the past four years he has made a number of positive public speeches on black-Jewish relations, especially during a March 1987 appearance at Queens College in New York with Rabbi Marc Tannenbaum of the American Jewish Committee.
"I think he understands the question of anti-Semitism far more profoundly than any of the white candidates," said Ross.
Ross said her group also challenges the notion that the Conference of Presidents and JCRC fully speak for American Jewry.
"Those organizations represent only 40 percent of Jews. When people talk about Jewish groups, they’re not including a number of progressive Jewish organizations," including the New Jewish Agenda, said Ross. "Jesse has met with a lot of those people, and that’s something the Jewish press is not reporting."
Still, recent polls are showing that Jackson’s appeal among Jewish voters in New York, while higher than in the rest of the country, is still weak, with only 9 percent of the state’s Jewish Democrats saying they will vote for the black candidate.
Jews make up 23 percent of the presidential primary vote in New York state. Indeed, some analysts are saying that dissatisfaction with Jackson is high enough to direct Jewish votes away from Dukakis, the front-runner, and to Gore, who, if elected, may be perceived as less likely to include Jackson in a presidential administration.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.