Jewish activists are keeping a low public profile in the Louisiana governor’s race, for fear of inadvertently helping the candidacy of David Duke, a former Ku Klux Klan leader and one-time neo-Nazi who is running as the Republican candidate.
Duke, a state representative who beat incumbent Gov. Buddy Roemer in the Oct. 19 primary, faces former Democratic Gov. Edwin Edwards on Saturday, in a runoff election that many Jewish organizational leaders fear could catapult a longtime white supremacist into a nationally prominent political position.
But instead of intervening directly in Louisiana politics, Jewish activists individually are furtively funneling tens of thousands of dollars to Edwards or to various Democratic Party groups trying to defeat Duke.
The decision to stay out of Louisiana is being observed by Jewish activists from across the political spectrum, including Mordechai Levy, head of the militant Jewish Defense Organization.
In February 1989, Levy showed up in Louisiana one week before Duke was elected state representative. This time around, he is staying away, not, he says, to avoid giving Duke a punching target, but rather because forces opposing Duke are more mobilized than they were in 1989.
Two years ago, “Jews didn’t take his candidacy seriously,” Levy charged Monday. “Now you have a lot of local Jews making an effort.”
President Bush, like other national politicians, is also staying away from the state. But Bush last week endorsed Democrat Edwards, calling Duke a “charlatan” that he could not possibly support.
Jewish activists, both Democrats and Republicans, are pinning their hopes that Duke will be defeated on a well-orchestrated propaganda campaign that portrays Duke as a racist whose election would harm Louisiana economically.
They are also engaged in a massive get-out-the-vote campaign aimed at the black community, which is projected to account for 20 percent of those voting Saturday.
RAISING THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS
The Edwards campaign refused to say how much money it has received from Jewish sources.
But Steve Gutow, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, said he is aware of Jews who have given at least $5,000 to groups helping Edwards.
One activist, who spoke on condition of remaining anonymous, said that Edwards raised about $36,000 at a fund-raiser last week attended by such major Jewish lay leaders as World Jewish Congress President Edgar Bronfman and American Jewish Congress President Robert Lifton.
Morris Amitay, treasurer of the Washington Political Action Committee, one of the largest pro-Israel PACs, said it gave $2,000 to a Democratic group helping Edwards, out of concern that Duke would be anti-Israel if elected governor.
Jewish activists are letting their money do the talking, because Jewish organizations are severely limited in how involved they can become in the election campaign.
Jewish groups receiving tax-exempt status from the Internal Revenue Service are barred from supporting or opposing political candidates, although they are free to criticize views they consider morally repugnant, such as some espoused by Duke.
Jerome Chanes, co-director of domestic concerns at the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council, said his agency has briefed non-Jewish groups about the dangers Duke poses for Jews, blacks and other minorities.
One activity non-profit groups are allowed to engage in is urging people to vote.
Ted Flaum, director of the Jewish Community Relations Committee of New Orleans, said his agency has been doing just that. He believes that the larger the turnout Saturday, the better Edwards’ chances of winning.
Flaum predicted “99.9 percent” of Jews in the state will vote for Edwards.
JEWS WOULD FEEL THREATENED
Sheldon Beychok, a Baton Rouge Jewish Democratic activist, said he has sent out an anti-Duke fund-raising letter to 3,300 Jews, using a mailing list he bought for an undisclosed price from the National Jewish Democratic Council.
Asked whether there would be a backlash among voters because of Jewish money going to Edwards, Beychok said he sensed “a little hostility, but I don’t think it will amount to anything.”
As part of his get-out-the-vote effort, especially in the black community, voters are being urged to “recognize racism and anti-Semitism for what it is, no matter how well cloaked it is,” he said.
He said that should Duke win, while Jews will feel “threatened and very insecure,” only “younger folks” will probably leave the state.
Newspaper columnists are blaming both Republicans and Democrats for planting the seeds that have allowed Duke’s candidacy to prosper.
But Richard Stone, professor of law at Columbia University and a Republican Jewish activist who grew up in Louisiana, said the Jewish community bears no part of that blame.
For example, one of Duke’s principal planks is opposing affirmative action, a policy enacted in the 1960s with key support from the Jewish community.
Stone argued that Duke’s complaint “is not affirmative action” but is rather “that non-white Christians are fouling up America.”
“He hates me, a conservative Republican, every bit as much as he hates the Jews at the American Jewish Congress, American Jewish Committee and UAHC,” Stone said, referring to the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and other groups that are “more strongly for affirmative action.”
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.