The commemoration of Rev. Martin Luther King’s legacy brought anything but harmony this week to the U.S. Senate race, as the campaigns of Republican Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton waged a war of words.
And again, Jews were in the eye of the storm.
Clinton, apparently employing lessons learned from her recent West Bank foray, promptly denounced a controversial remark about Jews made during her visit Monday to the Harlem headquarters of Rev. Al Sharpton.
But that didn’t stop Giuliani’s campaign from blasting the first lady for appearing with Sharpton, who many Jewish leaders consider divisive.
"Participating in an event that is replete with anti-Semitism is one of the anticipated consequences of seeking the support of Al Sharpton," said Bruce Teitelbaum, director of the mayor’s Senate exploratory committee.
Clinton’s spokesman fired back by accusing Giuliani of appearing with an Austrian extremist. "Perhaps the mayor should explain why he was on the podium with Joerg Haider," said Howard Wolfson.
Haider, the leader of Austria’s right-wing, anti-immigrant Freedom Party, and Giuliani were among hundreds of guests at the Congress for Racial Equality dinner Monday night. Also on hand were Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Undersecretary of the United Nations Ibrahim Gambari and City Council Speaker Peter Vallone.
Teitelbaum said the mayor had no contact with Haider at the event.
"The Clinton spin machine is at full speed trying to divert attention away from Mrs. Clinton’s visit to Al Sharpton’s headquarters and the anti-Semitic speech given by one of Sharpton’s top lieutenants."
The controversial comments were made by the Rev. Charles Norris of the Bethesda Missionary Baptist Church in Jamaica, Queens, and a board member of Sharpton’s National Action Network. In a speech preceding Clinton’s arrival at the network’s auditorium (she was downstairs being greeted by Sharpton at the time) Norris spoke of being fired by a Jewish employer but then working "for another Jew, named Jesus."
Apprised of the remark by Bronx Rep. Eliot Engel, Clinton inserted a line into her speech denouncing anti-Semitism, and she later told reporters, without being asked, that she "heard a speaker made divisive remarks, which I soundly reject."
In November, Clinton was condemned for making no immediate comment when Suha Arafat denounced Israel in her presence at a Ramallah event. Instead, she kissed the Palestinian first lady and left.
Howard Katz, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, called Rev. Norris’ comments "offensive" and said they had the "tone and feel of anti-Semitism." But he credited Clinton for promptly denouncing them. "We’re glad she reacted quickly and immediately," he said.
Sharpton also denounced the statement on Tuesday. Former Mayor Ed Koch, who accompanied Clinton to the event, said the remarks were "stupid" but accused Giuliani’s campaign of a "low blow" for making an issue of them.
"You can’t avoid going to places where there are overwhelmingly good people because there are some dumb people," said Koch. "I’ve been to Jewish affairs where some dumb Jews made anti-black statements and I denounced them."
Reached by telephone on Tuesday, Rev. Norris said his remarks were taken out of context and that he was trying to illustrate that he held no grudges against Jews, despite what he called mistreatment by a Jewish man who bought the contracting business that employed him in 1969. He said he had a good relationship with the previous owner, also Jewish, and attended his son’s bar mitzvah.
"I wanted people to see that I could still get along with anybody," Rev. Norris said.
Manny Behar, director of the Queens Jewish Community Council, said he knew Rev. Norris well and recalled his speaking movingly at a public ceremony commemorating Kristallnacht.
"On the other hand," said Behar, "he made a speech in his church during the Gulf War and, according to the papers, asked ‘why are we sending black boys to fight so that Israel should have a state.’"
Political consultant Hank Sheinkopf predicted that although Clinton acted promptly this time to contain the damage, the lasting impression among Jewish voters would be that she walked into another minefield. "The lesson that will come across to the voters is that she was in a place where someone made an ant-Semitic pronouncement," said Sheinkopf. "Every time something like this happens it makes it more difficult to extend her reach beyond the left wing. She has the Peace Now crowd. It’s the Modern Orthodox she needs."
Clinton, who had resisted earlier calls from Sharpton for a meeting, apparently chose this event because of the participation of numerous other top Democrats, including Sen. Charles Schumer, Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, Engel and Koch. But Sheinkopf said the established politicians could more afford to take chances. "They have a built-in constituency among Jews that she does not yet have," he said.
Clinton apparently was counting most on the popular Koch to make her Sharpton visit kosher. The feisty ex-mayor has advocated a Jewish dialogue with Sharpton, although he says the black activist owes the community an apology for some of his past comments.
Ironically, last year Koch was working the other side of the political spectrum, trying to bolster Jewish support for the re-election of Republican Al D’Amato, arguably the antithesis of both Sharpton and Clinton.
"I’m a peacemaker," Koch said when asked to comment on this incongruity. "I believe in reaching out and encouraging people to talk."
After completing his first year as a senator, Schumer is setting his sights on three major areas of interest, he told a small gathering at the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations Monday night.
Schumer said his priorities were education, countering terrorism and regulating the Internet to protect privacy and intellectual property.
In response to an inquiry by Morton Klein of the Zionist Organization of America, Schumer promised to investigate a State Department Web site that offers rewards for terrorist who have killed Americans but excludes Palestinian culprits.
"We can speculate on why that is, and none of it is good," said Schumer. "I will try to do something about it." Schumer said he planned to meet with CIA director George Tenet to discuss the intelligence community’s strong opposition to the release of Israel spy Jonathan Pollard. He said he was contemplating a visit to the federal prison where Pollard is serving a life sentence; several local officials have recently visited Pollard.
"I have been at the forefront of efforts" to free Pollard, Schumer said. "That’s something I would consider."
Schumer declined to answer questions from a reporter from the Forward. His staff has refused to comment to the weekly paper since it raised questions about Schumer’s role in securing $400,000 in federal funds for the Israel-based Neve Yerushalayim yeshiva’s residence here. That grant has been questioned by church-state separation activists.
A major benefactor of the yeshiva, Zev Wolfson, and his wife each contributed $1,000 to Schumer’s campaign, the paper reported. In an editorial, the Forward said Schumer’s role in helping the yeshiva get federal funds was inconsistent with his opposition to tuition vouchers for parochial schools.
Schumer said he would be sitting down with the paper’s editors this week to discuss the story.
Although Schumer has been uncommonly shy when it comes to the Neve Yerushalayim matter, his protege and successor in the House, Rep. Anthony Weiner, makes no bones about his role: at least when it comes to Orthodox voters in his Brooklyn-Queens district. Weiner recently mailed out a constituent newsletter with the headline "Weiner Wins Funding for Neve Yerushalayim." In the targeted mailing Weiner boasts that he "led the effort" in the House to obtain the funding.