Amity Over Iranian Jews Mutes Issue


In an unfortunate twist, the unanimity of political opinion on behalf of the 13 Jews on trial in Iran is making it difficult to generate much publicity for their cause. Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton and her Republican Senate opponent, Rep. Rick Lazio, signed a petition calling for the freedom of the so-called Shiraz 13, accused of spying for Israel and facing execution. So did members of the City Council from both parties and across racial and ethnic lines last week.

Consequently, most newspapers and television stations paid more attention to the first appearance of Clinton’s daughter, Chelsea, on the campaign trail Monday than they did to the predicament of the Jews, whom Jewish leaders believe have not received a fair trial and were forced to issue phony confessions.

"It’s frustrating," said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, who is organizing the petition drive. "Human rights issues don’t get priority [in the media]." Had someone refused to sign the petition, he noted, the media might have paid more attention.

But noting that both Texas Gov. George Bush and Vice President Al Gore have signed on, Hoenlein said the Iranian government would get the message that "this is not a matter of partisan politics. One of them is going to be president. All their hopes of improving relations, of trade and economic assistance are contingent on what they do [in this trial.]"

Hoenlein said he didn’t fault Clinton for upstaging the 13 Jews by bringing Chelsea. "She didn’t introduce her or make a play out of it," he said.

Although she was at City Hall holding a press conference on the same day the City Council signed the petition, Clinton’s campaign staff declined an opportunity for her to sign the petition before news cameras that day.

Clinton’s advisers apparently were fearful of detracting from the press conference of Latino leaders condemning the violence against women at the Puerto Rican Day parade. "If one issue or the other got more publicity, there would be trouble," said one observer of the discussions.

"We were afraid both issues might get lost" if they were lumped together, said Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson, who said the first lady was willing to sign the petition privately Thursday, if it could not wait, or return Monday for a separate event. She did the latter.

Brooklyn Councilman Herbert Berman, chair of the Jewish caucus, felt the matter should not have been postponed. "They didn’t want another issue intruding on their issue," he said. "I argued that it would be a waste of a wonderful opportunity. [But] I don’t think the person making the decision fully understood the benefit."

Hoenlein and Berman agreed that Clinton, once told of the petition, was unhesitant in her support. But one City Council staffer said he believed the campaign was afraid to proceed without a careful assessment of the issue.

"It didn’t get vetted, they didn’t know what position they should take," said the aide. Wolfson called that report "a joke."

A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision invalidating New Jersey’s hate crimes law should not affect the long-awaited New York bill, finally agreed upon by both houses of the Legislature at 1:40 a.m. last Friday.

The high court on Monday voted 5-4 to invalidate a New Jersey judge’s ruling that a man was motivated by bias when he opened fire on the home of a black Vineland family. The justices ruled that determination of bias must be made by a jury at the time the verdict is rendered and not by a sentencing judge. New York’s law requires the jury, or judge in a non-jury trial, to declare an offense a bias crime as part of the verdict.

"This proves that our legislators did the right thing in considering how the determination will be made," said Howie Katz of the Anti-Defamation League, a hate crimes bill activist. "They decided against following the New Jersey model."

Katz expressed his support for embattled Westchester DA Jeanine Pirro, under pressure to resign since the conviction of her husband, Albert, on tax evasion charges. Pirro has been a key proponent of the hate crimes bill, a rarity among Republicans.

"On issues of concern to the Jewish community, especially hate crimes, she has been a leader," said Katz, who said she persuaded the state’s DA association to lobby for the bill.

Pirro, a Lebanese American, has also been a strong supporter of the Mideast peace process and was honored by the Abraham Fund for her work in bringing Jews and Arabs together, Katz said.

Two recent Clinton events at Jewish venues point up the complications of a first-ever run for office by a first lady. Addressing graduates at the Merkaz Bnos girls yeshiva last Thursday, Clinton offered congratulations on behalf of Education Secretary Richard Riley, although a White House spokeswoman said it was not an official first lady trip, and Clinton’s campaign staff ran the event. This raises the question of a political candidate representing a federal agency.

On Tuesday, Clinton received a Citizen of the Year award from Temple Adath Yeshurun in Syracuse. But although the event was listed on her campaign schedule, the Conservative temple’s rabbi, Charles Sherman, insists it is the first lady who is being honored, and his congregation is not taking sides in the election.

"We have made it very clear that this is certainly not a political endorsement," said the rabbi, noting that Republican Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Clinton’s former rival, is a past honoree of the temple. "I think people are politically sophisticated enough to understand that a synagogue is not going to endorse anybody."

Clinton’s campaign is making full use of the benefits of her celebrity, says political consultant Norman Adler. "Being first lady creates a lot of access and opportunity that political candidates don’t ordinarily have," he said.

Housing Secretary Andrew Cuomo insists his recent trip to Israel has nothing to do with his ambition to be vice president or governor. "We were invited by the Israeli government," he said in a conference call with reporters on his return Monday.

Cuomo consulted with Israeli officials on how to increase the availability of rental housing.

He said he felt no previous need to visit Israel since "New Yorkers consider themselves in the suburbs of Jerusalem. I am surrounded by people of the Jewish faith. I have three sisters, two of them married Jewish fellows … and Yiddish is my second language."

Cuomo’s assessment of Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, whom he met in Gaza: "He seemed genuinely eager to have a successful peace process and spoke at length about how … warm he was to the president for all the work in this area."

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The Washington-based National Jewish Democratic Council is trying to boost its presence here. The group kicked off its New York Young Professionals group Tuesday night at the Spring Street Social Club. The event was hosted by Manhattan state Sen. Eric Schneiderman and Craig Johnson, newly elected member of the Nassau County Legislature. Committee members include Rockland legislator Ryan Karben; former Democratic State Committee spokesman Matthew Hiltzik, and Michael Cohen, an aide to Brooklyn Rep. Edolphus Towns.

Is Clinton’s campaign hiring carpetbaggers? A transcript of the press conference on the 13 Iranian Jews e-mailed by Hillary 2000 was typed up by someone who needs a briefing on New York politics. It begins with a reference to "Speaker Malone," an apparent reference to City Council Speaker Peter Vallone, one of the city’s top elected officials.

Bronx Borough President Fernando Ferrer met with leaders of the Orthodox Rabbinical Board of Flatbush Tuesday seeking the support of its political action committee for his mayoral bid. Leaders of the group would not comment on Ferrerís controversial decision to stay neutral in the race-based primary against Jewish Bronx Rep. Eliot Engel. "We had a very cordial exchange," said executive vice president Rabbi Melvin Burg.