Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

After Controversial Election Battles, Aipac Reaches out to Black Caucus

May 14, 2003
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

As it gears up for a struggle over the “road map” toward Israeli-Palestinian peace, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee is making special overtures toward the Congressional Black Caucus, a group with which it has had rough relations in the recent past.

Then, on April 24 in New York, AIPAC’s executive director, Howard Kohr, joined other Jewish community leaders for a lunch with rap mogul Russell Simmons, who has tried to promote better relations between the caucus and the Jewish community.

With Congress focused on domestic affairs, it may be too early to judge how effective AIPAC’s efforts have been to improve support from the black caucus on Middle East-related resolutions and initiatives.

But the first test of that support suggests a decidedly mixed result: An April letter to President Bush that AIPAC backed, expressing concerns about aspects of the U.S.-supported road map, was signed by 313 House members — but only 18 of 39 members of the black caucus.

An AIPAC official said the purpose of the March dinner was to continue efforts to “strengthen relations between our community and members of the Congressional Black Caucus.”

Another goal was to honor Cummings “and the members of the CBC for their long-standing support of Israel and to reaffirm to our own community that most members of the caucus support a strong and secure Israel.”

Since the Palestinian intifada began in September 2000, some CBC members have been among the most outspoken critics of resolutions they consider too biased in Israel’s favor.

In May 2002, only 22 members of the caucus — which then numbered 38 — voted for a resolution expressing “solidarity with Israel.” Five voted against the resolution, and 11 skipped or voted “present.”

The resolution, which made only a brief reference to Palestinian suffering from Israel’s anti-terror measures, passed the House by a vote of 352-21, with 61 members voting “present” or skipping the roll call.

“For most black members of Congress, the Middle East is not high on their agenda,” said David Bositis, an expert on black politics at the Washington-based Joint Center for Economic and Political Studies. But “many of their supporters see the Palestinians as getting a raw deal” under Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Experts say that blacks and Jews agree on many political issues. The two groups strengthened their ties during the civil rights era, when Jews were an important ally to black groups, but they have frayed in recent years over such issues as affirmative action.

In the 2002 election cycle, wealthy Jewish donors from around the country, many of them AIPAC members, supported Democratic primary challengers against incumbents McKinney and Hilliard. After bitter and expensive primary fights, the pair were ousted by black challengers, leading to accusations from black congressmen that outsiders were meddling in their elections.

Majette said her backing of Israel had nothing to do with the financial support she received from the Jewish community.

“We need to support and encourage democracy,” she said.

Since the last election cycle, Jewish community leaders have met with their black counterparts to stress the areas of agreement they share. AIPAC has held meetings with 29 members of the CBC to maintain dialogue, according to the group.

While thanking the president for his efforts toward peace in the road map, the AIPAC-backed letter to Bush expresses hope that the president will avoid rigid timelines to “focus instead on real performance” on the two sides’ obligations.

The letter reminds Bush of the tough rhetoric he used toward the Palestinians in a policy speech last June 24, when he said the Palestinians would get a state only after they met certain conditions. It doesn’t mention Bush’s insistence, in the same speech, that Israel pull troops back from much of the West Bank and suspend settlement activity.

Jewish leaders and political experts said AIPAC’S outreach toward black legislators was sincere.

“AIPAC has done its homework,” said Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, a group devoted to improving relations between Jews and other ethnic groups. “I’m hearing some very good things, especially from members of the CBC.”

“AIPAC has demonstrated greater sensitivity to concerns of the African American community,” he said.

One aide to a black caucus member confirmed that they “see the increase in the effort, in terms of the outreach by AIPAC.”

The AIPAC dinner, for example, was “big — it was well received,” the aide said.

Bositis said outreach efforts by Jewish groups are appreciated now, when minorities are facing stiff resistance on domestic issues they care about.

“It’s not like African Americans have so many allies that they’re looking to lose their allies,” he said.

Only 12 of 39 CBC members came to the AIPAC dinner, which was held on a Sunday night, when many lawmakers are in their home districts. Several more came to AIPAC’s plenary banquet later that week, an event that drew roughly half of the House of Representatives and Senate, as it usually does.

The trip will explore political issues surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the fight against terrorism, Hastings aide Fred Turner said.

“One of the equally important parts would be for black and Jewish members to build relationships,” he added.

Schneier, whose group is opening a Washington office to improve relations among Jewish and other ethnic caucuses in Congress, said he and Simmons, the rap mogul, also were planning a joint trip to Israel.

In 2001, Jackson called Israel’s decision to pull out of the World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa — in the face of an organized campaign against the Jewish state — “a mistake.” Yet Jackson is planning his first trip to Israel, tentatively slated for August, together with a number of Jewish leaders from his district.

Jackson constituent and supporter Anne Oppenheimer, an AIPAC member and national vice president of the National Council of Jewish Women, said she regretted that Jackson had not signed onto the road map letter.

But she said the planned trip, and recent discussions with Jackson, proved to her that the congressman and the Jewish community “had come to a better understanding.”

Recommended from JTA