In this year’s New York City mayoral race, Jews are not the biggest news, but they are making some headlines.
A decade after the Crown Heights “pogrom,” no overarching issue has galvanized the city’s 1 million-strong Jewish community in advance of the Sept. 11 primary: Anti-Semitism is a nonissue; none of the four Democratic candidates is pandering to the Jewish vote; and while two of the Democratic candidates are Jewish, all are public servants that are pro-Israel and supportive of Jewish concerns.
Leading the Democratic pack to replace Mayor Rudy Giuliani are Mark Green, New York’s public advocate; Alan Hevesi, the city comptroller; Peter Vallone, the city council speaker; and Fernando Ferrer, the Bronx borough president.
Each attracts his share of Jewish voters, as well as sizeable support from the city’s myriad ethnic, religious and racial groups.
If none of the four garners 40 percent of the vote, a runoff between the top two will be held Sept. 25.
“Each of the candidates has a long track record of public service and has developed warm relations with the Jewish votership; their views are within the comfort zone of the Jewish community,” said Michael Miller, executive vice president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York.
Jewish-tipped comments or issues indeed have surfaced during the campaign, but the general calm is enabling New York Jews to think in terms of voting as New Yorkers who happen to be Jewish.
“It’s a good position to be in — where you don’t have to worry about somebody getting in,” said William Rapfogel, executive director of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty. “It’s a welcome relief not to be pandered to, and to deal with the same substantive issues that the ordinary New Yorker is interested in — crime, transportation, education and housing.”
On the Republican side, the clear front-runner in the Sept. 11 primary is a third Jew: billionaire Michael Bloomberg, founder of the Bloomberg financial services empire. Bloomberg will face Herman Badillo, the chairman of
the Board of Trustees of the City University of New York and a perennial candidate for public office.
Yet New Yorkers overwhelmingly vote Democratic, so the winner of the Democratic primary generally sweeps into office.
An exception was 1993, when the moons aligned for Republican Giuliani. Under then-Mayor David Dinkins, crime was perceived as rampant, and residents felt an iron fist was needed.
Jews, especially, were on edge.
On Aug. 19, 1991, a Chasidic Jew in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn accidentally drove his car into 7-year- old Gavin Cato, killing the black child.
Hours later, a mob of blacks chased and stabbed to death Yankel Rosenbaum, an Australian Jewish scholar.
Three more days of anti-Jewish rioting followed, which Jewish leaders described as a pogrom because the city police seemed reluctant to intervene.
When Giuliani offered himself as a tough-on-crime candidate, the Jewish community flocked to him.
Giuliani unleashed his police force, driving down the crime rate. But the police trampled civil rights to do it, say minorities, the segment that often bore the brunt of police action.
Nevertheless, Giuliani’s policies — coupled with the booming economy — boosted the overall quality of life, won him a second term in 1997 and turned the city into one of the world’s premier tourist destinations.
The mayoral contenders criticizes Giuliani’s policies, but in deference to his popularity among “Giuliani Democrats,” are careful not to be too strident.
Rather, they portray themselves as “Giuliani with compassion,” and vow to improve the school system.
Needless to say, the Jewish community does have its concerns.
For example, there’s the shifting demographics of New York.
The Jewish community in recent years has absorbed some 250,000 Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
Meanwhile, Hispanics, African-Americans, Haitians and Asians now comprise a majority of the city’s population. Just 38 percent of the city is white.
With memories of the Crown Heights riots still fresh, some fear a deterioration of race relations under a Democratic administration. These concerns were fueled by comments made in April by Bruce Teitelbaum, a Jew who is a top adviser to Giuliani.
In an interview with New York Jewish Week, Teitelbaum suggested that if elected mayor, Ferrer would surround himself with “Dinkins administration retreads,” which “should be of great concern to the Jewish community.”
Some Jewish leaders accused Teitelbaum of race-baiting and fear-mongering, using the term “retreads” as a code word for the same folks perceived to have stood idly by as Jews were attacked in Crown Heights.
The implication, analysts said, was that a minority candidate like Ferrer, who is Puerto Rican, would again allow crime and violence to flourish.
All four of the Democratic candidates criticized Teitelbaum’s remarks, including Hevesi, for whom Teitelbaum’s wife reportedly is a campaign adviser.
But some Jews also sided with Teitelbaum, agreeing that under Dinkins, who was black, some Jewish social-service organizations were shut out of city contracts that were awarded to Dinkins’ black cronies.
These fears were reinforced a few days later by an editorial in the black-owned Amsterdam News newspaper.
Jews, the editorial said, have “done an amazing job of being able to promote themselves above all others in order to first achieve power and then, most importantly, to keep it.”
Jewish accession to public office, it continued, is “good for the Jews and, to the casual observer, particularly unfair” to “Blacks and Hispanics.”
Ironically, though, Ferrer has endorsements ranging from Al Sharpton — the controversial black leader who recently announced his intent to run for U.S. president in 2004 — to the pro-Giuliani Chasidic group that sprang up in the wake of the Crown Heights riot, the Crown Heights Political Action Committee.
Likewise, each of the other Democratic candidates seems to have covered a potentially weak flank. Green, the most liberal of the challengers, has the endorsement of former Giuliani police commissioner William Bratton; Hevesi, who stirred concern among more conservative Jews when it was revealed he is married to a Catholic, has earned the gratitude of Holocaust survivors with his high-profile work in Holocaust restitution. Vallone, a staunch Catholic, has been to Israel a handful of times in recent years and has the endorsement of the New York Post and New York Daily News.
But Green got some egg on his face when he was pictured receiving an endorsement from leaders of the Satmar Chasidic community — but it was later learned that those leaders represented only an upstate New York group of Satmars, not those living in New York City.
Bloomberg has also had his share of embarrassing headlines about his Jewishness.
During the campaign, Bloomberg appeared to advocate school prayer with a remark that reciting the Lord’s Prayer in public school hadn’t been a bad experience for him as a child. But he later said such prayer was unconstitutional.
He recently quit several exclusive New York-area clubs, including two founded by Jews, whose memberships reportedly exclude minorities.
To be fair, Bloomberg’s campaign released documents claiming he gave more than $100 million to charity in 2000 to groups such as the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish World Service and the American Friends of the Israel Museum.
Meanwhile, despite the fact that the next mayor may well be a Jew, there indeed is concern of diminished Jewish influence.
Term limits on the New York City Council may mean the loss of as many as a dozen Jews from the 51-member council — in addition to non-Jewish politicians familiar with the Jewish community.
“The real anxiety we have is not that Jews will have less clout, but more damaging is losing black, Latino and Italian friends who are not necessarily Jewish but understand our needs,” Rapfogel said.
Rabbi Marc Schneier, co-founder and president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, agrees that there is a need to “sensitize other community leaders to the issues, concerns and nuances of the Jewish community.
“There are core issues that the Jewish community has always championed — our preoccupation with the state of Israel, our concern for anti-Semitism and for strengthening human rights — and we need allies,” Schneier said.
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.