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Congresswoman’s Defeat in Primary Seen As Major Victory for Jewish Activists

August 22, 2002
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

The score is now Jewish activists 2, anti-Israel members of Congress 0.

In an upset this week, a challenger backed by pro-Israel money helped beat a five-term U.S. representative, knocking another anti-Israel voice out of Congress.

This time the state was Georgia and the loser was outspoken Democratic Rep. Cynthia McKinney.

The winner was Denise Majette, a retired state judge who received hundreds of thousands of dollars from Jewish supporters around the country.

Tuesday’s race was the second time this summer that Jewish support and Middle East politics influenced the outcome of a primary between two African Americans in a Southern state.

The McKinney race follows a triumph for Jewish involvement in an Alabama congressional race in June.

Jews from around the country opened their pocketbooks for attorney Artur Davis, who defeated Rep. Earl Hilliard in the Democratic primary runoff for Alabama’s 7th district. Activists considered Hilliard’s voting record in Congress anti-Israel.

The Jewish community’s willingness to contribute to Majette’s and Davis’ campaigns underscores continuing Jewish concern that pro-Israel legislators get elected or stay in office when voters go to the polls Nov. 5.

Jewish activists often have targeted members of Congress they find to be anti-Israel, and have had some success in the past. In 1982, Paul Findley, an anti-Israel congressman from Illinois, was voted out of office after the Jewish community opposed his re-election.

But the Jewish community has been particularly motivated this year because of worry over an Israel under siege and an uptick in international anti-Semitism.

“They made their voice heard unambiguously,” said Alan Sechrest, a Democratic strategist.

It’s unclear whether this activism will carry over to November, in part because McKinney and Hilliard were the two main candidates targeted by pro-Israel groups.

Morris Amitay, founder of Washington PAC, a pro-Israel group, said Hilliard and McKinney were particularly vulnerable candidates.

The one race that still could see significant Jewish involvement is the New Hampshire senatorial race, where the Republican primary pits Rep. John Sununu against Sen. Bob Smith.

The Jewish community is backing Smith because he is seen as more pro-Israel and tougher on Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

Sununu, who is of Palestinian and Lebanese background and is the son of former President Bush’s former chief of staff, has come under fire for supporting U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority, though he also has voted for U.S. aid to Israel and has returned campaign contributions from Arab leaders who backed Hamas.

In the Georgia race, political observers said McKinney not only took maverick positions in Congress but failed to give enough reasons for her constituents to support her and gave the Jewish community an opening to oppose her.

McKinney accused the Bush administration of failing to stop the Sept. 11 attacks because, she said, friends of the administration could benefit financially. Her vote against a pro-Israel resolution in May added to a record of remarks over the years that the pro-Israel community has considered insensitive, even at times outrageous.

As terror against Israel surged this spring, McKinney was one of only 21 representatives who voted against a resolution that expressed solidarity with Israel, reaffirmed Israel’s right to self-defense, supported additional defense assistance for Israel and condemned Palestinian terrorism.

One instance that particularly rankled American Jews was connected to a $10 million disaster relief donation from a Saudi prince, who sought to tie the Sept. 11 terror attacks to U.S. support for Israel. New York’s former mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, rejected the gift because of its political message, but McKinney, who agreed with the Saudi’s assessment, asked for the prince’s check.

Just last week, several McKinney contributors who were alleged to be supporters of Al-Qaida, Hamas and Hezbollah were named in a $1 trillion federal lawsuit filed by Sept. 11 victims.

For many, McKinney’s father, a state representative who is running for re-election this year, also was a liability.

On Monday, Billy McKinney dismissed Majette’s candidacy and spelled out the reason for his daughter’s tough fight: “J-E-W-S,” he said on television.

The race attracted the involvement of members of both the local Jewish community in Georgia and the national Jewish community.

Majette won by about 18,000 votes. Her victory was boosted by a high turnout of Republican primary voters, who under Georgia law are allowed to vote in either primary.

Majette took a strong pro-Israel stance. Though she maintained that the election was about local issues, she also recognized that it had national significance, and she made no apologies for accepting the out-of-state contributions.

Several pro-Israel groups contributed to Majette’s campaign, and a number of individuals who donated in recent months had Jewish-sounding surnames.

McKinney’s campaign, by contrast, showed a number of donations from individuals with Arab- or Muslim-sounding surnames, including many from outside McKinney’s district. Her campaign also received contributions from Muslim advocacy groups.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations asked its members to support McKinney because she supports a Palestinian state and is against U.S. aid to Israel.

Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan campaigned for McKinney, and Rabbi Michael Lerner expressed personal support for her.

Jewish leaders were outraged by the position of Lerner, who publishes Tikkun magazine.

One Jewish official called Lerner’s affiliation with radical anti-Israel groups “an outrage.”

Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, said, “Farrakhan’s involvement was just as offensive as Lerner’s involvement.”

Lerner told JTA that support from Farrakhan and Arab groups should not preclude Jews from supporting McKinney.

Lerner defended McKinney’s statements on Israel as consistent with the positions of the Israeli peace movement, which he said calls for “an end to the occupation” of Palestinian areas.

Her defeat will have a “chilling effect” on other members of Congress who criticize Israeli policy, Lerner said. He added that he is working to form a progressive, pro-Israel alternative to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the main pro-Israel lobbying group in Washington.

“We want to make it safe for congressional representatives to articulate criticism of” Israeli Prime Minister “Ariel Sharon and his policies without being identified as anti-Israel,” Lerner said.

AIPAC, which does not endorse individual candidates, said, “Our alliance is with the Israeli people who democratically elect their government.”

As for black-Jewish dealings on Capitol Hill, some said the Davis-Hilliard race had increased tensions between Jewish and black members of the U.S. House of Representatives, but Schneier said it was wrong to view the McKinney-Majette race as a black-Jewish issue.

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus might be upset initially, but there will be “no long-term negative impact on black-Jewish relations,” he said.

The National Jewish Democratic Council noted the joint advocacy and common interests between blacks and Jews, and predicted that the congressional alliance would remain strong.

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