Ga. race widens racial rift

August 26, 2002|By Salim Muwakkil

WASHINGTON -- The defeat of Rep. Cynthia McKinney, a five-term incumbent from Georgia's 4th District, in Tuesday's primary, may seem like a boon for Israel's supporters, but the domestic costs may be more than this country can afford.

Ms. McKinney was beaten by obscure former Judge Denise Majette, with heavy support from groups backing the policies of Israel's Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Ms. McKinney is the second pro-Palestinian member of the Congressional Black Caucus to be taken out this summer. Rep. Earl Hilliard of Alabama's 7th District lost a primary election in June to another political unknown named Artur Davis.

Mr. Hilliard told the Washington Times in an interview soon after his defeat that the Jewish lobby had "targeted" Ms. McKinney, Mr. Jackson and Rep. Donald Payne of New Jersey, another Congressional Black Caucus member who occasionally questions Israel's policies.

Some may dismiss Mr. Hilliard's view as sour grapes, but his idea that a political hit squad of Jewish operatives are targeting black politicians is a widely held notion.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas, chair of the Black Caucus, told the Washington Post that among black voters there's a growing perception that "Jewish people are attempting to pick our leaders."

Operatives close to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) helped raise funds for Mr. Hilliard's and Ms. McKinney's opponents, but the defeats of the two incumbents were not solely attributable to hit squads.

The House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct had reprimanded Mr. Hilliard for alleged campaign abuses. He also took pro-labor positions that angered business interests, and his unabashed liberalism had always rubbed some of his Deep South constituents the wrong way.

Ms. McKinney is also a proud liberal in the heart of the old confederacy. Those differing sensibilities were on bold display in April when Ms. McKinney called for an investigation into whether President Bush might have had prior knowledge of the Sept. 11 attacks and if some in his administration might have profited from them.

Her comments angered many Republicans and quite a few of the white Democrats who solidly support the war on terrorism.

The extent of that alienation can be seen in the vote totals in some majority white precincts, where, according to the Washington Post, Ms. McKinney lost by more than 30 to 1.

But the Middle East issue shadows the results.

Ms. Majette is a retired state court judge with centrist domestic positions and a pro-Israel foreign policy. Like Artur Davis, she ardently courted the Jewish vote.

Ms. McKinney was hit with shrill attacks equating the Arabic names of her donors to her support for terrorism. What's more, there were reports that some of her Arab donors were being investigated for terrorist links. Ms. Majette's supporters brandished those allegations as proof of Ms. McKinney's perfidy.

Ms. McKinney remained popular with progressives. During the last stretch of her campaign, several progressive Jewish groups offered their support for her candidacy and campaigned vigorously for the incumbent.

"Pro-Sharon forces have targeted this African-American Democrat for defeat for her strong stance in favor of both Israel and Palestine," wrote Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine, in an attempt to marshal support for Ms. McKinney.

"The ACLU gives her 100 percent, the women's groups give her 100 percent, she's with the unions, she's a good candidate," said Lois Swartz, leader of a group called Bubbes and Zaydes for Peace in the Middle East, explaining her support for Ms. McKinney.

Unfortunately, the views of Ms. Swartz and Mr. Lerner may be forgotten in the aftermath of this bitter race.

The prospect of increased animosity between blacks and Jews is one of the last things this country needs.

Salim Muwakkil is senior editor of In These Times, a Chicago-based publication, and is a columnist with the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. He can be reached via e-mail at

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