Rift between blacks, Jews worries Democrats for fall

Strain over Middle East could threaten chances of winning back Congress

August 26, 2002|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - The intensifying violence in the Middle East is straining relations between black and Jewish leaders in the United States, with potentially serious consequences for the Democratic Party.

The conflict between two of the party's strongest support groups - which have a history dating to the civil rights era of working together - threatens to harm the Democrats' chances of regaining control of Congress this fall, analysts say.

Black and Jewish Democrats in Congress have been working quietly for months to try to repair the growing rift between African-Americans, who resent efforts by Israel's supporters to defeat black incumbents, and Jews, whose interest groups have in recent months helped oust two black lawmakers they considered anti-Israel.

"It has to be a worry for the Democrats," says David Bositis, senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, an African-American think tank. "The worry is that some percentage of black voters will become disaffected and won't vote in November."

The problem is being discussed at the highest levels of Democratic leadership in Congress, where black and Jewish House leaders have had meetings this summer to try to cool tempers and resolve differences.

"All of us were becoming concerned that the gap could possibly get wider and wider, and we didn't want that to happen," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat and the vice chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.

The conflict has surfaced at a time when Jewish leaders are increasingly sensitive to criticism of Israel and more determined than ever to show support for the Jewish state.

"The level of violence in the Mideast, the level of killing is ... just alarming," said Ira N. Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council. Consequently, Jews are "more focused than in the recent past on U.S.-Israel relations."

That focus has already helped defeat two black Democratic House members in bitter primary battles. Both incumbents lost to black challengers who were supported by pro-Israel political action committees.

Most recently, Rep. Cynthia A. McKinney, who received hefty financial support from Arab-Americans, lost in Georgia last week to Denise L. Majette, a former state judge who was backed by pro-Israel groups.

McKinney, a liberal firebrand who has often taken controversial positions during her 10 years in Congress, gained notoriety in the spring when she accused President Bush of ignoring warnings of the Sept. 11 attacks. In addition, some Muslim groups that contributed to McKinney's campaign have been investigated for ties to terrorism.

Despite McKinney's vulnerability, many black leaders blamed her defeat on pro-Israel interest groups, which mobilized intensely on behalf of the more moderate Majette. After his daughter lost the primary, state Rep. Billy McKinney told WXIA-TV in Atlanta: "Jews have bought everybody. Jews ... J-E-W-S."

Black leaders in Washington have been more politic in their statements, but it is clear they are no less worried about the issue.

"It appears some elements of the Jewish community have become more aggressive, and it's unprecedented, and I think it risks rupturing the traditional black-Jewish alliance," said Rep. Albert R. Wynn, a Prince George's County Democrat.

Pro-Israel PAC money

McKinney's loss was not the first to distress African-American members of Congress. In Alabama's Democratic primary in June, pro-Israel political action committees threw their support - and tens of thousands of dollars - behind attorney Artur G. Davis, who defeated five-term Rep. Earl F. Hilliard, who has expressed pro-Palestinian views.

Hilliard was reproached by the House ethics committee last year for taking campaign funds for personal use, and he drew criticism in 1997 for visiting Libya in defiance of a State Department travel ban.

Jewish lawmakers defended the pro-Israel lobby's involvement.

"The Jewish community has very strong beliefs about political involvement in issues that are important to them," said Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat.

Wynn did not attend this summer's meetings with Jewish House members "because I felt that the Jewish leaders feel as strongly about Israel as African-Americans feel about apartheid," he said, meaning he saw little middle ground.

According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, pro-Israel political groups - which have a long record of heavy financial involvement in elections - have given $3.6 million to candidates during this election cycle, as of July 29.

Pro-Israel interest groups gave Alabama's Davis at least $68,567, according to the center, and were his biggest source of financial support. Georgia's Majette received substantial funding from out-of-state Jewish donors as well, including $14,250 from pro-Israel political action committees, according to Federal Election Commission filings.

Endangered from start

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