News Analysis: Jewish House Candidates Clash Over Israel

By Ron Kampeas (JTA)

Published June 23, 2010.
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Joel Pollak has traveled from liberal to conservative in his young lifetime, and now he hopes to take Chicago’s storied Lakefront with him.

The Harvard Law School graduate, 32, is running a quixotic campaign against U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), who has held the seat since 1999, winning 75 percent majorities in elections along the way.

Pollak’s emphasis has been the economy, but Schakowsky’s close ties to President Obama has made Israel an issue in this heavily Jewish district.

Making it more interesting: Pollak and Schakowsky are Jewish. He’s Orthodox, she’s not. He has the support of Alan Dershowitz, she is backed by J Street and the Chicago-based pro-Israel, pro-abortion rights political action committee known as JACPAC.

It’s a potent mix and potential proxy fight, reflecting at least on paper several Jewish demographic trends – most notably the increasing willingness of Orthodox Jews and some pro-Israel Democrats to line up behind GOP candidates.

Pollak has been quick to question Schakowsky’s bona fides on Israel.

“She plays a very cheap game of ethnic politics when it comes to Israel, but doesn’t understand the issues and the dangers,” Pollak said. “She’ll show up at the events and sign the letters when she’s pressured to do so.”

Schakowsky has said that her pro-Israel record is 100 percent, and pro-Israel insiders – including at JACPAC, the Joint Action Committee for Public Affairs – agree that she has been reliable on the issues that concern the community, particularly Iran.

She chided Pollak for making it a campaign issue.

“The strength of the U.S.-Israel relationship has been from the first minute the bipartisan support, and for a candidate to make it into a campaign issue without any warrant to do so is not helpful for Israel,” the veteran congresswoman said.

Pollak has picked at two areas where he thinks Schakowsky is vulnerable: She has accepted the endorsement of the upstart lobby J Street; and Helen Thomas headlined a Schakowsky fund-raiser just weeks before the longtime journalist’s career imploded after she said Israeli Jews should “go home” to Poland, Germany and the United States.

Schakowsky distanced herself after the Thomas incident, saying that the journalist’s views on Israel did not come up during the “power lunch.” In a statement, Schakowsky said it was time for Thomas to retire.

“I think it is fitting that she has resigned her position as a columnist for Hearst over her inappropriate and highly offensive remarks,” the statement said. “It is a sad ending to Thomas’ pioneering career – one that has been uplifting for women in journalism – but it is clear that there is no room for such deplorable bias, nor should there be.”

It was the Thomas luncheon and the J Street endorsement that drew Dershowitz into the race – to endorse a Republican against a Democrat for the first time in his life. (He has endorsed Republicans in primaries against other GOP candidates.)

“I’m nervous about why she had Helen Thomas,” the Harvard law professor and best-selling author told JTA. “Even before Thomas revealed herself as a bigot, everyone knew she was virulently anti-Israel.”

Dershowitz said J Street’s “enthusiastic” support for Schakowsky also made him nervous. The outspoken advocate for Israel has clashed with J Street in the past, saying it should promote its dovish policies within existing pro-Israel structures rather than making such disagreements public.

Much more of a consideration for Dershowitz, however, was Pollak’s status as a former student and assistant.

“He was one of the best researchers I ever had,” Dershowitz said. “He is a brilliant young man who has an important future.”

Dershowitz said Pollak helped him research his responses to Israel critiques by former President Jimmy Carter and Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer.

Dershowitz headlined a sold-out lunch for Pollak that packed a room with more than 200 people and brought in $30,000 for the candidate.

On the same day, J Street ran an online fund-raiser asking followers if they were “itching to send Dershowitz a message.” The campaign raised $35,000 for Schakowsky.

Schakowsky acknowledged that her relationship with J Street and her closeness to President Obama – she was one of the first lawmakers to endorse him – created opportunities for Pollak in a Jewish community that has been made nervous by disagreements between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“I am a supporter of the president. That doesn’t mean on every aspect or everything he does I might not have a nuanced difference,” she said, specifying Israel as an example.

Schakowsky said that at a recent closed meeting between Obama and Jewish Congress members, she and others raised “all the kinds of things we hear in the community.”

One issue, she said, was the public nature of the tensions with Israel over settlement building.

“We wanted to make sure he heard a lot of things we hear, that when you are friends you should share these things in a more quiet way – that when Israel is criticized, it shouldn’t be one-sided,” she said.

Schakowsky also noted Obama’s recent statements of support for Israel and his success in shepherding new Iran sanctions through the United Nations.

The questioning of her bond to Israel “pains me,” Schakowsky said. “It’s even more directly like family for people to question my lifelong allegiance to Israel.”

Pollak earned a brief flash of fame a year ago when he confronted another Jewish Democrat – U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), the chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Financial Services Committee.

Pollak said it irked him that Frank, addressing Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, blamed only conservatives for the mortgage crisis.

“It happened under your watch,” Pollak said.

Pollak and Frank sparred for five minutes over whether Pollak had “accused” Frank of something and who had which facts right. The video got Pollak a post-battle appearance on the Fox News Channel. Pollak said he had once been a left-wing Democrat, but what he described as the tendency on the left to squeeze out dissent pushed him rightward.

“The orthodoxies became more and more radical over the years, less pragmatic after the Clinton era,” he said.

Pollak now opposes what he describes as big government spending, and he has been endorsed by the conservative Tea Party movement.

“I share its emphasis on controlling government spending and restraining executive power,” he said.

Pollak says that’s the issue that could get him elected in November, and noted that the district in recent years has pushed west, where more conservative voters live, among them an enclave of Orthodox Jews.

“There is a backlash there, even in Lakefront areas,” the kipah-wearing candidate said, adding that the Chicago metropolitan area has lost 250,000 jobs in recent years.

Jewish political insiders say that, if anything, Schakowsky is least vulnerable in this area – although anything could happen in a “Tea Party” year.

The incumbent is a formidable beat politician; she helped direct money to open a new commuter rail station in suburban Skokie.

“We’re running a strong campaign throughout the district,” Schakowsky said. “I’m home every weekend meeting with constituents and going to their meetings.”

She would not dismiss Pollak.

“I take every challenge seriously,” she said. “Joel is running an energetic campaign.”

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