Democrats walk a fine line these days when they reach out to the organized, activist wing of the Jewish community. One side beckons with an ardent, almost scolding reminder of the Jewish mandate to care for the needy. On the other side, an urgent, almost pleading defense of the Democrats’ record on Israel. The danger: Lean too hard toward the social-welfare side, and you risk pushing resentful, wavering centrists into the Republicans’ arms. Let Israel sideline social issues and you alienate the liberals.
And how do you handle Israel? Do you defend the president’s record to hardcore skeptics, or steer clear of him and tout your own stance, as if by contrast?
Most of us never see these mental gyrations up close. That’s what’s so interesting about the annual congressional breakfast of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York. You get to watch a posse of lawmakers stand up before a room full of skeptical rabbis and community leaders and trot out their best lines while the audience noshes on bagels and lox. As Yogi Berra once said, you can observe a lot just by watching.
For those unfamiliar with the institution, JCRC is a confederation of local Jewish organizations that lobbies City Hall on synagogue zoning and holiday parking rules, works with police on anti-Semitic crimes and dialogues with local church and minority groups. It’s largely funded by UJA-Federation of New York, but the two institutions aren’t alike. UJA tends to be top-heavy with Park Avenue liberals, while JCRC draws more on middle class neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens. UJA gatherings are speckled with Armani; JCRC leans toward polyester, liberally sprinkled with black yarmulkes.
For most politicians, the distinction is a bit confusing. Entering an event in the UJA building, they’re never sure who they’re talking to or what the crowd wants — or needs — to hear.
A few politicians work the JCRC breakfast like they own the room, hopping among tables, wisecracking from the podium, drawing easy laughs from the audience. Forty-year House veteran Charlie Rangel of Harlem, New York’s longest-serving congressman and the top Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, seems to know everyone here. His message: Israel is our most important ally and the Jewish community sets an example for all New Yorkers in commitment to social justice. If anyone present is put off by his ethics scandals, they’re not showing it. He’s a walking, talking, glad-handing lesson in how a politician thrives for decades, how Jewish welfare agencies collect billions in federal aid and how blacks and Jews work together, all rolled into one rotund package.
Senator Chuck Schumer is equally at home and then some. He’s attended these things since he was a young congressman from Brooklyn. As Washington turned conservative, he would joke that he’d always been Conservative. Today he has serious messages. First, on Iran: “Over the past year and a half we’ve learned that economic sanctions really work.” Iran is feeling pressure from its own people. China is meeting with the Saudis to find alternate oil supplies. That’s the administration’s strategy at work — “I have to say this because they don’t get enough credit.” Second, a veiled warning: “What’s going on in Syria is an opportunity to use the crisis in a way that’s smart and weakens Hezbollah, because Assad is worried about his future.” The implication: There’s likely some backroom dealing ahead that will displease the hawks in the short run. Live with it. “It’s important in terms of the survival of Israel.”