Black Firebrand Vies in Heavily Jewish District

Charles Barron Battles for Seat That Includes Russian Areas

Truth to Power? New York City Councilmember Charles Barron is running for a Brooklyn Congressional seat.
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Truth to Power? New York City Councilmember Charles Barron is running for a Brooklyn Congressional seat.

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published June 13, 2012, issue of June 22, 2012.
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New York City’s most radical city councilman could end up representing the city’s most politically conservative Jewish community in the U.S. Congress.

In an only-in-Brooklyn clash, New York City Council member Charles Barron, a former Black Panther, has a realistic chance of winning a June 26 Democratic primary that could send him to congress representing Brooklyn’s Russian-speaking Jews.

The possibility has inflamed Russian-Jewish activists. But though Jews make up 20% of the population of the district, the unusually early date of the election and the confusing redistricting process could keep them from the polls.

“They are saying if such a person like Barron will come to Congress, it’s unbelievable,” said Vladimir Epshteyn, an activist and retired community organizer. “He represents for us a huge danger.”

Epshteyn and other activists point to Barron’s history of provocation, his harsh criticism of Israel and his staunch black nationalism to justify their rhetoric. Their concern doesn’t seem shared, however, on the streets of Little Russia by the Sea, as signs on Brighton Beach Boulevard call the neighborhood.

Just a subway stop from hot dog stands and freak shows of the Coney Island boardwalk, shop owners in Brighton Beach assume patrons speak Russian. And though the key congressional primary is just weeks away, no signs are posted under the elevated subway tracks for Barron, or for his opponent, New York State Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries.

A few older Russian-speakers sitting in a playground near the boardwalk recognized Barron’s name when they were asked on a recent morning, but most seemed unaware of the impending race. Few spoke English.

New York’s Russian-speaking Jewish community is self-contained. Many members came to the United States in the past few decades. They listen to Russian radio, read Russian newspapers and shop in Russian supermarkets where signs are written in Russian.

They are conservative, even Republican — an anomaly among New York Jews, and New Yorkers generally. Russian-speaking Jews were credited with playing a major role in the 2010 victory of Republican Bob Turner, who won the special election for the congressional seat vacated by Democrat Anthony Weiner.

Though grassroots awareness of this race appears slight, Barron’s candidacy has elicited particularly vehement passions among community activists.

“For me — I’m talking about my personal opinion — to me he’s a bad guy, let’s put it this way, he’s not good people,” said Yelena Makhnin, an activist who works as executive director of the Brighton Beach Business Improvement District. “I come from the communist country, so I do see some things differently.”

Others also said the depth of their distaste for Barron stems from their Soviet pasts. “The disaster is coming and I know it because I am from the Soviet Union,” said Epshteyn. “The system looks so strong, unbelievably strong. [But] it takes a few seconds, a few minutes, and it can change absolutely the situation.… To have a Barron in Congress.… The Russian Jews from the Soviet Union, we can understand. American Jews living for so many years in prosperity and wealth… they are blind, they don’t see the changes to the world.”

Barron, 61, has served in the City Council for a decade. An outspoken black nationalist, he is as noted for his political skill as for the often-controversial positions he’s taken, including the defense of Third-World dictators. In October, Barron mourned the killing of Libyan dictator Moammar Qaddafi. “Out there, they don’t know that Qaddafi was our brother,” Barron said, according to press reports. “The man was a freedom fighter.”


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