A New York assemblyman who started his political career as a lieutenant of the extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane has been using his taxpayer-funded staff to organize missions to Israel protesting the planned disengagement from Gaza.
Last week State Assemblyman Dov Hikind, Brooklyn Democrat and Orthodox Jew, led his second mission to Israel in recent months. In an interview with the Forward, Hikind acknowledged that a state-paid staffer organized the 120-person mission.
Hikind defended the practice and his office’s role in organizing the mission, saying it was “no different than when [legislators] are involved in issues like South Africa or Puerto Rico.” He referred to the disengagement plan, which calls for more than 8,000 Jewish settlers to be relocated from their homes in Gaza, as “a moral issue, a human rights issue.” The goal of the recent mission, he said, was “to show solidarity” with the Jews of Gaza. “Regardless of what your position is, how can you not feel the pain, the difficulty of thousands who are being thrown out of their home?” Hikind asked.
Many of Hikind’s assembly colleagues and New York political figures who do not share his right-wing views on Arab-Israel questions defended the use of an aide to organize the mission. But the move, first reported in the Jerusalem Post, drew criticism from some liberals in America and Israel.
Via a spokesman, former Meretz Party leader Yossi Sarid said: “We have our own nuts. The last thing we need is the loonies of the rest of the world coming here and bothering us.”
In New York, a former president of the city’s Jewish Community Relations Council, Martin Begun, also objected to the mission.
“Dov represents a constituency that has a vested interest in the settlements and I understand that and a lot of people do, but that’s an issue to be decided in Israel, by Israelis for Israeli national security issues, and it is not, I think, an issue that America collectively should involve itself in,” said Begun, a public affairs consultant and former vice president of the Liberal Party in New York. “He is treading in uncharted waters which are filled with sharks,” Begun added. “And he is not doing the State of Israel a service by doing it, but his donors would probably applaud him as would most of his constituents.”
Hikind represents Boro Park, a heavily Orthodox neighborhood where the Gaza settlers have many supporters, but some sectarian rabbinical authorities maintain their longtime opposition to Zionism.
Even if Hikind’s donors approve, Begun said, “that doesn’t have to do with the ethics of it all, quite frankly. You want to do this, raise private funds, don’t use state employees.”
According to Hikind, the trip cost $1,200 per person, which covered airfare, food and buses in Israel. Hikind’s spokeswoman said that the figure, which represents a bargain price for Israel travel, was not being subsidized by any outside organization.
Among those defending Hikind’s role in organizing the mission was New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.
Eileen Larrabee, spokeswoman for Silver, said that Hikind’s use of his staff to run missions is permissible because “it’s wholly appropriate for legislators and staff to conduct research and provide constituent services on issues of concern within a member’s community.”
“I don’t see it as a problem,” said Assemblyman Mark Weprin, a Queens Democrat who has chaired the assembly’s Ethics Committee. “Part of the job is to be an advocate for the positions my constituents are concerned with. There’s no law in the state that you can’t advocate for a position that the government doesn’t support.” Wepring noted that in 2001, several New York officeholders, including one of his assembly colleagues, went to Vieques, Puerto Rico, and got arrested for protesting the American policy of maintaining a military bombing range there.
Mark Green, New York’s former consumer advocate and 2001 Democratic candidate for mayor, said: “It’s not illegal so it’s a judgment call. Clearly he views advocacy for Israel and the Jewish community as part of his jurisdiction.”
Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, a former aide of Governor George Pataki who has clashed with Hikind over the years, said that Hikind “has as much right as any other legislator to interpret” how best to serve his constituents on issues of concern to them, adding that in the same way that New York legislators use public monies to make trips to the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Italy, Hikind’s missions are “similarly valid.”
Rabbi Michael Paley, a longtime peace advocate and an official of the UJA Federation of New York, said: “I think it’s appropriate. I’m against [the fact] that he went. But Dov Hikind’s constituents would all argue that he should use tax money that way.”
Even one of the top Israeli defenders of the disengagement plan, Vice Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, declined to criticize Hikind.
“I don’t want to go into the internal affairs of the New York State Assembly,” said Olmert while in New York, trying to build support for the government’s disengagement policy. “I’m sorry he opposed the disengagement, but I have enormous respect for him as a friend.”
The New York State Democratic Committee declined comment. The New York State Republican Committee, the New York Assembly minority leader and Pataki’s office did not return calls seeking comment.
Hikind’s wife, Shoshana, once Pataki’s director of community affairs, also has courted controversy. In 1995, speaking at a dinner of the ultra-rightist settler organization the Jerusalem Reclamation Project, she blasted Israel’s then-deputy foreign minister, Yossi Beilin, declaring, “We in the American Jewish community will do everything in our power to put you and your government out of business.” Pataki was forced to distance himself from the remarks, saying afterward, according to news reports, that Hikind “does not develop or speak the foreign policy of my administration.”