WASHINGTON — Former Georgia congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, known for her fiery pro-Palestinian views, is trying to stage a comeback, and her effort is reigniting debates over the influence of the pro-Israel lobby in American politics.
On July 29, voters in the Fourth Congressional District in Georgia will choose the Democratic candidate for the local House seat. The race, in a congressional district where most inhabitants are African-American and only a handful are Jewish, is stirring nationwide interest among pro-Israel activists and reigniting accusations of Jewish interference in black politics.
McKinney, a five-term House veteran and a leading figure in the Congressional Black Caucus, was ousted two years ago in a bruising primary battle. She had become a red flag to many Democratic moderates because of her claims following the September 11, 2001, attacks that senior administration figures had known about Al Qaeda’s plans and that some administration allies were profiting from the war on terror. Members of the Jewish community in Georgia and elsewhere joined the anti-McKinney effort, galvanized by what many regarded as her pro-Palestinian record.
A local attorney, Denise Majette, who received financial support from McKinney critics across the country, ousted McKinney. But after just one term in the House, Majette has decided to run for the Senate in what most observers consider a long-shot bid. With her House seat now open, McKinney is back in the picture, vowing to return to Congress.
McKinney barely has spoken on Israel since her ouster, and is now trying to focus on domestic issues. But her critics say that nothing has changed since 2002, and some are vowing a concerted effort to prevent her return to Congress. Public opinion polls show her as the front-runner. Neither McKinney nor her spokesman agreed to be interviewed for this report.
Deborah Lauter, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, says that whatever McKinney’s views on Israel, her organization “did not see problems of antisemitism.” Still, Jewish communal sources note that McKinney never repudiated comments by her father, who said after the 2002 election that she had lost because “the Jews bought everyone. The J-e-w-s,” he repeated, spelling it out for emphasis.
For all the passionate Jewish opposition, however, the Jewish community is in a quandary over how to deal with McKinney’s race for Congress. Unlike in 2002, no contender has emerged as a clear alternative to McKinney. Most observers assume that the primary will be determined only in a runoff and that McKinney will be one of the two contenders in the runoff. Until then, McKinney’s opponents, both Jewish and non-Jewish, are reluctant to throw their support behind any one contender. One of the candidates is a Jewish woman prominent in Atlanta communal affairs.
Also daunting is the heightened attention to Jewish political clout in recent months, seemingly raising the stakes in this race. Some activists fear that overly visible Jewish involvement could backfire and increase the hostility it was meant to reduce.
Still, the image of Jewish influence is strong. All the contenders in the Fourth District race showed up at Aipac’s annual policy conference in Washington in May, seemingly confirming claims that Jewish lobbyists call the shots.
ADL’s Lauter bristles at such claims. “American Jews have every right to participate in American politics, like any other special interest group,” said Lauter said, adding that she regularly tells African-American leaders to follow the example of Jewish activists. “If the African-Americans were as involved in politics as we are, it would have given them a significant advantage.”
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.