The Middle East's political spillover

Salim Muwakkil. Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor at In These Times

August 5, 2002

The political spillover of Middle East issues into U.S. politics is threatening the political livelihoods of some members of the Congressional Black Caucus and straining relations between black and Jewish Democrats.

This is a significant political development because blacks and Jews have been traditional political allies and both have been strong pillars of support for the Democratic Party. What's more, Jews were among the strongest supporters of the civil rights movement and remain prominent in the struggle for racial justice.

The Congressional Black Caucus has been among the strongest supporters of Israel and the fiercest foes of anti-Semitism.

But increasing cycles of Middle East violence and growing black support for some Palestinian issues have raised tensions between the two constituencies.

The most recent example was the defeat of U.S. Rep. Earl Hilliard, a five-term black congressman from Alabama's 7th District. Hilliard lost the June 25 primary to Artur Davis, a 34-year-old black attorney and political newcomer, who observers say benefited inordinately from Jewish support.

According to an analysis in Roll Call, a Washington-based political journal, donor interest in Davis' campaign "was fueled largely by Middle East politics." Hilliard is one of a few congressmen who occasionally has voted against the interests of the Israel lobby.

There were hints of a growing rift between African-American Democrats and their Jewish party mates, with CBC members complaining that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee withheld financial support from Hilliard because so many Jewish contributors were supporting his opponent.

Roll Call reported that one senior caucus member "threatened that if `outsiders' are permitted to choose the membership of the Black Caucus, members of the CBC would retaliate by fighting aid to Israel."

Hilliard said his defeat proved "the Jews of the United States have one issue--it is Israel. If you do not agree with them, they will fight you and they will try to defeat you."

But, he said, sometimes the interests of Israel clash with those of black America. "You cannot continue to take $6 billion and $10 billion on an annual basis out of our economy and give it to Israel and to the defense of Israel," he told, a Web site of the National Newspaper Publishers Association.

Political analysts say the growing tensions between these two core constituents of the Democratic Party pose serious dangers for the party's future.

"From reports, the Jewish community likes what Bush is doing in Israel," noted Ronald Waters, a professor of political science at the University of Maryland. If Democrats seem more willing to criticize Israel, many Jews probably would "move to Republican candidates this fall."

The Aug. 20 primary race of Georgia Democrat Cynthia McKinney (D-Ga.) also is ratcheting up tensions. McKinney's opponent is Denise Majette, a retired state judge with centrist domestic positions and pro-Israel views. Like Davis in Alabama (who even visited this year's American Israel Public Affairs Committee convention in Washington), Majette is ardently courting Jewish support.

McKinney, who came to office in 1992 with considerable Jewish support, since has alienated some members of the Jewish community with her increasing expressions of support for the Palestinians.

In an April interview on a Berkeley, Calif., radio station, McKinney called for an investigation into whether President Bush might have had prior knowledge of the Sept. 11 terror attacks and if some members in his administration had profited from them.

While McKinney's behavior has angered some right-wing supporters of Israel, it has energized others with hopes that some legislators can defy the stifling conventional wisdom that has made U.S. foreign policy an embarrassment to the civilized world.

A number of progressive groups have signed on to McKinney's campaign and are doing their best to offset the influence the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

"Pro-Sharon [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon] forces have targeted this African-American Democrat for defeat for her strong stance in favor of both Israel and Palestine," wrote Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun, in the publication's recent edition. He said he backed McKinney's candidacy and called her positions on Israel a "reasonable critique."

But in these days of suicide bombings, full-scale occupation and targeted assassinations, even a reasonable critique can mark a candidate for political death.

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