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Hillary’s Hesitant Surge

New York Jewish voters are moving cautiously into Hillary Clinton's corner

April 13, 2000 | 8:00 pm

All sorts of theories are floating around New York this month as to why First Lady Hillary Clinton has suddenly pulled ahead of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in their bruising race for the U.S. Senate. It's the first time she's been ahead since she began campaigning last fall. Something's going on, and New Yorkers don't like surprises.

A key reason, pundits agree, is the Republican mayor's mishandling of police-minority tensions, which are currently at a boiling point following the March 16 police killing of an unarmed black man. Some also credit Clinton's months on the hustings, methodically shaking hands and kissing babies across the state while Giuliani was hunkered down in City Hall.

Less discussed, so far, is a sudden reexamination of one of the classic dilemmas in modern Western political thought. We refer, of course, to the age-old tension between Jewish universalism and Jewish particularism.

That's how many of New York's Jewish voters are viewing the choice they face next November, according to local rabbis and community leaders. To these folks -- perhaps one-fourth of the state's 1.7 million Jews -- a vote for Clinton represents Jewish idealism, while a vote for Giuliani represents Jewish self-interest, and neither feels quite right.

"It's the classic Jewish dilemma," says Rabbi Ephraim Rubinger, a Conservative rabbi in Massapequa, the Long Island suburb where Jerry Seinfeld grew up. "Jews want to be pro-Clinton because they see themselves as liberals and Democrats. But on specific Jewish issues, like support for the Palestinians and her meetings with Al Sharpton, they see her as dangerous. It's an agonizing decision."

That Jewish dilemma will play a big role in determining New York's next senator, as the latest polls make clear. After trailing Giuliani since last summer by margins of between three and eight points, Clinton suddenly surged in late March to lead by about the same margin. Most of the shift, polls show, was among Jews, Hispanics and upstate voters.

Rubinger says the Jewish defections don't surprise him. "Giuliani's behavior in defending some of the police actions gives Jews an excuse to go back where they came from," he says. "But that could change."

Jews, in fact, showed the most dramatic shift of all the groups that moved toward Clinton, according to Republican pollster John Zogby. The candidates had been tied among Jews at about 44 percent each since September. Zogby's latest poll shows Clinton ahead among Jews, 57 to 27. Jewish defections account for about one-third of Giuliani's overall decline.

Some experts question Zogby's findings, noting that state polls rarely report Jewish opinion because Jewish respondents are too sparse to be statistically meaningful. But Zogby's sample includes about 90 Jewish respondents, more than the statistical minimum. Moreover, he says, the consistency of his findings -- Jewish voters split 45-45 from September to February, then spreading to 51-42 for Clinton in early March and finally to 57-27 in late March -- "is significant enough to indicate that there is movement."

The shift is statewide, and powerful. "I think the statements Giuliani made about that police shooting victim gave him a callous image, fairly or not, and backfiring," says Rabbi Michael Feshbach, a Reform rabbi in upstate Buffalo. "There is still a sympathy for minorities in the community."

It's fragile, though. "Hillary can make some untoward comment, or show up to speak in the wrong place, and people will move right back," says Rubinger.

Clinton's own strategists tend to dismiss her Palestinian problem as a fringe obsession among Brooklyn extremists. It's not. It arises repeatedly in conversations with Reform and Conservative rabbis in the middle-class suburbs of Long Island. Their congregants -- schoolteachers, accountants, small shopowners -- will decide the election. And they're troubled.

"Hillary still has a huge obstacle to overcome," says Rabbi Charles Klein of Merrick, down the road from Massapequa, who officiated at Seinfeld's wedding last year. "Jews would love to have a candidate that they really felt more certain about in terms of Israel."

New York's Jews are America's largest Jewish community, but they're not what they used to be. A half-century ago they numbered over two million, one-fourth of the city's population. Today they're just over one million, 14 percent of the city. Still, together with a half-million Jews in the surrounding suburbs, they remain the largest Jewish community in the world and a powerful political force. They're 9 percent of the state's population but comprise an estimated 15 percent of the electorate because of higher turnout.

New York isn't what it used to be, either. The nation's third-largest state, population 18.2 million, its politics are largely defined by the fact that it used to be No. 1 until industry fled in the 1960s.

Much of the state has stagnated. Only New York City, with 40 percent of the state's population, still thrives. It remains the nation's business and media capital -- and an object of intense resentment in the rest of the state.

Hillary Clinton's unprecedented decision to run for senator from New York, even though she'd never lived there, underscored the state's continued hold on the national imagination. If she succeeds, she will be the first First Lady ever to use the White House as a springboard to higher office. If she loses, it will be at least partly because of New Yorkers' ambivalence about their state. Instead of glorying in the city's magnetic appeal, many now resent it.

Less noticed, Giuliani is trying for a historic first of his own. He would be the first New York City mayor ever to move on to higher office. No mayor before him has ever managed to overcome upstate New Yorkers' loathing of the city and win a statewide election.

Being a Republican should help Giuliani among the largely Republican voters upstate. He'll be helped, too, by the fact that his opponent is Hillary Clinton, who galvanizes Republicans to action in a way that Giuliani himself could never hope to.

Most Jews around the state, like their neighbors, will decide their votes over those issues, not Palestinian statehood. "My guess is that most Democrats will vote Democratic and most Republicans will vote Republican," says Rabbi Feshbach in Buffalo. "And most Jews are Democrats."

For a big group in and around New York City, though, the Jewish question looms large. "We're going to see a lot of flip-flopping between now and November," says Rubinger. "That's what makes it such an interesting race from a Jewish point of view. This is the genuine Jewish dilemma between particularism and universalism."

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