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Biweekly Column
Brookline TAB
Brookline, Massachusetts

Democrats Seek Jewish Votes

Dennis Fox

August 29, 2002

Last Thursday's "Gubernatorial Candidates' Forum on Issues of Concern to the Jewish Community" turned into just another Democratic Party pep-talk. Since few questions at Brookline's Temple Ohabei Shalom addressed specifically Jewish concerns or pushed candidates beyond their comfort zones, the four Dems seeking their party's nomination for Governor mostly repeated long-rehearsed answers and jokes. The forum could have been held anywhere, except for the casual references to visiting Israel and "the Zakim Bridge" and similar efforts to suck up to the mostly Jewish audience.

Greater Boston's Jewish Community Relations Council and the Massachusetts Association of Jewish Federations organized what they advertised as a forum for the "Gubernatorial Candidates." Yet they invited only Democrats and Republicans. Since the GOP's Mitt Romney declined -- he'll only debate whichever Democrat survives the primary -- what we got was another round of emphatic differentiation on things that don't much matter and mushy waffling on most things controversial.

The moderator asked lots of questions, many written by audience members and filtered through screeners, but he didn't push candidates for specifics or challenge their vagueness. The candidates didn't question one another. When Warren Tolman directly accused Tom Birmingham of exaggerating his support for affordable housing, the refreshing bluntness drew gasps from the audience.

Many in the crowd laughed and nodded when my own question was asked: Name the issue you most disagree with the other Democratic candidates about. The contenders played it for laughs, though Robert Reich finally acknowledged that only he favors gay civil marriage, and Tolman reiterated his Clean Elections status (generating the evening's most enthusiastic applause). Another significant difference: Birmingham and Shannon O'Brien defended the state's high-stakes MCAS test; Reich and Tolman denounced its use as a graduation requirement, though Reich again failed to clarify what he'd actually do about it.

On the one issue with clear Jewish relevance, the Democrats said they'll reopen the Massachusetts trade office in Israel. All made it clear whose side they're on in the Middle East, with Tolman going furthest to toe the official Jewish community's one-sided line.

Where were the Libertarian Party's Carla Howell and the Green Party's Jill Stein? In response to an email, the JCRC said they invited "only viable candidates that have a realistic chance of winning the race." "Nevertheless," they said, "this is going to be a great event for the Jewish community."

Perhaps the Jewish community appreciates not wasting its time listening to two women who actually address controversial issues, but their presence would have forced the four Dems to confront complexity rather than side-step it. Their exclusion makes a cynic wonder if the evening's purpose was really just to help ensure Democratic victory. The hurdles our rigged political process places before third-party candidates never came up during the debate.

The barred candidates would have added some excitement. Although a statement from Carla Howell's campaign didn't mention Israel, Libertarian opposition to spending tax money on matters unrelated to direct American interests would imply a less active U.S. role in the region. Her statement did emphasize opposition to the state income tax and gun control, even suggesting that European Jews perished in the Holocaust because Hitler confiscated their weapons.

Less simplistically, Howell added: "Like many groups that sponsor debates, [organizers] often represent only the narrow concerns of their leadership -- not the everyday members of the Jewish community." She had Big Government in mind, but the statement might also apply to the organized Jewish community's effort to downplay Jewish opposition to Israeli policy.

More challenging to Democratic pandering would have been Jill Stein, a Jewish doctor who condemns violence on both sides, calls for a Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel, and says "the politics of violence and terror, from Sharon's leadership and the Israeli Defense Force's occupation to Hamas and the suicide bombers, is clearly an utter failure." The campaign worker who sent me Stein's statement added: "I suspect the reason Jill was excluded from the debate has more to do with the Green Party's position on the Arab/Israeli conflict than it does with her viability."

It's too bad the organizers opted simply to front for the Democratic Party. The evening could have been a lot more interesting.

Note: this version may differ from the published version.

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