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Israel Becomes an Issue for Jewish Democrat

NEW YORK — In a packed Russian-language synagogue and community center in Queens, state Assemblyman David Weprin, an Orthodox Jew, gets such a tepid reception before a short speech that an aide has to loudly seed the applause, which lasts for just a moment and then peters out to stony silence.

Weprin, the Democratic nominee for Tuesday’s special election in New York’s 9th district, gets a cursory introduction from Rabbi Nahum Kaziev, who obviously supports his opponent. Weprin gives a minute-long speech noting that he has worked for the Russian Jewish community in his positions in elective office and has pushed to get city documents translated into Russian. He then walks off the stage and out the door.

Later, after a short musical interlude from a man whom the master of ceremonies calls the “golden voice of New York,” Republican Bob Turner, a Catholic, gets a rousing introduction from the rabbi. Speaking in Russian, Kaziev says that President Barack Obama doesn’t stand with Israel, but Turner would.

Turner takes the stage to enthusiastic applause and says that for the first time in memory, unlike every previous president going back to Harry Truman, the current president is not a friend to Israel.

“You, to send that message to him, that you will not tolerate this condition, you must vote Republican,” Turner says. “I want to be that messenger for you.”

Kaziev takes the microphone and, in impassioned Russian, reminds the roughly 100 congregants in the room to vote. “I ask you, please, on September 13, don’t forget to participate,” he says.

In an election with plenty of unusual twists, perhaps the most confounding is how Weprin, a longtime ally of the Jewish state — an Orthodox Jew, no less — is seen by some voters as the less pro-Israel candidate in the race.

A likely genesis of this thread of the campaign was former New York City Mayor Ed Koch’s (D) endorsement of Turner. Koch wants to send a message of disapproval to the president.

“If David Weprin is elected, you think that sends a message?” Koch asked rhetorically at an endorsement event for Turner.

Koch’s message may have resonated in a district that, despite its more than 3-to-1 Democratic voter registration advantage, has always been suspicious of Obama, knowledgeable Democrats say. Obama carried the 9th with only 55 percent of the vote and the Brooklyn portion of the district actually voted for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) with 57 percent of the vote.

In a later interview with Roll Call, Kaziev stressed that as the leader of a nonprofit, he wasn’t officially endorsing anyone but said the Bukharian Jewish community — 35,000 strong in the district, by his estimate — had deep concerns about Weprin. Kaziev said the three main issues the community had with the Democrat were his connection with Obama, whose leadership on the economy and Israel many are greatly disappointed by, Weprin’s public support for gay marriage in the New York State Assembly and his lack of help for the community when Weprin was a member of the New York City Council.

It’s clear that Israel — and Obama’s policies toward that country — has become an important issue in the short campaign. More opaque is whether the Turner narrative will move the needle in a Democratic district that, while estimated to be a quarter Jewish, is mostly composed of non-Jews. And even among Jews, it’s unclear how important an issue Israel policy will be.

Weprin has positioned himself as strongly pro-Israel in the race. Indeed, in an interview with Roll Call, he took a stance that placed him to the right of most Members of Congress, Republican and Democratic.

“I think the settlement issue is not a real issue,” he says. “Settlements have not been an obstruction to peace at all.”

But that’s a position that doesn’t necessarily jibe with reality.

“It’s demonstrably false,” says Aaron David Miller, a former State Department analyst on the Middle East and an adviser to six secretaries of state, Republican and Democratic.

“It’s disingenuous, it’s not true and it’s also obviously not credible,” he says. “In the mind of anybody with any knowledge of challenges and obstacles to Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, the settlements are a huge obstacle.”

Weprin says he will be an advocate for the Jewish state.

“I don’t think Israel could have a better friend in the United States Congress than David Weprin,” he says.

But asked if Israel could have a better friend in the White House than Obama, Weprin does his best to tiptoe around an answer.

“I’ve disagreed with some of the statements that the president has made on Israel,” he says. “So look, you know, the president is a Democrat, I’m a Democrat.”

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