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BROOKLYN, N.Y. – Orthodox Jews in the largely Hasidic enclave of Brooklyn’s Borough Park neighborhood could soon find themselves represented in Congress by a politician who routinely uses anti-Semitic rhetoric and believes that Israel should never have been created.
The possibility that New York City Councilman Charles Barron could clinch the Democratic nomination today in a race against Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries has put Jewish leaders of all stripes on high alert—and could set the tone for how Jewish voters view the Democratic Party going forward.
“Without question, if Barron wins on Tuesday, how the state and national leadership of his party deal with his campaign will have an impact nationally on how Jews and other constituents will vote in November,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, an institution established to combat anti-Semitism.
Jewish leaders and political experts warn that in a low-turnout primary race, Barron’s extreme base could secure him a win, putting him on course to become the most anti-Israel member of Congress in recent memory.
“The question is, ‘Does the Barron base exceed the turnout for Jeffries,’” said Fred Siegel, senior fellow of the Manhattan Institute's Center for State and Local Leadership. “No one has any idea who’s coming out.”
Concerns about Barron are longstanding, particularly since retiring Rep. Ed Towns, the district’s outgoing representative, endorsed the divisive candidate.
“New York Democrats are obviously quite worried that Charles Barron, who has made a number of outrageous statements over the years, will win a primary for the House seat of the retiring Rep. Ed Towns,” said Kyle Kondik, House Editor at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “Having Barron in Congress would be a real headache for Democrats.”
But, while a small delegation of Jewish Democrats in New York have publicly rallied against Barron, many others lawmakers—such as New York Sen. Charles Schumer (D)—have kept quiet for reasons that remain unclear.
Schumer’s office did not respond to a request specifically seeking comment on Barron.
"So what else will it take for the leadership of the Democratic Party—not just the Jewish Community—to finally denounce Charles Barron if he wins this Tuesday' s election?” asked Rabbi Cooper. “In the past, national leaders of both parties have opposed candidates with white supremacist or other bigoted credentials.”
Though the mainstream press has highlighted a handful of Barron’s more sensational comments—such as dubbing Israel the “biggest terrorist in the world” and praising some of the globe’s most ruthless dictators—most have ignored the deeper context.
Barron has spent a large portion of his public career promulgating anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, such as comparing the Israeli government to Nazis and denouncing the power of the “Jewish lobby”—beliefs that place him in a class of anti-Semites that includes former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, who recently endorsed Barron.
“Charles Barron may not have sought former KKK leader David Duke's endorsement, but he surely earned it with his long-standing, deeply entrenched hatred for the Jewish state and his denial that today's Jewish people are not even Semites,” said Cooper.
Jewish Democrats admit that they will be nervously watching the race, hoping the party can prevent the avoidable headache in a critical election year.
“Were Barron to be elected, he’d not only be the least pro-Israel member of Congress in history, but New York eight would become the laughing stock of all 435 congressional districts,” said one prominent Jewish Democratic activist. “There’s too many things wrong with Barron’s candidacy to oppose him on just one thing, though his stance on Israel is reason enough.”
The fact that Barron would represent one of the biggest Orthodox enclaves in the United States “only emphasizes the immediacy that friends of Israel and the Jewish community make sure Jeffries wins,” said the source.
Other Jewish Democrats agree.
Earlier this month, Former New York Mayor Ed Koch and Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D., N.Y.) denounced Barron as an anti-Israel agitator.
“It’s not clear that Koch or Jerry Nadler denouncing him hurts him,” said the Manhattan Institute’s Siegel. “It’s probably helps him. There’s a perverse quality to all of this.”
Barron’s foray into political activism began when he joined the Harlem branch of the radical Black Panther Party at the age of 18. The Panthers’ hostile attitude toward Jews likely set the table for Barron’s subsequent anti-Israel crusades, which started as early as 2002 when Barron was a first-term city councilman.
"I find it absolutely amazing that an intelligent, seemingly very sincere person can sit here and tell the world that all of the thousands of killings of innocent Palestinian women and children have been an accident,” Barron said during a 2002 hearing in which he accused the Israeli army of intentionally murdering woman and children.
“The world doesn't believe you, I believe half of your supporters will clap for you, but they know in their heart of hearts, that half of those killings were not an accident,” he said at the time.
While foreign policy typically falls out of the purview of a local New York City lawmaker, Barron has only grown bolder in his anti-Israel activism over the years, even accusing the Jewish state of operating a “concentration death camp” in a 2010 interview.
“You go to Gaza and you see the destruction, you see the destruction of Gaza,” Barron said, accusing Israel of “participating in genocide.”
“It’s like having a concentration death camp,” added Barron, who made similar accusations in an interview the previous year. “It’s horrible, and the whole world is and should be outraged.”
Barron has also trafficked in age-old anti-Semitic tropes, regularly intimating that Jews manipulate the U.S. political process and foreign policy.
In one recent instance, Barron accused his colleague David Greenfeld of being owned by the “Jewish lobby.” In an interview years earlier, Barron declared that the U.S. went to war with Iraq to satisfy Israel.
As a lawmaker, Barron passionately combated an effort to condemn a New York political leader’s anti-Semitic comments, citing then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s supposed “racist, bigoted” actions as his reason for opposing the measure.
Barron also has tried to aid the terror group Hamas, which is dedicated to destroying the Jewish state. In 2009, Barron and two staff members headed a fleet to the Gaza Strip that aimed to deliver millions in aid money to Hamas, according to reports.
This pattern of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic advocacy has earned Barron sharp rebukes from advocacy groups on each end of the political spectrum.
“When you have MoveOn and ECI attacking Barron as dangerous and fundamentally unserious, there’s something very, very wrong there,” said the Democratic activist.
Still, public union groups affiliated with AFSCME have pledged support for Barron, a move that came as a shock to many.
AFSCME spokesperson Chris Fleming did not respond to a request seeking comment on whether the organization also backed Barron.
The New York chapter of the environmental group Sierra Club also has thrown its support behind Barron.
The outcome of today’s election is unknown, experts say.
“There are not any clear indications as to the state of the race; House primaries, especially one where high turnout is not expected, are hard to accurately handicap,” said the Center for Politics’ Kondik, who noted that if Barron wins, Jeffries could run on a third party ticket.
“A Barron victory on Tuesday might not be the end of the matter,” he explained. “Jeffries is on the Working Families Party ballot line, as well as the Democratic line. He could run as the third party candidate against Barron in the fall, and national Democrats would support him.”