Opinion |

Is Cynthia Nixon Good for the Jews? Depends Which Jews

In New York politics, being at odds with Israel, or sympathizing with the Palestinians, was traditionally a recipe for trouble. Orthodox Jewish voters aside, that’s just no longer true

Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin
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Candidate for New York governor Cynthia Nixon speaks with reporters at her first campaign stop, Tuesday March 20, 2018.
Candidate for New York governor Cynthia Nixon speaks with reporters at her first campaign stop, Tuesday March 20, 2018.Credit: Bebeto Matthews/AP
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin

It’s the sort of thing that used to be the kiss of death in New York politics.

When Alan Dershowitz brought up actress Cynthia Nixon’s past association with an anti-Zionist group’s petition, calling her "bigoted" and tweeting further "If you’re anti-Israel, Nixon’s your candidate," it might once have been considered a body blow to her campaign for governor of New York, a state where Jews make a sizable percentage of the electorate, especially in Democratic primaries.

Though the former "Sex and the City" star faces an uphill climb against incumbent Andrew Cuomo, in what should be a vicious primary race, she’s probably not all that worried about losing Jewish votes because of attacks from Dershowitz and other pro-Israel activists.

Far from being alienated from New York Jews, the liberal challenger has deep connections in the Jewish community. But those connections reflect a very different way of getting votes than the traditional path followed by Cuomo and other politicians. And those differences may tell us more about the future of American Jewry than its past.

While Nixon is locking heads with Cuomo over education funding, as well as hoping to derail his presidential ambitions, some in the Jewish community are viewing the primary’s implications from the same perspective they do with every election: Is it good for the Jews, or for Israel?

The pro-Israel community always judges candidates on whether they support the Jewish state, even if foreign policy and the Middle East conflict have nothing to do with the responsibilities of the office in question.

In New York politics, being at odds with Israel, or sympathizing with the Palestinians, has traditionally been a recipe for trouble. But as the Democratic Party has shifted to the left, the notion that criticizing Israel means certain defeat may no longer be true.

Politicians like Cuomo have stuck to the tried and tested tactics employed to engender sympathy from Jewish voters.

If those running for office in New York have traditionally been encouraged to first visit the "Three I’s" - Ireland, Italy and Israel - before declaring their candidacies, in order to make friends with ethnic voters, Cuomo has done all three.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo waves as he marches up Fifth avenue during the Celebrate Israel Parade, Sunday, June 1, 2014, in New York.Credit: AP

He pointedly went to Israel during the Gaza war in 2014 to express solidarity, at a time when some liberals were disassociating themselves from the IDF’s campaign. In the course of his two successful campaigns for governor, Cuomo made all the usual rounds of prominent rabbis and yeshivot. New York’s large Orthodox population is trending rightwards in national elections, but the wider Jewish population is still heavily Democratic in terms of registration.

However, Nixon has followed a different path to Jewish voters.

Dershowitz’s indictment concerns her signing of a petition endorsed by other actors and artists that lauded those Israelis who refuse to perform in Israeli settlements. The petition specifically related to an arts center in the West Bank town of Ariel.

The problem there isn’t so much the notion of boycotting the settlements, or even the fact that it was also signed by Vanessa Redgrave, a well known opponent of Israel, as the fact that the petition was organized by Jewish Voices for Peace.

JVP is openly anti-Zionist and in the last year has endorsed the Palestinian right of return, opposes visits, especially Birthright trips, by Jews or anyone else to Israel until Palestinians can return to their homes, and even promoted an anti-Semitic blood libel in which it sought to blame pro-Israel Jews and Israelis for police shootings of African-Americans in the United States because of security cooperation programs between the two countries.

Members of Jewish Voice for Peace and Code Pink, both on Israel's newly announced BDS blacklist, demonstrate against Israeli military operations in Gaza. Washington D.C. July 21, 2014Credit: Atheer Ahmed Kakan / Anadolu Age

It’s not clear whether Nixon can be pressured to disassociate herself from JVP or to make some sort of generic pro-Israel statement to defuse the issue. But when Dershowitz labeled Nixon a “bigot,” the implication seemed to be that the actress was against Jews. But whatever one may think about her stands on the Middle East, Nixon is no stranger to the Jewish community.

Before coming out as gay and marrying a woman who worked on education issues for de Blasio, Nixon was married to a Jewish man and had two children who were apparently raised as Jews, attended Hebrew school and had b’nai mitzvoth at B’nai Jeshurun, a prominent liberal synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

Though not Jewish herself, she’s also apparently an active member of Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, the city’s first and still most well known LGBT synagogue. She’s given speeches there on gay issues that were sprinkled with Jewish references to the weekly Torah reading.

Nixon also has been an active supporter of American Jewish World Service, a group that focuses Jewish philanthropy toward non-Jewish international causes, and T’ruah, a rabbinic human rights organization that is critical of Israel’s presence in the territories, while also opposing the BDS movement.

That list isn’t the usual litany of mainstream Jewish groups that those seeking high office generally embrace. While it’s easy to imagine Cuomo and most other prominent liberal New York politicians speaking at events for an organization like AIPAC, that would be a stretch for Nixon.

That means Dershowitz’s attacks can’t be ignored. The fast-growing Orthodox population in New York leans right, and if she can be identified as a critic of Israel that will persuade many voters to oppose her on those grounds alone.

Congregants from CBST gather outside the Islamic Center at NYU to show support for Muslim neighbors before Friday prayers.Credit: Harold Levine

But what Nixon’s candidacy proves is that for non-Orthodox Jews, the kind of affiliations the actress can boast of are probably just as effective for establishing her bona fides.

For the people the 2013 Pew Survey of American Jewry termed “Jews of no religion”, or even those affiliated with the Reform or Conservative denominations, her close ties with liberal synagogues and groups are just as - if not more - attractive than a seal of approval from AIPAC.

Far from being out of touch with most Jewish voters, Nixon fits in as one of the tribe, so long as you’re not talking about the Orthodox.

The actress probably isn’t going to upset Cuomo. But if she loses, it won’t be because she can be linked to JVP, or her unwillingness to sound like a run-of-the mill American politician eager to demonstrate love for Israel.

In the coming years, as the 90 percent of American Jewry that is non-Orthodox continues to intermarry and assimilate, Cynthia Nixon’s style of affiliation, and affinity for left-wing Jewish causes, is likely to make her the future of liberal politicians who are connected to the Jewish community, rather than an outlier.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS, the Jewish News Syndicate and a contributor to National Review. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin

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