Midterms in Hamptons: Where Both Sides Love Israel and Being Jewish Doesn't Matter

Republican incumbent Lee Zeldin and Democratic challenger Perry Gershon are engaged in a typically divisive race for the 1st Congressional District. ‘The fact both candidates are Jewish doesn’t help the situation,’ says a local rabbi

Democratic challenger Perry Gershon, left, and Republican incumbent Lee Zeldin. They share a common religion but little else as they battle it out in New York's 1st Congressional District.
AP / AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

NEW YORK – The two Jewish candidates battling it out in the city’s 1st Congressional District disagree on pretty much everything one can disagree on in American politics today: Health care, immigration and climate change.

Republican Lee Zeldin and his Democratic challenger Perry Gershon both more or less subscribe to their respective party’s lines. Zeldin, the two-term incumbent and strong favorite to secure a third term, supports concealed carry reciprocity for handguns, while Gershon became a passionate gun control advocate after the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012.

But there’s one issue on which both are aligned: Israel.

The Jewish state is still a bipartisan safe space, and both candidates agree that the Trump administration’s relocation of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem last May was the right move.

“Zeldin and I are in agreement that the American embassy belongs in Jerusalem,” Gershon tells Haaretz. “We disagree on how the move was done, but once it’s done I don’t believe you should move it back.”

Support of Israel has long been a given in both parties, though the embassy’s relocation revealed splits in how that support is demonstrated. The move was criticized by some Democrats as an unnecessary, unilateral interference that undermined any potential negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

Republicans have sought to portray Democrats as weak on Israel, citing former President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran and reports of a small group of newly engaged progressive candidates who have been vocal in their criticism of the Netanyahu government.

Gershon doesn’t buy that narrative. “I think the national effort by Republicans to use Israel as a wedge issue and certain Democrats playing in ... I’m not part of that group,” he says. “It’s paramount on the Democrats’ part to continue to support Israel and to be perceived as the party of Israel.”

Bitter soundbites

But their position on Israel is not the main concern for most voters – Jewish or otherwise – in the district, which encompasses the eastern end of Long Island and includes the tony enclave of the Hamptons. The fact that both candidates are active members of Jewish communities there hasn’t been a factor in the campaign, say several of the area’s Jewish leaders.

Still, that shared affiliation has not allowed the candidates to strike a more civil tone in the race’s rhetoric, where Zeldin holds a comfortable lead according to recent polls. Residents report that both have resorted to bitter soundbites, echoing the divisive national discourse. (Zeldin’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this article.)

“Unfortunately, politics have divided us more than united us, and the fact that both candidates are Jewish doesn’t help the situation,” says Rabbi Joshua Franklin of the Jewish Center of the Hamptons, which Zeldin’s uncle, Bernie, helped establish in 1959. “The Democrats in our community aren’t comforted that Zeldin is Jewish, and the Republicans aren’t comforted that Gershon is Jewish,” he adds.

Given the rarity of two Jewish candidates facing off against each other in a major congressional race, the canceling out of faith is possibly a point of pride for some in the district, suggests Franklin. (The same dynamic is also at play in New York City’s 10th Congressional District, where Jewish Democratic incumbent Jerrold Nadler is being challenged by Republican longshot Naomi Levin, an Orthodox Jew.)

Rabbi Daniel Geffen of Temple Adas Israel says most of his congregants are “looking at where there’s an intersection of Jewish values and policy positions.” Both candidates have referenced the traditions and teachings of Judaism as part of their political worldview – Gershon said he was driven to enter the race after a visit to the Holocaust Museum in Washington – and each comes up with different results, illustrating the different ways those values can be applied to politics.

On the east end of Long Island, one issue that has struck a nerve is immigration. This is not because the district’s residents are concerned with the much-discussed “caravan” edging toward the southern border, but because it is an issue that, quite literally, hits home.

The area’s large Latino population is a significant force in the local economy through construction, landscaping and domestic work. “We have friends in the community, many help us take care of our homes,” says Geffen. “For a lot of people it has become one of the substantive issues.”

As you might guess from their party affiliations, the two Jewish candidates see the issue from different angles. Zeldin boasts of his effort to lead “the charge to eradicate MS-13” on Long Island – referring to the international crime gang that has a presence in the area.

“I support legal immigration. I oppose illegal immigration,” Zeldin said in a typically stormy televised debate last week. “I support ICE. I oppose sanctuary cities.”

Like his party, Gershon looks more favorably at the vast majority of immigrants who are not criminals, though he recognizes the sensitivity of the issue. He has promised to prioritize passing new DACA legislation and for ICE to collaborate with community leaders to address problems. “Immigrants should not be in the shadows,” he says.

Jewish residents applying Jewish values to the issue align with both candidates. “When you have different congregants with different perspectives on politics, many of them will say it’s their Jewish values that tell them it’s more important to welcome in immigrants or more important to protect their family and communities,” Geffen notes.

The question for Jewish voters in New York’s 1st Congressional District, he adds, “is what’s the balance between one’s Jewish identity and one’s political identity? When both candidates are Jewish, does that change the calculus?”