Anthony Weiner goes from right-wing stiff to brilliant populist in a New York second (guess the issues!)

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weinerOn Monday night Congressman Anthony Weiner held one of three town halls he is staging in his Brooklyn district to discuss Jewish concerns over the Obama administration’s policy on Israel/Palestine. This one was at an 88-year-old orthodox shul called the Avenue N Jewish Center. Beautiful old shul, without fanciness. The real deal. Separation wall for the women. And Weiner was introduced by a rabbi who quoted biblical passages to highlight his fears regarding Obama’s talk about settlements. "This is not just another ethnic concern." 

Weiner promptly echoed the rabbi and distanced himself from his president. He began by invoking “Eretz Israel” and trashing Jimmy Carter and said that he didn’t understand what Obama’s goal was. Israel has no partners in Palestinians, who vote for terrorists. Some of Obama’s statements have “tiptoed right up to the line of not being respectful” of a democracy. Maybe even crossed over the line! We don’t tell a fellow democracy what to do. We don’t tell the French how to run their agricultural subsidies.

Weiner bragged that he had confronted an unnamed member of the administration. (I’m guessing Rahm.) “What’s the endgame?” Because if the settlements issue is resolved, it wouldn’t bring us a yard closer to peace. That’s not really part of the conflict. Weiner said the answer he got was that the settlements are an easy way to show we can be tough with our friends. So Weiner thinks that some of Obama’s statements are mere positioning, trying to signal to the rest of the world that it’s a new ballgame. Well I get that, he said. 

But Weiner wants Obama to start being tough with the Palestinians, impose conditions on the $900 million we give them.

Red meat. Lots o red meat. Jonathan Pollard referred to as “Jonathan.” And Weiner said he was thinking of circulating a letter among the many nonpartisan friends of Israel (party’s got nuthin to do with it, he said) to get Obama to “take your foot off the gas.” Red meat. “I’m with the ZOA (Zionist Organization of America; as anti-Palestinian as they come) wing of the Democratic party.” But even these guys told him they weren’t ready to sandbag the president publicly yet, they wanted to wait and see.

The Israel lobby crouches like a fat housecat, ready to pounce.

The questions were all from even further right. One man, Reuben Margolis, said he had just been with Mike Huckabee in Jerusalem. (Where’s the barf bag on this pew?) One woman said that the bible gives the land to the Jews, and the Arabs are the interlopers. "Esau sold his birthright." (Oh no, that’s for the phyllacteries!) Weiner was very clever, saying he was a politician, that the religious issue was above his paygrade. He’s a politician not a religious leader.

This was the one time Weiner distanced himself from Israel. Some of the stuff the Israeli governments do has made me “cringe” in my Washington office, spake the congressman. But I don’t tell them what to do.

I’d gone to the shul with Adam Horowitz. We were both wearing yarmulkes, and at this point he handed me his iphone with a story dialed up on it, Anthony Weiner to wed Huma Abedin, a Muslim and a former aide to Hillary Clinton. We wondered whether this was an undercurrent to Weiner’s town halls; we were hoping that someone in the shul would ask him if he had to convert to marry her. Weiner was wearing a yarmulke. But he never really said he was Jewish, though he used words like mishpocheh. 

Right here’s where this story changes. Someone asked a health care question, and for the next hour and a quarter Weiner answered health care questions. Wow. We saw a completely different congressman, wheeling on the stage, shouting people down, crying Wrong wrong. Weiner was on fire. And he was completely progressive. He is all for single payer, Medicare for all. He made a tremendously strong argument for nationalized health care, beating up the insurance companies in the process, and well– what can I tell you, it was simply glorious, it was like something out of Saul Alinsky and the old progressive urban Jewish mythology. Here was an animated high-strung Jewish populist. Weiner did impersonations of mean insurance companies reaching into our pockets and taking out our money, told people not to yell at him then interrupted them with "Noooooo….", kept saying to old women who disagreed with him, Well you’re too young for Medicare. He had all the facts and the analysis too. "Our entire federal budget is going to be gobbled up by health care, and it’s strangling our economy."

He made Obama look like a piker. “I don’t think Obama goes far enough. I believe Medicare is a success that already exists. Why do we start Medicare at 65? Why not start at 55, or 45. 35….” He was a great Jewish politician in the great old way, and I was in love. "80 percent of Americans like their insurance company. Wrong! They like their doctor!"

And the people in the audience were going nuts with anger.

At this point Horowitz held out his pad saying, “Weiner doesn’t really care that much about Israel.”

It is a fascinating question. On an issue that affects everyone where they live– healthcare– a politician is willing to defy his constituents and spend a lot of his political capital for a progressive cause, and flings answers at them to every stupid objection. On an issue that affects these people in a more symbolic way—the Jewish people—his answers are lifeless and somewhat talkingpointsish. Weiner is too smart not to get that something is terribly wrong with the picture: his foolish claim that settlements have nothing to do with the conflict or that Hamas and Hezbollah are not real responses to the terrible Palestinian conditions. I pray that marriage to a Muslim will open that electric mind to new ideas.

Even more interesting was that this audience, which began the evening outraged that Obama had the unbelievable "chutzpah" to challenge Israel, ended the night obsessing over health care without mentioning Israel in the final 45 minutes. It was instructive, and understandable, to see where their immediate concerns lie.

Horowitz and I differ slightly in interpretation. I believed that this wonderful politician (whom I’d never appreciated because he’s such a stiff on Israel) was intimidated by the Israel lobby. Horowitz said he was just saying what the folks wanted to hear. "He had a bit of Senator Hillary Clinton feeling to him. Maybe his outlandish positions on Israel/Palestine are simply pandering to his vocal and organized constituency who wants to see him bring the ZOA to Congress."

Will Weiner ever bust loose and give the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the same energy, creativity and bravery he showed on health care? Who knows. His final words for the evening were "am yisrael chai!" We know where he stands for now.

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