Don’t Blame the Jews for Cynthia McKinney’s Defeat

With the defeat of five-term Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney in the August 22 Democratic primary in Georgia, the U.S. House of Representatives will soon be losing one of its most outspoken progressive voices. This is very bad news for those of us who support peace, human rights, and social justice. It would be even worse news, however, if the blame for her defeat is placed primarily upon the Jewish community.

As has been pointed out by both the mainstream and progressive media, political action committees with close ties to the right-wing Israeli government of Ariel Sharon — funded primarily by conservative American Jews — poured in thousands of dollars worth of campaign contributions to her opponent, former state judge Denise Majette. Unlike most liberal Democrats, McKinney did not make an exception for Israel in her outspoken support for human rights and international law. As a result, she became a target of the so-called “Jewish lobby,” which vigorously challenges elected officials who dare question U.S. military, financial and diplomatic support for Israel’s occupation and repression of the Palestinians.

Despite this, it would be a big mistake to blame Jewish money for the defeat of this progressive African-American Congresswoman.

To begin with, there were more significant factors that led to Cynthia McKinney’s defeat:

The first is Georgia’s system of crossover voting, where voters can cast their primary ballots within any political party they choose regardless of their own party affiliation. In a district where barely half of all registered voters were Democrats, 14 out of 15 primary ballots cast were in the Democratic Party. In short, thousands of conservative Republicans — without a similarly significant primary race in their own party — voted in the Democratic primary for the sole purpose of defeating one of Congress’ most outspoken defenders of civil rights, labor and the environment and one of its most vocal critics of President George W. Bush.

These Republicans were particularly incensed at McKinney’s criticism of President Bush’s “war on terrorism,” including a couple of remarks that even progressives believed went too far, such as her claim that the Bush Administration may have known about the September 11 terrorist attacks beforehand. The media added to the fury by blowing these comments way out of proportion.

By some estimates, as many as two-thirds of Majette’s votes came from registered Republicans. Without these Republican votes, McKinney would have easily won.

Furthermore, her opponent’s campaign coffers were enriched by contributions from individuals and PACs affiliated with big business and other special interests that surpassed that of the “pro-Israel” groups. Majette had the backing of such wealthy corporate donors as Home Depot founders Arthur Blank and Bernie Marcus, Georgia-Pacific’s Pete Correll, Fidelity Bank’s James Miller, Cousins Properties’ Tom Cousins, Mirant Corporations’s Bill Dahlberg, and Alston & Bird’s Ben Johnson. Other leading business figures in the Majette camp included Marce Fuller, Virgil Williams, J.B. Fuqua and Inman Allen. Money to oust McKinney also came from donors associated with Wachovia Corporation, Equifax, SunTrust Banks, and other corporations. None of these donors are known to have any affiliation with groups supporting the Israeli government. A look at the records currently available show that Majette’s top contributors include a sizable number of major Republican donors and very few names commonly associated with a Jewish ethnicity.

In short, Cynthia McKinney would have almost certainly lost anyway, even without the infusion of “Jewish money” into the campaign.

McKinney was a thorn in the side of the Bush Administration. Unlike most Democrats in Congress, she was unwilling to play the role of a consensus-builder. She asked the hard questions. She challenged the bipartisan consensus of post-9/11 foreign policy. She spoke up for those, both at home and abroad, who so often have been denied a voice in the halls of Congress.

It is no surprise, then, that the Republicans wanted her out. In such an overwhelmingly Democratic district, however, they knew they could not defeat her in November with one of their own. As a result, they had to find a Democratic surrogate to defeat her in the primary.

For progressives to instead overstate the role of Jewish campaign contributions serves to re-enforce ugly anti-Semitic stereotypes and exacerbates the divisions between Jews and African-Americans. Once close allies in historic struggles for civil rights, labor and social justice, there has been a growing division between these two communities in recent decades as the increasingly affluent Jewish community has drifted to the right and African-Americans have asserted their support for Third World causes, including the Palestinian struggle for self-determination.

Such divisions between these two historically-oppressed minorities can only help the wealthy white Gentiles who control virtually all the reins of political and economic power in this country. Indeed, pitting Jews and African-Americans against each other is a classic case of divide and rule. Exacerbating these divisions, in fact, may have been part of the Republican strategy all along. Blaming the loss of Cynthia McKinney on Jews or Zionists only benefits those who seek to continue to dominate and oppress.

To challenge this, we must focus upon building coalitions rather than tearing them apart. For example, we need to recognize the large numbers of progressive Jews who supported McKinney’s re-election as well as the many other cases of ongoing Black/Jewish solidarity and cooperation.

In particular, we must rededicate ourselves to electing more candidates to office who are genuinely committed to peace and justice — for the Palestinians, and for everyone else.