Area delegates see healing of rifts

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A group of young men wearing kippot stood outside Chicago's United Center Monday night handing out Clinton-Gore stickers printed in Hebrew.

"They were very enthusiastic. Of course our whole delegation took them," said Natalie Berg, chairwoman of the Democratic Party of San Francisco.

One of about 520 California delegates at Chicago's Democratic Convention, Berg, in a phone interview from Chicago Tuesday, said she felt "a lot of positive energy. The contingency [of Jews] seemed real comfortable being there."

Some pro-israel activists at the convention "actually ran out of Clinton-Gore buttons," Berg added. "I should have brought mine."

Delegates said the focus on party issues at this year's gathering contrasted sharply to the infamous Chicago Democratic Convention 28 years ago, which became a sideshow as police battled with anti-war demonstrators. Jewish Democratics have helped maintain that focus on current issues.

The convention week has not been without its downside for Jews, however. Berg reported encountering a small environmentalist demonstration outside the Hilton Hotel. She was handed a piece of hate literature aimed at Jews.

But overall "I haven't seen or felt anything that highlights Jewish relations at this convention, or anything untoward about Israel. Usually my antenna is up pretty high," she said.

Still, Berg, who was joined by local delegates Fred Altshuler of San Francisco and actor Peter Coyote of Mill Valley, acknowledged a bit of disillusionment within the ranks, mostly due to President Clinton's recent stands on gay and lesbian marriages and on welfare.

She was nevertheless firm in the belief that "everyone here feels [Clinton] is our best hope. Especially with the Republican nightmare we've had in Congress for two years."

Altshuler agreed. "There's a real feeling of optimism. In 1968 there was a real chasm between liberal and conservative policy. Now there's a feeling we have to build bridges," he said.

"There's a defining for the American people and it's clear where both parties are coming from."

For the Jewish community, the major issues are prayer in public schools, immigration law and Israel. And the Democratic Party's goals fall in line with those of most Jews, he said.

"With respect to Israel, there's never been a president or an administration more friendly. Among the Jewish community this is recognized as a major effort and contribution, "Altshuler added.

To no one's surprise, Jewish Democrats were immersed in activities at the convention. Between receptions, meetings and parties — John F. Kennedy Jr.'s George magazine bash at the Art Institute was rumored the hot ticket in town — the American Israel Public Affairs Committee held constant briefings. The American Jewish Committee met with other groups, and the National Jewish Democratic Council also forged a presence.

"There's a lot of Jewish delegates and a lot of signs in Hebrew," Coyote noted.

Meanwhile, Coyote contended, the real work was taking place "in the smaller meetings. The value is networking and relationships that facilitate future work."

There "are no big issues, no contesting candidate, no big floor fights, he acknowledged. "It's a pretty canned event [but] what I do see is a real spirit of healing. Racial healing. The black-Jewish rift. The black-white rift.

"There's a feeling that we weren't perfect in '68 but 25-plus years later we're still on the same side. The ideological differences that were quite pronounced have melted away and a long-term solidarity was left."