Playing Jewish card in Assembly election questioned

Would you vote for a political candidate because she's Jewish?

A recent mailer from Democrat Barbara Heller, a San Rafael resident running for State Assembly District 6, has forced many people to look at both sides.

The letter, sent predominantly to Jewish voters in the district representing Marin and parts of Sonoma County, highlights Heller's credentials in the Jewish community and as "an experienced public servant" in Marin.

The "Dear Friend" solicitation seeks "your support" and asks recipients to consider making a donation of $250 or more. The primary election is set for March 7.

Stephen Shaiken, an attorney and past president of the Jewish Community Relations Council's Marin and Sonoma branch, was disturbed by the mailer.

"The thinking seems to be that I should vote for her just because I'm Jewish. There was nothing about living-wage issues, or issues about environmental degradation. It was all ethnocentric issues," he said.

The Fairfax resident called Heller's letter an example of "Balkan-style politics."

Shaiken said his support for Frank Egger, one of Heller's Democratic opponents in the primary, isn't a factor in his outrage.

Shaiken maintained that "the real issue is taking the Jewish vote for granted. Is it just assumed that the Jewish community is a pack of sheep, blindly following Jewish candidates, no matter what their politics are? I think that's very dangerous territory."

Ron Berman was one of three people who signed the letter. Berman, who is regional president of the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, signed it strictly as an individual. He defends the mailer.

"Why not play the Jewish card?" he said. "If a candidate cares about issues in the Jewish community, I'd like to know about it. If I was a pro-union candidate trying to reach that community, I'd flash my labor credentials. I don't really see the big deal. It's pretty standard stuff."

The candidate herself, who currently serves on the San Rafael City Council, wastes few words in describing the controversy.

"The whole thing is silly," she said. "Out of the many people who received the letter, only two saw fit to complain. And one of them is an ardent supporter of my opponent."

In the one-page letter, Heller notes that she and her husband are longtime AIPACmembers, have traveled to Israel with the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, have twice participated in Volunteers for Israel and are members of Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael.

Heller's letter opens by pointing out that the Assembly "passes laws on issues of education, deals with assaults from the Christian Right, protects our communities from hate crimes, helps to fund our social services (including Jewish social services) and is involved in many more matters that impact our lives daily."

It also points out that California "has links to Israel that includes agriculture, joint high-tech companies, trade and research exchange, and even buys Israel bonds."

Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, didn't find the mailing's topics out of line.

While emphatically stating that the JCRC is not in the business of endorsing political candidates, Kahn noted that the state Assembly has been a vehicle for enforcing separation of church and state, and condemning hate violence.

"On a very practical level, the state Assembly has pushed for Holocaust retribution, provided funding for the Jewish Museum of San Francisco, and has impacted trade issues between Israel and the U.S.

"So a political candidate wouldn't be off base in saying that the state Assembly provides an excellent forum to look after the concerns of the Jewish community."

Kentfield resident Martin Gans, who received the letter, was piqued at the mailer — but for different reasons than Shaiken. The references to the Christian right upset Gans so much that he called Heller's office to complain.

"What on earth is she talking about? What 'Christian right'? I think people should be very careful about not denigrating an entire group of people," Gans, a Republican and the Jewish Bulletin's board president, said in an interview.

"I have a lot of fundamentalist Christian friends that are tax-paying Americans who love and respect the state of Israel. I certainly hope that Mrs. Heller isn't trying to pit the Christians versus the Jews, because if that's the case, we'll lose."

While apologizing for any offense she may have given to a particular community, Heller stands by the wording of her letter.

"First of all, I'm a Jewish candidate explaining to Jewish voters that I can represent their concerns in the Assembly," she said. "That seems obvious. Secondly, there have been problems with the certain elements of the religious right that have been duly noted. Now perhaps the word 'Christian' may have been poorly chosen.

"However, the real issue is that this is nothing more than a very transparent political attack."