WASHINGTON — On Monday evening, at the home of a retired rabbi in Charlottesville, Va., the Democratic nominee for the Fifth Congressional District of Virginia sat down with about 40 Jewish leaders to try to defuse Virginia Republican charges that she was a “virulent anti-Semite.”
At issue was the candidate’s 27-year-old book, “Dangerous Liaison: The Inside Story of the U.S.-Israeli Covert Relationship,” a broadside written by Leslie Cockburn, a journalist-turned-politician, with her husband, Andrew Cockburn, that was panned in several reviews as an inflammatory screed.
The meeting might have been dismissed as a peace offering from a long-shot candidate in a largely rural Virginia district that leans Republican. But on Monday, the incumbent congressman, Representative Tom Garrett, announced he was an alcoholic and would not seek re-election.
Suddenly, Ms. Cockburn (pronounced CO-burn), the Democratic candidate, is vying for an open seat — and drawing attention, in part for her strident views on Israel.
“None of us think she’s anti-Semitic,” said Sherry Kraft, one of the organizers of the meeting. “That’s not even an issue. It’s more where are you about Israel. There’s a lot of negativity toward Israel from the political left right now and people who call themselves progressive. And some of that anti-Israel sentiment crosses into anti-Semitism, but not in her case.”
Ms. Cockburn’s race is nobody’s idea of a good bet. President Trump won the district that stretches from the outer Northern Virginia suburbs, through Charlottesville, to the North Carolina border by 11 points. But for the Democratic Party, Ms. Cockburn’s candidacy could come to represent more than a single House seat.
On college campuses, liberal activists are combining their fervent opposition to Mr. Trump with a drive to sanction and boycott Israel for what they see as its mistreatment of Palestinians.
In Britain, the once center-left Labour Party has become so infused with anti-Zionist sentiment that Jews recently took to the streets of London to protest a drift in the party toward anti-Semitism. And in the United States, Democrats would sincerely like to avoid the issue.
The Democratic National Committee’s deputy chairman, Representative Keith Ellison of Minnesota, has spent years trying to get beyond past associations with Louis Farrakhan, the anti-Semitic leader of the Nation of Islam. But conservative news media continues to try to tar Democrats by linking them to Mr. Farrakhan, and Mr. Trump has used his Middle East policies to try to drive a wedge between Jewish voters and the Democratic Party — even as openly anti-Semitic candidates in Wisconsin, Illinois and California run for office as Republicans.
Amid those controversies is Ms. Cockburn. “Democrats Nominate Virulent Anti-Semite in the Fifth District,” blared a news release this month from the Republican Party of Virginia.
National Democrats must now decide whether supporting Ms. Cockburn is worth the trouble that aid might bring. On Tuesday, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee would say only that it “has been targeting this district for more than a year, and we will continue to work with the Cockburn campaign and evaluate the race once the matchup is set.”
In an interview, Ms. Cockburn blamed Republicans for trying to draw attention to what she called a “totally phony issue.”
“This is a book from 27 years ago,” she said. “It was a tough book looking at the U.S.-Israeli covert operations, intelligence and military. So, yeah, it’s a book of journalism from a long time ago. I’ve had a very long, wonderful, successful, award-winning career since then, and so to reach way back in the past, pull this out — and that’s why it was very important to me that the Jewish community read the book, looked at it and made up their minds.”
Her outreach on Monday night seemed to work.
“I just think most folks who came to this meeting didn’t take the charge seriously to begin with, even folks who read her book, which is highly critical of Israel and the United States and the U.S.-Israel relationship at the time,” said Daniel Alexander, the rabbi emeritus of Charlottesville’s only synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel, who hosted the meeting. “To criticize Israel is not an expression of anti-Semitism.”
Russ Linden, who attended the meeting, said Ms. Cockburn answered questions for almost two hours and defended her book.
“She did say at one point if there was something in the tone that people found unfair or upsetting, she regretted that,” he said.
When the book was published in 1991, a review in The New York Times described it as “largely dedicated to Israel-bashing for its own sake.”
“Its first message is that, win or lose, smart or dumb, right or wrong, suave or boorish, Israelis are a menace,” the review said. “The second is that the Israeli-American connection is somewhere behind just about everything that ails us.”
Ms. Cockburn told the group on Monday that she was being critical of government policy from a fact-based perspective, not out of animus toward Jews. In the interview, she said she was seeking the endorsement of J Street, a Jewish political group that has set itself up as a progressive alternative to other American Jewish organizations more uncritical of Israeli government policies.
“Yes, the U.S. should support Israel, and yes, the U.S. should be supporting, to some degree, the Palestinian Authority,” Ms. Cockburn said. “We have a disaster area in Gaza, and the U.S. should get involved in trying to sort that out. I think there’s a real role that we should have. Now given that, as a freshman congressperson, I’m not going to have a lot of responsibility for any of those issues, and will probably be a lowly person on the Agriculture Committee.”
But on Tuesday, Republicans pressed their attack.
“Whoever the Republican nominee is in the Fifth District will defeat anti-Semite Leslie Cockburn,” said John Findlay, the executive director of the Republican Party of Virginia. “The Fifth District is not a racist district, and I don’t see them ever voting for an anti-Semite like Leslie Cockburn.”
Tom Perriello, the most recent Democrat to represent the district, said those charges are “backfiring pretty badly on the Republicans because they failed to hold their staff accountable for anti-Semitic and racist things they have said.”
While the Republican efforts seem to have not persuaded Jewish leaders in Charlottesville, they might have a greater effect among evangelical voters in rural parts of the district who are strongly pro-Israel. Ms. Cockburn has made a point of campaigning vigorously in those deep-red areas.
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