Recently, four of Riverdale’s most powerful political figures, all Democrats, representing all levels of government, spoke at a town hall meeting to address the issues facing American Jews today, as well as everyday local concerns. The lineup included Congressman Eliot Engel, State Senator Jeffrey Klein, State Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz and City Councilman Andrew Cohen. Each spoke for a few minutes, after which the floor was opened to questions.
Engel addressed the issues surrounding the new president first. His district includes northern Bronx and all of lower Westchester, comprising over 900,000 people, more than the populations of Boston or San Francisco. In commenting about the Trump presidency, he stated, “It is not business as usual.”
Engel hit Trump’s budget slashes, including cutting funds to social programs such as Meals on Wheels and public broadcasting, and also cutting foreign aid, all to fund the military. “More weapons and less of everything else,” he noted. Engel said he believes these cuts make government departments such as the Foreign Affairs committee responsible for diplomacy and embassies (31 percent cut) “unsustainable.”
Engel accused the president of acting impulsively. “Whatever his (Trump’s) impulse is at the moment, he tweets.” His staff, says Engel, has to spend weeks trying to undo the President’s mistakes, such as Trump’s accusation that Obama engaged in wiretapping. According to Engel, the accusations were “paranoid. A figment of his imagination.”
Engel compared Trump’s stance on immigration to America’s isolationist, anti-immigrant position on the eve of WWII, when the ship the St. Louis, crowded with Jewish refugees from Europe, was turned away from America’s shores.
“What can we do?” shouted the audience. Engel, taking the audience’s opposition to Trump as a given since Riverdale has always been heavily Democratic, shared his game plan. It is important to vote for congressmen and state legislators who are Democrats to check Trump’s power.
Dinowitz, an 11-term assemblyman, is a Riverdale fixture and Democratic leader. In his chummy style he infused the evening with humor. “Eighty people are here. I’m sure there are some Trump supporters. Sorry.”
Dinowitz criticized Trump for creating an atmosphere of hate and racism. “During his year and a half campaign he brought out the worst in people throughout the country. The rhetoric that came out of the president’s mouth gave people permission to do bad things.”
He said that had it not been for meddling and hacking on the part of Putin, Trump would not have squeaked into office. “All they had to do was get a few thousand votes in a few key states,” he said. He is hoping to see a repeat of the scenario from the 1970s, when some Republicans began to oppose Nixon. “They’re following Trump like robots now, but that could very well change as more stuff comes out.”
Dinowitz said that the people who are likely to suffer the most from Trump are, ironically, those who elected him. Trump’s health care plan will especially harm the white working class in the midwest, Trump’s backbone of support.
An unprecedented upsurge in anti-Semitic bomb threats and verbal attacks rocked the country after the start of the year, along with attacks against Muslims and others. Anti-Semitism is not new in the US, yet few can remember anything resembling this recent rash of cemetery desecrations, bomb threats and poisonous rhetoric.
Engel co-chairs the Congressional Committee on Anti-Semitism. “Anti-Semitism in America is a mile wide and an inch deep. It is just beneath the surface.” Engel slammed the President for not denouncing anti-Semitism from the beginning. “The President was missing in action.” He said Trump surrounds himself with some “Fascist-like”extremists, like Stephen Bannon. “I’ve never known people like that. They love Israel and hate Jews.”
One way to destroy anti-Semitism, said Engel, is to destroy the BDS movement, a movement that seeks to delegitimize Israel, particularly on the college campus.
Cohen said the New York area has seen an increase in anti-Semitic attacks, mirroring the national trend. He obtained funding to provide security to synagogues and other houses of worship, and Jewish and other religious schools, and is credited for being the prime author of a city resolution against BDS. Cohen reminded the audience that anti-Semites come from the left as well as from the right.
Klein said he pushed to get $25 million to protect houses of worship.
Engel is the only official of the quartet whose job directly involves foreign affairs and impacts Israel. He holds himself out as Israel’s best friend in the halls of Congress. He said that Israel enjoys wall-to-wall support in Congress from both Republicans and Democrats.
Trump is looking to slash foreign aid. Will Israel’s aid, amounting to billions a year, be cut? No, said Engel. While he laments aid cuts to other countries, aid to Israel is untouchable because it is part of a “Memorandum of Understanding” held over from the Obama administration.
Engel pointed to Israel as the only democracy in the Middle East, flatly rejecting criticism of Israel’s human rights record. Extreme critics have even compared Israel’s policies to apartheid as it was once practiced in South Africa. “Nonsense! The Arab citizens of Israel have more rights than in any Arab country. It’s hypocrisy.”
Klein, a product of the city’s public schools, strongly supports funding charter schools. “I support public schools, but I do believe there is place for charter schools. I don’t think it’s anything we should discard.” Klein also supports funding nonpublic schools, including yeshivot, parochial and private schools. “There is a place for all types of education,” he said.
Klein is also trying to make college more affordable. Now, for families to be eligible for T.A.P. (Tuition Assistance Program) to pay for college, they must have an income below $80,000. Klein wants to raise that to $125,000. He also wants to ease the load of college debt, which on average amounts to $35,000, by providing a “College Affordability Fund” that would provide a $2,500-a-year tax write-off for the student/debtor and a write-off for his/her employer for the same amount.
The community seemed appreciative of this opportunity to air grievances while hearing from elected officials.
By Jeff Klapper