For some voters in Virginia’s 5th Congressional District, the biggest issue in the race to fill the seat being vacated by Republican Tom Garrett may not be something from this decade, or even this century, but a book written 27 years ago.
Leslie Cockburn, a 65-year-old journalist and documentary filmmaker running as a Democrat, has been dealing with charges of anti-Semitism after Republicans attacked her views on Israel. Core to the issue is her 1991 book, “Dangerous Liaison: The Inside Story of the U.S.-Israeli Covert Relationship,” co-written with her husband, Andrew Cockburn, which is highly critical of Israel.
The district runs from Northern Virginia south to the North Carolina border. Cockburn was nominated by a party caucus on May 5, so she will not be running in Tuesday’s primary. Immediately after her nomination, the Republican Party of Virginia issued out a press release the headlined “Democrats nominate virulent anti-Semite in the fifth district.”
On May 28, Cockburn met with Jewish community members to clear the air. Forty people gathered at the home of Rabbi Daniel Alexander, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville, which is within the district.
Russ Linden, a Beth Israel member who attended, said there was a genuine exchange of views.
“This was an opportunity for people to make their own decision about Leslie, rather than trying to figure out if she’s some sort of anti-Semite based on what her political opponents want you to think,” Linden said, adding, “Some people were clearly not pleased with the tone of the book and in their questions suggested that what she wrote was tough on Israel and unfairly so. What she said, in essence, was ‘I’ve been very critical of some of the government’s actions in the past and present. I’m also highly critical of the U.S. government’s actions and policies, it doesn’t mean that I don’t love America.”
In response to an interview request from WJW, Cockburn’s campaign released a statement:
“Leslie is a stalwart supporter of Israel who cherishes the close friendship between our two nations and the critical role Israel plays as our ally in the Middle East,” it reads. “As Congresswoman for Virginia’s 5th District, Leslie will be committed to strengthening the historic ties between us, protecting Israel’s security, and promoting peace in the region.”
Linden said that the Jewish community in Charlottesville is a progressive one, and many attendees seemed satisfied with her answers, particularly when she pointed out that her views on Israel align with J Street, the liberal pro-Israel organization.
Even before her nomination and the Republican attacks began, Linden took part in a smaller meeting with Cockburn, where she discussed her book.
“I’ve never seen her show that kind of passion,” Linden said. “I’ve been around a lot of politicians and I think I know when someone’s being authentic. I came away thoroughly satisfied with her response. I don’t have any worries at all and I hope to hell this doesn’t become an issue.”
Virginia’s 5th District is not home to many Jews, according to Geoffrey Skelley, an analyst with the University of Virginia Center for Politics. But the message coming from Republicans could help to galvanize the area’s many evangelical Christian voters, who tend be very supportive of Israel, Skelley said.
The largely rural district has long been a Republican stronghold. But with Garrett stepping down after a staffing controversy and his admission of alcohol abuse, it’s become a target for Democrats looking to retake the House of Representatives. The Republican nominee, a distillery owner named Denver Riggleman, was selected by the party at a committee meeting last weekend.
But Quentin Kidd, the director of the Judy Ford Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va., said the controversy could be a troubling sign for Democrats. With the United Kingdom’s Labour Party besieged by accusations of anti-Semitism, he said, Democrats must be careful not to allow the progressive energy on the Israel-Palestine conflict turn into anti-Semitism.
“A risk that Democrats in the U.S. have is that some of those views wander across the pond, and all I can think of is that [Cockburn] represents that anti-Israel, some would say anti-Semitic vein that’s caused all kinds of problems for the Labour Party,” Kidd said. “It doesn’t lead anywhere good in terms of elections.” n