3:31 p.m. | Updated The Democratic mayoral candidates gathered in Midwood, Brooklyn, Tuesday night for a debate sponsored by the Flatbush Jewish Community Coalition, in which most remarks hewed to a single informal commandment: Say nothing that might conceivably discomfort your audience.
Michael Powell on government and politics.
An unsafe circumcision practice? The use of public money to buy textbooks for Orthodox yeshivas and to repair churches and synagogues in Hurricane Sandy-affected neighborhoods?
Defend a jailed spy? Reinstate a public child care voucher program that overwhelmingly benefited Orthodox Jewish parents?
Anthony D. Weiner, our reality show entrant in the mayoral sweepstakes, was asked about Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s efforts to regulate the practice of metzitzah b’peh, in which a mohel, after circumcising a baby, sucks the blood from the wound to clean it.
The city’s health department found that since 2000, 12 babies circumcised in this fashion contracted herpes and 2 died. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has deemed the practice “not safe.” And in 2005, the leader of leading rabbinical council for Conservative Jews endorsed regulation of the practice.
Whatever. Mr. Weiner represented this neighborhood in Congress and has an internal divining rod on questions of politics. Presumably, no one knows better what his audience wants to hear.
“I believe that there is a liberal elitist condescension when it comes to the religious community,” Mr. Weiner said. “This is thousands of years of tradition.”
Comptroller John Liu chimed in. “I say, let’s leave it to the rabbis. Let’s not have city government interfere with something that has worked for thousands of year.”
All of this is historically true. As is this: For thousands of years it was considered religious good form for widows to throw themselves on funeral pyres in India, and so-called female circumcision is still practiced in many parts of the world. And by no means do all Orthodox Jewish families opt for that circumcision practice.
History, we might agree, is a strange mistress.
Mayoral debates often devolve into pander fests. Debates sponsored by organized labor rarely feature candidates talking vigorously of the inconvenient fact that the city almost certainly cannot afford retroactive pay raises for city workers — an issue of great importance to labor as every contract in the city has long since expired. Challenge tenure at a debate sponsored by the union that represents teachers? Maybe tomorrow.
At a debate on public housing, every candidate present agreed that the city should assume the $100 million cost of police and sanitation for the projects. This is salutary, but prompts the question of how to pay for it. On the Upper East Side, most of the candidates agree that a garbage transfer station there is not such a great idea.
It was nonetheless impressive to watch the yoga-like contortions on Tuesday night.
There were a few exceptions. Christine C. Quinn, the City Council speaker, supported the policy imposed by the Bloomberg administration to require parental consent forms for the circumcision practice. She also said she would not promise to use public money to buy textbooks for yeshivas. Nor would she push to use federal money to help synagogues and churches rebuild in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. And she spoke out on gay rights.
Bill de Blasio, the public advocate, mumbled a can’t-we-all-get-along sentence or two on circumcision, urging the city to sit down with community leaders. Which again prompts the question: And then what?
Mr. de Blasio seemed to be in favor of spending public money to buy textbooks for yeshivas.
Every candidate favored reinstating vouchers for after-school child care, which the mayor wiped out a few years back. That 12-year-old, $16 million program theoretically had been open to needy families of all creeds for use at schools and day care centers. But from the start, it was tailored for Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn neighborhoods like Borough Park and Williamsburg.
As my colleague Julie Bosman pointed out a few years ago, of the nearly 100 after-school programs, an overwhelming majority were run out of yeshivas in Brooklyn. (A handful were in secular day care centers in the Bronx and Manhattan.)
Orthodox leaders have argued that their families often get by on one income, since mothers typically stay home and care for the children. And most pay private-school tuition, since they send their children to yeshivas.
All of which is no doubt true, and also a religious and lifestyle decision. We might have expected a nuanced discussion on Tuesday night. Or not.
“Those vouchers were lost at a certain point,” said former City Comptroller William Thompson. “We need to fix it and bring them back.”
Yes, said Ms. Quinn. Me, too, said Mr. de Blasio. That’s true, said Mr. Weiner. Right-o, said another Democratic candidate, the Rev. Erik Salgado.
The evening ended as Mr. Weiner, without being asked, noted his support for Jonathan Pollard, who worked in Naval Intelligence and was convicted of passing classified information to Israel, and for the owner of a kosher factory who was convicted of hiring underage workers, not to mention bank fraud, mail fraud and money laundering.
And then there was the question of Israel. “When I had the opportunity to stand up for Eretz Israel I did, at the top of my lungs,” Mr. Weiner said. This term is usually taken to mean that Israel extends to the borders with Jordan, meaning no Palestinian state.
Mr. Weiner ended by saying that he could not “promise you that milk and honey will flow through the streets of Flatbush.”
Given the spirit of this evening, that registered as a disappointment.