A reader who used to live in McMahon’s district — Staten Island and a portion of Brooklyn — offers this assessment of his campaign’s compiling a list of “Jewish donors” to GOP rival Mike Grimm:
I grew up in the 13th District, and my parents and family still live there. The NY 13th used to be a heavy Italian and Irish district, with some Jewish neighborhoods. About 15 years ago, immigrants from the Middle East — mostly Syrian, but some Palestinian and Horn of Africa — started to populate the district. Now, in parts of Brooklyn and Staten Island, there are more Middle Eastern markets than salumeria’s or delis. I go back a few times a year. It is very common to see veils (and the occasional burqa), and traditional Middle Eastern Arab culture (such as open air markets), walking down the streets. There are mosques in some parts of the district, and believe me, that was completely unheard of 15 years ago. I don’t think it is a majority of the district or even particularly close, but it is significant, and the Jewish neighborhoods in the 13th District are long gone (Stephen Solarz, our old representative, would not have a chance today). McMahon may be crazy like a fox — he knows his district and his words may have resonance in that district. The traditional population may not care that much, and the new residents likely agree with the expressed views.
According to this list, Staten Island has 18 synagogues and 3 “Islamic centers.” There has been controversy about plans for a new mosque on Staten Island this summer. (This is separate from the “Ground Zero mosque” controversy.)
UPDATE: Another reader offers a counter-argument:
Your reader who suggests the McMahon campaign’s ‘Jewish money’ email was some sort of pander to Muslims is spinning a bizarre theory. The Census bureau does not collect information on religious affiliation, by law. But Staten Island, which provides the bulk of NY-13, was only 1.9% of Arab descent as of 2007. Also, recent immigrant groups always have lower political engagement and turnout than longstanding residents, partly because some of the immigrants are non-citizens. Pandering to this small Arab community, much of which doesn’t vote, would be a moronic strategy. Note also that McMahon’s list was not disseminated directly to members of the public but to the New York Observer, an outlet highly unlikely to be sympathetic to concerns about a Jewish conspiracy behind the Republican campaign.There’s no need to look for some grand, sinister strategy here. It was simply bad judgment on the part of McMahon’s campaign.
Another reader thinks the demographic shift is overstated:
I also grew up in the 13th district on Staten Island and I only recently moved across the pond to New Jersey. While Staten Island has certainly become increasingly diverse since I was born there about 30 years ago, I think your reader dramatically overstates his case. The fact is that Staten Island is still very Italian and Irish, and there are still significant Jewish neighborhoods. I cannot speak to the Brooklyn part of the district, but your odds of finding a salumeria on Staten Island far exceed any Middle Eastern markets. Part of McMahon’s strength has been his ability to be independent from the national Democrats and his ability to have a more conservative image than the national party. I am not sure this gaffe changes that very much, but if anything, it does make him look less competent and more partisan. Given the conservative underpinnings of the district, anything that portays McMahon in a negative light makes his life more difficult. That said, I still think McMahon is the favorite in this district that tends to like their incumbents. Grimm (or his primary opponent) will probably need a pretty big GOP wave to suceed here.
The fact that McMahon’s staff thought the New York Observer — a very inside-baseball, gossipy city weekly — would find the information useful instead of offensive or troublesome is a particularly bizarre wrinkle. The decision to say “Look at all of his Jewish donors!” to the Observer — how many of its writers, editors, and staff are Jewish? — is so spectacularly bizarre that I can’t begrudge someone looking for some other explanation or logic to the decision . . .