The politics of coexistence: The congressman and his intended, Hillary Clinton aide Huma Abedin, who is Muslim.
by Adam Dickter
Assistant Managing Editor
In the course of his long political career, Anthony Weiner became accustomed to eager inquiries when he walked into a Jewish senior center without a wedding ring.
“They all want me to meet their granddaughters,” the rail-thin, youthful politician told me as we walked into one such senior center on Brooklyn’s Ocean Avenue years ago. “And, they want to know what I’ve eaten today.”
At the time, Weiner was running for Congress with posters that read Anthony David Weiner, lest the man with the Italian given name be perceived as a non-Jew and lose advantage to any of his three rivals, Noach Dear, Melinda Katz and Daniel Feldman.
The unusual moniker and his reluctance to meet those granddaughters or to put on
a few pounds have never stood in the way of Anthony Weiner becoming a darling in his own religious community, mustering both political support and serious financial backing in a district that includes some of the most heavily Jewish neighborhoods in the country. They include Forest Hills in Queens and Flatbush in Brooklyn.
But now Weiner, 44, a six-term Democrat with staunch pro-Israel leanings, is entering uncharted waters with his announcement that he’ll soon be married. To a Muslim.
“OY,” commented one reader on the blog Yeshiva World News in reaction to the news.
“Hashem Yeracham [May God have mercy],” wrote another.
“Never liked that bum,” wrote a third.
At a time when Jews and Muslims in America are searching for better ties, Weiner has announced he’ll tie the knot with Huma Abedin, a longtime aide to Hillary Clinton. No wedding date has been set.
Born in Michigan to an Indian father and Pakistani mother, Abedin, 33, grew up in Saudi Arabia, where her father founded an institute on interfaith understanding and her mother taught sociology. She returned to the U.S. to study at George Washington University. An internship at the White House in 1996 led to a job with the then-first lady, and she has remained at Clinton’s side through eight years in the Senate and now at the State Department.
Fluent in Arabic, she is considered one of Clinton’s top advisers on the Middle East.
She is also known for her flawless appearance in a life filled with grueling schedules.
“She is timeless, her combination of poise, kindness and intelligence are matchless,”Clinton told Vogue of her aide in 2007.
The following year Abedin served as traveling chief of staff in Clinton’s presidential campaign, during which she reportedly grew close to Weiner, a key supporter.
Some right-wing backlash is probably inevitable, and some may wonder if his choice is any of our business. But this is an age when politicians’ careers and love lives are becoming increasingly seamless.
“It’s an oxymoron to say you have a private life when you’re a public official,” says William Helmreich, a CUNY Graduate Center sociology professor and author of books on New York life. “If that’s what you want, choose another profession.”
Perhaps feeling otherwise, Weiner did not return a call seeking comment.
In a 1998 interview he said he belonged to Beth Sholom of Kings Bay, which describes itself as liberal Orthodox, but he has since moved to Forest Hills. Like many New York politicians, Weiner has been known to appear with a yarmulke at Jewish events and sprinkle terms like Eretz Yisrael into his speeches, but has never presented himself as observant.
So it shouldn’t surprise that he is joining the legion of prominent Jews who love gentiles. Public figures like former Comptroller Alan Hevesi, former Gov. Eliot Spitzer and Mayor Michael Bloomberg lost no discernible Jewish support for marrying or dating outside the faith. Even in heavily chasidic Williamsburg David Yassky’s intermarriage hasn’t cost him that voting bloc in his two successful City Council campaigns.
But the volatile tension between Jews and Muslims in the Middle East, and the spread of Islamic fundamentalism in Afghanistan and Pakistan, gives this latest love story involving one of the most pro-Israel pols on Capitol Hill a sense of awkwardness, even at a time when the first U.S. president with Muslim ancestry (albeit a practicing Christian) sits in the Oval Office.
The media has tread carefully on the Jewish-Muslim angle, more seduced by the political-powerhouse factor. “Another D.C. Power Couple Moment,” was the headline of a Washington Post story.
Some might see the two as a new James Carville-Mary Matalin, if you cross out party affiliation and add religion as the potentially divisive force their love overcame.
But if there are any questions about Abedin’s impact on Weiner’s foreign policy, they may have more to do with her loyalty to Clinton who, in the eyes of many, has morphed from Arafat fan as first lady to Zionist as senator and is now seen by many to be waffling as secretary of state in an administration hell-bent on a peace agreement that includes squeezing Israel on settlements.
“I don’t think he’ll be one-tenth as influenced by his wife’s opinions as a Muslim as he would be by Hillary Clinton and [President] Barack Obama’s opinions on the Middle East,” says Helmreich. “They’re the sources of his power [as a Democrat.]”
Concerned about a particular Middle East bill or resolution viewed as harmful to Obama administration policy, could Clinton call on Abedin to lobby her husband to back down?
“She might,” says Helmriech. “But if she does, you or I will never know it.”
The mayor of New York has no impact on Middle East policy, and City Hall is where Weiner has set his political sights. To get there he’ll need to hold onto and build his Jewish support.
Observant Jews view intermarriage as religious treason. One Yeshiva World commenter, Mastergary, wondered if “the timing of this news release [was] meant to coincide with the parsha in which some members of Bnei Yisroel sinned with midyanite women (in particular Zimri and Kosby) and [brought] down a plague?” He was referring to the portion of Balak, in which two Jews suffer for taking mates outside the tribe.
But even those who oppose intermarriage on grounds that it is harmful to Jewish continuity — and believe that its proliferation among prominent role models exacerbates that problem — have to weigh a potential protest vote against consideration of who serves their community’s best interests.
“I don’t think anyone focuses or cares or is interested,” says Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who shares part of Weiner’s district. “No one has really mentioned it. I wish him luck.”
Shlomo Perl, an Orthodox Borough Park businessman who held a fundraiser in his home for Weiner’s re-election in 2000 and contributed to his mayoral campaign in 2005, said Weiner “has always been a friend of Israel and admirer. I’m sure now he’ll do the same things. I’ll support him if he runs for mayor again and also for his re-election to Congress. I’m not one who judges a person’s character on his personal choices.”
There could even be a political dividend.
“It may in fact be good for Weiner in a citywide race for people in Manhattan to see him as more ecumenical, whereas they might have seen him before as an outer-borough, very parochial candidate,” says Democratic political consultant Hank Sheinkopf. “Hopefully people won’t look at them as a Jew and a Muslim, but as two people who love each other.”
Imam Shamsi Ali of the Islamic Cultural Center on the Upper East Side said he had no opinion about what the union portends. “It’s a personal choice between those individuals, and I don’t think I have anything to say other than, may they be happy.”
Another imam, Mohamad Al Hussaini of London, an interfaith studies teacher who was visiting New York this week, said that despite strong communal stigma Muslim out-marriage is growing to a larger extent than many people realize, as popular culture prompts greater engagement with the outside world.
“The challenges faced by the Jewish community are followed almost step by step by Muslims,” said Imam Hussaini.
And so, with America’s Jews and Muslims lobbying against each other in Washington, and with recent acts of attempted terrorism against Jews prominently linked in the media to Muslims, coexistence builders in the two communities share some common ground, perhaps in trying not to like each other too much, and not in that way.
Secular Jews may soon see marrying Christians as so 2008. And it may not be long before Anthony Weiner is visiting Muslim senior centers, with a ring on his finger, showing pictures of his dual-heritage children, as grandmothers invite him to sit down and eat something.