washington | Raised a Southern Baptist who later converted to Roman Catholicism, Gen. Wesley Clark knew just what to say when he strode into a Brooklyn yeshiva in 1999, ostensibly to discuss his leadership of NATO’s victory in Yugoslavia.
“I feel a tremendous amount in common with you,” the uniformed four-star general told the stunned roomful of students.
“I am the oldest son, of the oldest son, of the oldest son — at least five generations, and they were all rabbis.”
The incident could be a signal of how Clark, who became the 10th contender in the Democratic run for the presidency on Wednesday, relates to the Jews and the issues dear to them.
Apparently Clark, 58, revels in his Jewish roots.
He told The Jewish Week in New York, which first reported the yeshiva comment in 1999, that his ancestors were not just Jews, but members of the priestly caste of Kohens.
Clark’s Jewish father, Benjamin Kanne, died when he was 4, but he has kept in touch with his father’s family since his 20s, when he rediscovered his Jewish roots. He is close to a first cousin, Barry Kanne, who heads a pager company in Georgia.
Clark shares more than sentimental memories with Jews.
He couples liberal domestic views that appeal to much of the Jewish electorate with a soldier’s sympathy for Israel’s struggle against terror.
Appearing in June on “Meet the Press” on CBS, Clarke said he agreed with President Bush’s assessment that Israel should show more restraint, a reference to the policy of targeting terrorist leaders for assassination.
“But the problem is,” Clark continued, “when you have hard intelligence that you’re about to be struck, it’s the responsibility of a government to take action against that intelligence and prevent the loss of lives. It’s what any society would expect of its leadership. So there’s a limit to how much restraint can be shown.”
Speaking to the New Democrat Network this year, Clark said that dismantling Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s Ramallah headquarters was “a legitimate military objective from their perspective.
“For the Israelis, this is a struggle really for the existence of Israel,” Clark said in remarks quoted on a support group’s Web site.
Clark is also tough on neighboring Arab states, expecting more from them in nudging the Palestinians toward peace.
He has said he would like to see Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia in a “contact group” similar to the alliance that Serb-friendly Russia joined to force the Serbs to back down in Kosovo. He blames Saudi Arabia for allowing extremist strains of Islam to spread.
The former NATO leader also opposes any active international role in policing the West Bank until the political situation is settled, a view that Israelis — nervous at relinquishing control to foreign troops on their borders — would appreciate.
Domestically, Clark favors many of the liberal views popular with many Jews. He is pro-choice, and is strongly in favor of separating church from state.
“In order to have freedom of religion, you’ve got to protect the state from the church,” he is quoted saying on his supporters’ Web site.
One of the leaders of the Draft Clark campaign said Clark’s strength on foreign policy would neutralize an advantage President Bush now has with Jews, and would bring the debate back to domestic issues, where the Bush administration is weaker with Jews.
“It makes him credible and allows him to focus on domestic policy,’ Brent Blackaby said in a telephone interview from Clark’s campaign headquarters in Little Rock, Ark.
Two of Clark’s top advisers are Jews who had prominent roles in the Clinton and Gore campaigns. Eli Segal was a top adviser to President Clinton in his first term; Ron Klain helped run Vice President Al Gore’s 2000 campaign.