'Ask me anything you want," Dov Hikind announces breezily, taking a seat as though preparing to be grilled. "I'm used to it."
We are in the lobby of Jerusalem's Renaissance Hotel, where the New York state assemblyman is staying, following a three-day stint in Sderot. There he celebrated Purim with the town's besieged residents, for whom he had raised $50,000 through his weekly radio show, broadcast Saturday nights on WMCA.
"We distributed shalah manos [gift baskets] to each of the 6,000 families and paid for a party - attended by 1,000 people - with music and clowns," says Hikind, pride laced with sadness. "And they smiled."
Hikind, 57, says he was "emotionally and mentally affected" by what he experienced in the Kassam-bombarded area.
"I would urge every Israeli in the country to go there," he emphasizes. "Not just to shop [as a way of expressing solidarity by helping the local economy], but to spend time talking to people and getting a feel for what they're going through."
Hikind recounts being horrified during his own discussions with people he encountered in Sderot (with "For Sale" signs dotting the landscape), when one "man in the street" responded to his commenting that "if five were killed in a single missile attack, the government would finally take action" by saying the number of dead would have to be a lot higher than that.
"Is that not sick?" Hikind poses rhetorically, to drive home his point - and viewpoint - forcefully, a style he uses throughout our hour-long interview.
Not that Hikind's political and other positions have ever been less than an open book, both in his heavily hassidic Brooklyn district or in the Jewish state he visits regularly, and admits to considering his main passion. In fact, he even goes as far as to say he's "guilty" of not living here.
This might sound peculiar for someone who has been an elected pol in the United States for nearly three decades - particularly when the question of Jewish "dual loyalty" continues to be raised by certain Americans wishing to stick it to prominent Zionists in their midst.
But Hikind, the son of Holocaust survivors - and husband of Shoshana, who runs the New York office of American Friends of Ateret Kohanim Yeshiva - sees nothing wrong with his priorities, which he promotes without apology. He likens his type of partisanship to that of gay rights advocates, who, he claims, are unabashed about the issue closest to their hearts, minds and ballot-casting. "As a proud Jew, I will never support a candidate who is bad on Israel, even if he or she is good on all other issues important to me," he says.
This might help to explain why the veteran member of the Democratic Party who wears a crocheted kippa often supports Republican candidates, such as George W. Bush - and now John McCain. His voting habits are among many reasons for his referring to himself as a conservative (or a "Reagan Democrat"), and for others calling him an out-and-out right-winger. Coming out against affirmative action and gay marriage tends to have that effect. As does the fact that Hikind was once a follower of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane.
Hikind laughs when questioned about this connection, shaking his head at the way this particular detail of his life keeps coming back if not to bite him then to be magnified out of proportion.
"I was involved with Kahane over 40 years ago, when he was in New York fighting anti-Semitism, advocating for Soviet Jewry and helping the Jewish poor who no one knew existed," he explains, adding, "I'm proud of every single moment, let me make that very clear. Rabbi Kahane had a great influence on me. I was attending yeshiva. No one had ever spoken to me before about my responsibility to other Jews by actually doing something, not just theorizing about it." However, insists Hikind, "When Kahane came to Israel and started calling Arabs cockroaches and things like that, I thought it was wrong on his part - and I said so."
As for his stance on affirmative action, Hikind says that the way it has been practiced constitutes discrimination. "If we want more blacks in medical schools, let's do everything to prepare them to take entrance exams, etc. But not create quotas."
For a Jew and a Democrat, this is an unusual outlook. But he insists that whatever is considered controversial about him is taken out of context.
Indeed, according to Hikind, who recently established the Black-Jewish Alliance, even his long-time friend and associate, David Paterson (disgraced outgoing governor Eliot Spitzer's replacement) acknowledges that before getting to know Hikind, he had been under a misconception about him.
You recently established the Black-Jewish Alliance. Why?
Because of a spate of recent anti-Semitic and anti-black hate crimes in New York City. In the past, when blacks and Jews got together, they were all liberal and catering to the same agenda. Today, our alliance is not only taking a stand against racism, but against anti-Semitism as well. And all polls indicate that there's more anti-Semitism from blacks in America than from any other group.
Is that due to the fact that many American blacks have become Muslims?
That's an interesting question. The black community is indeed supportive of the Palestinian cause. That's why this alliance is so important.
The new governor of New York, David Paterson, joined your alliance. What is he like?
He's a great guy. We've been friends for several years, in spite of our differences on many issues. He's rather liberal, while I'm a conservative Democrat. I'm thinking of endorsing [Republican presidential candidate John] McCain, for example. And I've always been opposed to the way affirmative action was being practiced in the United States. My position has always been that if we want more blacks in medical schools, let's do everything to prepare them to take entrance exams, etc. But not to create quotas, which I consider discriminatory. I don't think it's a controversial position, but in some quarters - oh my God... to be against affirmative action!
Paterson always talks publicly about how, before he knew me, he had gotten the wrong impression about me because of the way things I had said were misrepresented.
Is Paterson pro-Israel?
Oh, yes. Now, you know he's blind. He only sees forms. Just before the whole Spitzer [scandal involving a prostitute] came out, I sat with him in his office planning an event in Harlem for the Black-Jewish Alliance, and he starting telling me about his recent trip to Israel. He told me how beautiful it was. And I'm thinking, "But he's blind."
Still, the fact is that he felt something. I hope to accompany him here in the near future.
What about your relations with Spitzer - a Jew?
Well, there isn't much that's Jewish about him, to be honest. But look, Spitzer's story is best told by the fact that once he got into trouble - and had all this constant negative press - not a single person came to his defense. I'm not judging him on what he did with a prostitute; that's not even an issue to me. He's human, and human beings make mistakes. It is a sad commentary that no one was there to say, "You know, the guy made a mistake, but he's also a good guy who did wonderful things."
Does that not, perhaps, have to do with the sense on the part of the public that he never lived up to the expectations he himself had instilled - and with the fact that he had taken a holier-than-thou attitude toward corruption?
Well, he started out as attorney-general in New York, and he did that for eight years. Then, he came to Albany on a big, white horse. He was going to be the messiah. He was going to change everything from day one, he said.
The lack of support he received in the end really has to do with the way he did things. When he was attorney-general, he had no rahmones [Yiddish for pity]. The job of attorney-general is to get people who do bad things. Right? But he took the knife and twisted it. He took pleasure in embarrassing people who got into trouble. There was no heart. No compassion. This is why, when it turned out he was doing stuff he had been pursuing previously without pity, no one took pity on him.
You mean, he discovered that "what goes around comes around"?
Exactly. There are so many lessons that can be learned from this - lessons that can be applied to Israel and everywhere else in the world.
How do they apply to Israel?
Be careful how - and what - you preach. Be careful about being self-righteous, when maybe you're not so righteous, because maybe the world will find out sooner or later.
Are you saying this is a metaphor for Israel as a Jewish state? Are you saying that Israel is self-righteous and has no business being so?
No, I don't mean that.
Are you referring to Israel's leaders, then?
This country doesn't have any leaders right now. Look, I love Israel as much as anyone - except that I don't live here. I'm guilty of that, and I admit it. But beyond that, being here as often as I am, and having been in politics for 26 years - dealing with presidents, senators, governors - it saddens me that there is no leader here anyone can look up to at the moment. It's not an issue of whether someone's on the Left or the Right. It doesn't matter. What matters is who's a mensch, who can be trusted, who leads his life in an admirable way. Today you have a prime minister who is a coward. Having just spent three days in Sderot in order to get a feel of the place, I want you to know that it's the most pathetic thing in the world. Israel is not a sovereign nation. A sovereign nation does not permit its cities to be bombarded on a regular basis. A sovereign nation does not permit its four-year-olds to know better than soldiers where to hide when Kassam rockets fall. It's insanity!
Maybe it is not insanity. Perhaps it is Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's strategy, to enable him to withdraw from the West Bank, the way that his predecessor Ariel Sharon evacuated Gaza following the suicide bombing war that the Palestinians called the second intifada?
Well, in that case, we should start by withdrawing from Sderot and from Ashkelon, and maybe from Kiryat Shmona and Ma'alot. I mean, maybe we should in fact abandon Israel altogether. Because, if this is supposed to be the haven for the Jewish people... well, this is the place where more Jews die and are wounded - for being Jews - than anywhere else in the world. We talk about anti-Semitism in Europe - well, in one year, more people die in this country than from all the anti-Semitic incidents in Europe put together.
There's a price to pay to have a country. People die. Soldiers die. But when a government doesn't fulfill its most basic responsibility... And what is its most important responsibility? To protect its citizens. You know, all the people in Sderot I spoke to - whether they were religious or secular or Ashkenazi or Sephardi - said the same thing about Olmert. They said, "What is the purpose of the army? Why are our children the soldiers?"
And if Olmert doesn't know what to do, or is afraid to do what it takes, then he shouldn't be prime minister. Now, I know Ehud quite well. He's been in my house a number of times. And we all applauded him [when he was mayor of Jerusalem]. But one thing we always knew about him was that he doesn't believe in anything. He will be on the Right on Monday - if that suits his political purpose - and he'll be on the Left on Tuesday, and somewhere else on Wednesday.
Is it possible that it is actually the Bush-Rice administration calling the shots and not Olmert?
I love people who blame American presidents for our not being able to do what we need to do. During the Second War in Lebanon, let's not forget, it was Condi Rice and George Bush who, remarkably, told Israel, "Finish the freakin' job. Do it. Make it happen."
And Israel, unfortunately, didn't do that. It was a disaster - major defeat for Israel.
I'll never forget the words of Shaul Mofaz when he was defense minister, and of Sharon when he was prime minister: "If one Kassam rocket is launched after Jews are thrown out of their homes [in Gaza], we'll go after them."
There's no truth here. It's all politics.
Whatever you say is the feeling among Israelis about Olmert, one is hard pressed to meet an American these days who doesn't have equally bad things to say about Bush - in spite of the fact that the surge in Iraq seems to be working. Is the man in the street really reliable? Don't popular mantras sometimes get in the way of facts on the ground?
I'm a Democrat, but not a blind one. In fact, I supported Bush. I don't think he's been a great president or that he will go down as one. Terrible mistakes have been made. Things are better now on the ground in Iraq, but am I personally optimistic? No. Some days and weeks are very good, and then 40-50 people get killed in car bombings. I don't know where it will all end or whether we will have accomplished anything. But I think Bush has really tried to do his best. And when it comes to Islamic fundamentalism, the Republicans are far beyond where the Democrats are in understanding the threat. You won't find a Democrat who will use the words "Islamic fascism." Republicans do, and understand what that's all about.
Why, then, are you a Democrat? Out of American-Jewish habit?
I represent a district [of 150,000] which is 85 percent Democrats. But they are more conservative - sort of Reagan Democrats.
Many Reagan Democrats became Republicans - and began being called neoconservatives. Why not you?
If I became a Republican, a lot of people would ask me why I'm a Republican, because of some of my views. I support Democrats and Republicans, depending on the issues and the candidates. For me, it's not about being a Democrat or a Republican. I'm a Jew first, and I'm proud of it, even though some people tell me not to admit it. But look at gay people. What are the most important issues for them in America? You know, if you're not pro-gay in every single way, they'll never vote for you. That's OK. As a proud Jew, I will never support a candidate who is bad on Israel, even if he or she is good on all other issues important to me.
But hasn't the Democratic Party swung so far to the Left that it couldn't possibly be good for Israel? From everything you're saying, whether about affirmative action or Islamofascism, you don't seem to espouse the ideology of the group with which you are politically affiliated.
Well, yes, but there are also things about the Democratic Party that I consider very important. Being there for the poor guy, for example, in terms of benefits. Democrats are usually better on that. Also, I've been in rooms full of Democrats and rooms full of Republicans, and truthfully, I'm more comfortable with Democrats, even when I disagree with them. I don't know why; I just relate better to them. On the other hand, when it comes to some of the most fundamental issues facing our society right now, such as the threat of terrorism, to think of Barack Obama as president of the United States scares the hell out of me. He's not just liberal; he's the extreme Left of the party and everyone knows it.
And I happen to think Obama will be the Democratic candidate. I also think that McCain has the potential to garner an even higher percentage of the Jewish vote than Ronald Reagan did - and that was the highest ever for a Republican president.
Still, McCain's biggest obstacle is the Iraq situation, since it is the foundation on which he stands.
Americans seem to care only about Iraq. Is the Iranian threat not on anybody's mind these days?
Most polls indicate that even Iraq isn't the main issue among American voters right now. It's the economy. People are very nervous in the US about their financial future, because at the moment they're losing lots of money.
As for Iran, I don't think it's even on the list. People don't think of it as a danger to the US.
Do you agree with those people?
Of course not. [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad is an unpredictable psychopath who is definitely developing nuclear weapons. This is someone capable of doing the kind of things that can seriously hurt America and the rest of the world.
How much of your work is focused on national issues like these, and how much is devoted to local matters of your district?
I take pride in being second to no one in terms of delivering services to people in my community. Being there for people and making a difference is what it's all about. I represent everyone in my community and 40% of the people in my district are Italian and Irish. I don't wear a kippa in order to show off my being religious. I wear it because I won't take it off for anyone. And while on the subject, I hate being called an Orthodox Jew.
Because only God knows how Orthodox you are. Look, I represent a community with every hassidic group that you can imagine, in addition to non-religious Jews and gentiles. What I am is a proud Jew who does what he thinks is right. I always explain to [critics] that I'm not only in politics; I am also an individual who stands up for the things that are important to me. Israel is high on that list.