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‘We Have An Obligation To Stand Even Taller’ – An Interview With Political Consultant Hank Sheinkopf

Hank Sheinkopf is a master of the rough world of political campaigning. As president of Sheinkopf Communications, he’s worked on some 700 political campaigns on four continents, including 44 American states. His clients have included President Clinton and Mayor Bloomberg. Sought after for comment by major media outlets, he is a CNN contributor and has lectured at NYU, Harvard, and Fordham.

An Orthodox Jew living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with his wife and two children, Sheinkopf met recently with The Jewish Press to talk about politics, religion and Israel.

The Jewish Press: Who was the first candidate you worked for?

Sheinkopf:The first person in politics I worked with for pay was Herman Badillo, when he ran for mayor in 1969. I found him very refreshing because he talked about coalitions between middle income and poor people, and I respected him immensely because he came here from Puerto Rico as an orphan, without a dime in his pocket. He worked as a pin setter in a bowling alley and somehow made a life for himself and became a lawyer and an accountant. I never met anyone who had that kind of success coming from nothing. And because of that experience I knew I could do something with my life.

Who was the most memorable politician you worked with?

I’ve worked for a lot of extraordinary people. I worked for Mayor Bloomberg, for President Clinton, for former governor Eliot Spitzer. Among the smartest people I’ve met are Bloomberg, Clinton and Leonel Fernandez, president of the Dominican Republic. Clinton started out with nothing and became the leader of the world, regardless of what people may say about him. And while most politicians make decisions based on how they’re going to get reelected, Bloomberg’s dynamic for decision making is “How can I do the good thing?” or “How can I make the city I love better?”

You campaign mainly for Democratic candidates. Have you ever turned any candidates down? Do you identify politically with Democrats and encourage others, specifically Jews, to vote for them?

I have turned people down. Do I agree with everyone I’ve worked for? No. For years this was strictly a Democratic shop, but I reject categorically the argument that Jews are required to be Republicans or Democrats. Everyone who thinks everything was wonderful with Bush should thank God that presidential terms end at a certain point because Condoleezza Rice would have cut Jerusalem in half. If I had to say where my prejudices are, I believe in free association, which is good as a Jew. I don’t think people’s associations ought to be regulated.

Who will run for New York governor in 2010?

Rick Lazio is out there as a candidate, as well as Andrew Cuomo and David Paterson. Paterson is going through a brief upsurge now because he’s taken on the State Senate. But after January 1, when the budget starts to kick in and people understand what a serious fix New York is in, they will probably be less likely to stand with the governor. I would say Andrew Cuomo’s time is coming. He’s very smart, very competent, and he’s been a friend of the Jewish people.

With President Obama’s poll numbers sinking, do you forecast a backlash in the 2010 midterm elections against the Democrats?

Obamism is not a political party, it’s a social movement. And I think social movements, when they ultimately achieve their goals, lose their sense of purpose. They tend to dissipate. And if they don’t achieve them, their adherents’ anger will increase substantially and they’ll walk away out of frustration. This social movement was based on one charismatic figure and a set of ideas around him, mostly about change. It may have been difficult to sell had George Bush not been the president previously. But people are beginning to wonder, “Where’s the beef?” They don’t see things happening quickly.

Maybe they see things happening too quickly and think Obama is moving radically on too many issues.

You may be correct. There is an argument to be made that he’s moving too quickly and too radically for some. Americans don’t like that kind of change. They don’t like anything related to the economy to move too quickly. They see the economy as precision timed, almost like a clock. If you move one of the parts, something falls apart. The stimulus package may not be working the way it should. What is happening and what they perceive to be happening is that some are benefiting and large numbers of Americans are not.

Do you agree with those who say America has hit moral bottom?

The problem is we have a moral moment where, without question, religion is under attack. I would argue we have hit a point where religion has become the enemy. This is the acme of the 20th century progressive argument. And that manifests itself in different ways.

We have the Catholic church suffering severe problems in the United States from a decline in membership and activity, and people are deriding evangelicals’ religiosity. We have Jeremy Ben Ami of J Street talking blithely about how his staff is all intermarried and how they have Buddhist Seders. They equate the Palestinian experience with the Jewish experience, which is insane. They are trying to dilute religiosity to fit in, and it’s not going to work.

How would you propose strengthening Jewish pride?

Those of us who want to protect our children’s future have an obligation to stand even taller. We should be educating our people, and we need to get people more involved in religious practice. Judaism is not passive – it is a commitment. We have to somehow breathe that fire, and from the fire will come people who are proud of themselves. But not by passivity. Torah study and Torah involvement and living as a Jew are practical, activist activities.

Given Israel’s dismal image, do you think a comprehensive public relations campaign would work, or would it be a case of too little, too late?

I’ve been the saying the same thing in public speeches for the past ten years – the Jewish community should take the plaques off its walls, melt down whatever silver is useable, and figure out how to fund a means of setting up programming for cable and radio to publicize our point of view. Stop trying to convince the Jews; convince the non-Jews. We should be talking to fundamentalist Christians and evangelicals. We need these Christian folks badly. They know the Tanach sometimes better than our co-religionists do, and they have tremendous respect for us as a people. We need them in Congress too because the most important person in our lives today is the chairperson of the defense appropriations sub-committee.

Ten years from now the young people coming behind us in the pro-Israel community are not necessarily going to do what is needed. They don’t have the commitment and they’ve had it too easy. If you took a census of most Jewish organizations, you will find that there is a decline in membership. It tells you that those of us who are still engaged, mostly because of some level of religiosity, will have a bigger job to do. And the way to shortcut that job is to communicate the moral argument, within the context of security for the world, to those who will ultimately make those decisions.

How would you advise American Jews to best take advantage of Christian support?

First, you have to stop listening to the Reform movement and others who somehow want to deride them. And to those who reject them for fear of missionizing, I say, no one is going to missionize me. I guarantee it. If your faith is strong enough, how can anyone missionize you? No one is converting me to anything except to a stronger belief in protecting the State of Israel, because without that the world will fall. Any time Jews have been under attack, wars have occurred, economies have fallen, terrible things have happened to humanity. The Christians apparently understand this better than a lot of our coreligionists do.

Israelis themselves seem to have bought into many of the anti-Israel arguments put forward by the left. How do you account for that?

One problem is that we Jews, and Israelis in particular, are being constantly told how bad we are. We read the web, the newspapers, the scandalous coverage of Israel by The New York Times and other outlets, and we believe that is the truth. When you are told all the time that you are bad you will ultimately believe it.

Jews are the only people I know who actually believe what other people go around thinking about them all day long. We should be worried only about what God is thinking about us and about how to safeguard the extraordinary piece of property He gave us. Either you believe in the future of the Jewish people or you don’t. We should stop this nonsense that somehow we’ve done something wrong. I would frankly say, “Go to hell if you don’t like Operation Cast Lead – next time don’t bomb us.”

How do you explain the durability of the belief among Israelis and other Jews that concessions will somehow buy Israel peace and the world’s affection?

Jews engage in extraordinary self-denial. If someone tells you he’s going to kill you, he means it. Jews don’t believe it because they don’t want to believe it. There is the incessant belief that if only we do this or that, others will love us. But Jews fail to comprehend that the world does not mind if we get killed. Only we mind if we get killed.

I was one of five Jews invited to meet with Khaddafi when he was in New York for the General Assembly. Khaddafi told us of his very simple solution to the Jewish problem. “First,” he said, “you must stop speaking Hebrew. Second, you must stop wrapping those straps around your arms. And third, you must mix in with the local population and let all the four million Palestinians come home.”

I said to myself, this sounds just like J Street’s Jeremy Ben Ami – the anti-religious fervor; the denial of our right, given to us by God, to property that He owns. We’re losing the moral moment. Israel represents that which is good, and those who would destroy Israel or make it a servant to the nations as opposed to a leader of the nations are those who hate God. And our mission is to uplift God. That’s the job we have to do.

About the Author: Sara Lehmann, a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, was formerly an editor at a major New York publishing house.


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