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Will anti-Semitism affect mayoral race?

Updated: May 20, 2011 1:41PM

Will anti-Semitism play a role in Chicago’s mayoral contest? To answer that question, I called my “Aunt” Muriel. She’s my honorary aunt and authority on all things Jewish. Muriel Pollack is my husband’s mother’s best friend and a 30-year member of the North Shore Congregational Synagogue in Highland Park.

So Aunt Mure, whaddaya think? Will Rahm’s religion play a role in Chicago’s Feb. 22 mayoral election?

“I certainly hope not,” she pronounced, then conceded, “There’s always a few crackpots left in the world.”

If they are out there, you’ll find them in Chicago.

While she can’t vote in the city, Emanuel is her man. “I think he’s the most educated and qualified candidate, period. Regardless of religion. The fact that he’s Jewish is just gravy.”

Muriel seems pretty sanguine about the whole thing. I’m not so sure.

Back in October, early in the campaign, I found myself chatting politics with a gaggle of 30-something women at a restaurant opening downtown. They proudly proclaimed their Irish heritage and South Side roots. They were big boosters of the erstwhile mayoral wannabe, Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart. That was OK, but their assessments of then-rival Emanuel gave me the queasies. They threw off lines like: He’s too aggressive. He’s only in it for the money.

I am paraphrasing, but you get the drift: Outsider. Money-grubber. Pushy. We all know those ugly and age-old stereotypes. We don’t want to talk about it, but in America bigotry is always there, gnawing around the edges. Will it play a role in this election?

There hasn’t been any “overt” anti-Semitism in Chicago politics for a long time, says the city’s most esteemed political prognosticator. “I don’t think it’s going to be anything resembling a decisive factor,” says Don Rose, a columnist for the Chicago Observer. Rose has managed and watched Chicago mayoral contests since he ran Jane Byrne’s winning bid in 1979.

Rose, who is Jewish, told me, “I believe it’s a scattered phenomenon,” most likely to emerge among African Americans. Studies show that there’s “a little more anti-Semitism in the African-American community than in the white community as a whole.”

A 2009 national survey commissioned by the Anti-Defamation League found that 12 percent of Americans hold anti-Semitic views. But a Marttila Communications phone survey found that 28 percent of African-Americans hold anti-Semitic beliefs.

In Emanuel’s case, Rose says there is some good news — sort of. Black Chicagoans are most likely to vote for one of the three African American candidates in the race, rather than against Emanuel. “My suspicion is that any anti-Semitism in the African-American community would probably be overridden by a vote for a black candidate.”

Emanuel may have more to worry about in his own backyard. Many Jewish voters, especially those who are Orthodox or conservative, view Emanuel, President Obama’s former chief of staff, as a “traitor,” Rose said. They say Obama has been a lackluster supporter of Israel and see Emanuel and presidential adviser David Axelrod as partners in the crime.

On the flip side, the city’s liberal Jews are annoyed by what they perceive as the Obama administration’s rightward tilt on issues like immigration, health care and gay rights.

No matter. History is a powerful lure. If Rahm Emanuel makes it to the Fifth Floor of City Hall, he would become Chicago’s first Jewish mayor. I suspect that in the end, most Jewish voters will see Emanuel as the gravy, not the grime.

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