Few took notice when Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver (D-Dist. 34) was one of three NJ lawmakers to vote in August of 2016 against a bill that banned New Jersey from investing state pension funds in companies that boycott Israel.
But that was before she was in the thick of a campaign for lieutenant governor, and now her “no” vote has become the focus of Republican attacks. Oliver is running alongside Democratic candidate for governor Phil Murphy against Kim Guadagno, the Republican gubernatorial candidate and the current lieutenant governor. Guadagno called on Murphy to drop Oliver for “her anti-Israel views,” and although the former U.S. ambassador to Germany refused, he acknowledged that he disagreed with Oliver’s position.
In a Sept. 18 article in the Jewish Voice, Guadagno said the vote demonstrates that, “when it comes to supporting Israel and the Jewish-American community in New Jersey, it’s clear that Phil Murphy and Sheila Oliver come up short.”
Woodcliff Lake Mayor Carlos Rendo, the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, has been on the receiving end of criticism by supporters of the Jewish community, as well. Rendo is under federal investigation for allegedly discriminating against Valley Chabad, located in Woodcliff Lake since 1998. The Lubavitch organization sued the town government last November for denying it permission to expand its property. Although the conflict predates Rendo’s 2013 tenure as mayor, according to The Observer, Chabad alleges that the candidate for lieutenant governor has also established roadblocks to quell Valley Chabad’s efforts to build a new center, disregarding the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000. According to the lawsuit, Rendo said the Chabad wanted to turn Woodcliff Lake into a “little Jerusalem,” a claim the Guadagno campaign denies.
The candidates’ disagreements came to a head Oct. 16 when Oliver faced Rendo in a debate at Montclair State University, with moderator Michael Aron of NJTV noting that both campaigns have “accused the other of anti-Semitism or anti-Israel sentiment.”
Rendo defended his role in the Valley Chabad lawsuit, saying that he was not in office when the original offense occurred, and emphasized that “We reject every type of anti-Semitism.” But Oliver’s vote, Rendo charged, proves that she and Murphy support “the pro-Israel boycott” and the pro-BDS legislation.
Oliver did not take kindly to the accusation. She said she opposed the bill because it did not go far enough, and “because I think that the power of investment funds should not be used for any country, for any corporation, that is supporting or propping up discrimination in any form.”
“We should have developed a more comprehensive bill without investing pension funds with anyone,” she said. “There are a lot of places where there are a lot of human rights violations. I believe the bill should have been broader.”
Murphy said he would have supported the legislation had he been a member of the Assembly when the bill was passed in August 2016, and if he had been governor he would have signed it into law.
State Senator Robert Singer (R-Dist. 30), an author of the anti-BDS legislation, was quoted by the Jewish Voice as saying New Jersey “cannot support the Murphy-Oliver anti-Israel ticket.”
Mark Levenson, a strong supporter of Guadagno and chair of the NJ-Israel Commission, told the Jewish Voice he was “really troubled” by Oliver’s position and disagreed with her nuanced criticism of the measure. “On this critical issue, you are either with us on the right side of the issue or you are against us,” he said. “There is no middle ground.”
Claims that her vote had anything to do with an anti-Israel or anti-Semitic bias are unfounded, Oliver said during Monday evening’s debate.
“I want to adamantly and strongly put on the record that there is not one anti-Semitic bone in my body,” she said. “My record of public service demonstrates that. I have been a strong supporter of the Jewish community in New Jersey. I grew up in a Jewish neighborhood. I had friends until I was well into my adulthood who were members of the Jewish faith.”
Other powerful pro-Israel voices in the state’s Jewish community have disputed the charges that the Democratic contenders are anti-Israel.
In an Oct. 11 press release issued by the Murphy-Oliver campaign, Roy Tanzman, past president and current executive board member of the State Association of Jewish Federations, said Murphy is “committed” to making a positive difference for both New Jersey and Israel and Oliver “has proven to me her commitment to our community, and to strengthening the bonds between New Jersey and Israel.”
Steve Klinghoffer of Short Hills, a former president of what was the United Jewish Communities of MetroWest; a former co-chairman of the NJ-Israel Commission; and a former registered Republican, said that despite her vote, he maintains his support for Murphy and Oliver.
“I do not agree with her vote, but her vote had nothing to do with anti-Semitism or the issue of BDS,” he told NJJN. “I’ve known Sheila Oliver for years. She has been a strong supporter of the Jewish community and a regular at Super Sunday. She is not anti-Semitic by any stretch of the imagination.”
Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-Dist. 36) agrees. “The promise of a Murphy-Oliver administration will strengthen the unbreakable ties that have been the foundation of that relationship and affirmed in economic, education, and technological initiatives based upon shared historic values,” said Schaer, an Orthodox Jew.
But Alan Steinberg, a Highland Park Republican, does not share Schaer’s high opinion of the candidate. “Oliver is not a friend of Israel. Period,” he told NJJN. “I get upset with Jewish Democrats when they give a pass to one of their own who is not good for Israel.”
Even with the recent focus on Israel and the Jewish community, Ben Dworkin, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University, does not believe BDS will be a decisive issue for many Jewish voters.
“Much like the vice-presidential candidate in a presidential race, virtually nobody casts their ballot for the number 2 person,” he told NJJN. “Many people in the Jewish community disagree with the assemblywoman’s vote, but this is not a universal issue, even among the Jewish community, much less the general public.”
Rather, Dworkin said he thinks support or opposition to Oliver’s position will come down to partisan politics.
“People who are going to vote on this issue are really likely to vote Republican.”