Democrat Tom Suozzi and Republican Mazi Melesa Pilip are competing in the...

Democrat Tom Suozzi and Republican Mazi Melesa Pilip are competing in the special election in the 3rd Congressional District. Credit: Craig Ruttle; Howard Schnapp

A week after Republicans tapped Israeli military veteran Mazi Melesa Pilip to run in New York’s 3rd Congressional District special election, Tom Suozzi, her Democratic opponent, was on a flight to Israel to meet the families of kidnapped hostages.

Both candidates’ full-throated support for Israel in its war with Hamas has become central as they court the district's large population of Jewish voters with varying political ideologies.

While no statistics were available for the number of Jewish voters in the district, as of 2020, Nassau County’s Jewish population was 192,000, according to Brandeis University's American Jewish Population Project. Long Island is home to about 300,000 Jews, the fourth largest in the nation, behind New York City, Los Angeles and South Florida, Brad Kolodny, president of the Jewish Historical Society of Long Island, has said.

The GOP's selection of Pilip, an Ethiopian Israeli immigrant who is beginning her second term in the Nassau County Legislature, along with Suozzi’s early trip to Israel, show the importance of the Jewish vote along the county's North Shore, which has some of the most densely populated Jewish communities in the nation, political experts said.

“Both parties know that Jews make up a big portion of the election in that district, and they’re going to play for them,” said Ira Sheskin, director of the Jewish Demography Project at the University of Miami and editor of the American Jewish Year Book. Sheskin has studied political trends in American Jewish communities. 

The Feb. 13 special election to replace expelled GOP Rep. George Santos pits Suozzi, 61, of Glen Cove, who represented the 3rd District from 2017 to 2022, against Pilip, 44, of Great Neck, an Orthodox Jew and registered Democrat running on the Republican and Conservative Party lines. Great Neck is home to the Island's largest Jewish population.

Republicans say they are working to turn out their base of Orthodox Jewish voters, primarily on the Great Neck peninsula, where Pilip has lived for a decade.

“I think they’re going to be more motivated and reach out to more of their friends and neighbors because of the circumstances,” Nassau Republican chairman Joseph Cairo said of the Orthodox community, citing Pilip's background and the war, which began Oct. 7 with Hamas' attack on Israel. Cairo toured Israel in September with a group of local GOP lawmakers to forge a stronger connection with his constituency.

The Suozzi campaign will target Reform and Conservative Jews in Plainview, Woodbury, Syosset, Jericho, Roslyn and Port Washington, said Jay Jacobs, chairman of the state and Nassau Democratic committees.

“Those areas have leaned Democratic,” Jacobs said. “We need to firm that vote up, solidify it and bring out the vote for Tom Suozzi in large numbers to offset anything that goes on in the Orthodox community.”

While both Pilip and Suozzi are pro-Israel, they are making different appeals to Jewish voters in the district.

Pilip says her military service and personal connection to Israel make her uniquely suited to represent the 3rd District. She immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia at age 12 and served as a gunsmith in a paratrooper brigade of the Israeli Defense Forces before attending college in Israel and moving to the United States.

Pilip said the impetus for her campaign was social media posts last month suggesting that Palestinian supporters during a protest had removed an American flag from a flagpole on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. The posts appeared about a week before Pilip launched her House campaign on Dec. 14.

“I could not see that — American soldiers died for that flag. I know, because I served,” she told Newsday.

A bridge, highway and transportation authority spokesman told news outlets the American flag was not actually removed, but protesters did hoist a Palestinian flag beneath where it was flying. A widely shared video only showed a lower portion of the flagpole.

Suozzi, a former Nassau County executive and Glen Cove mayor who is Roman Catholic, said he traveled to Israel on Dec. 22 to emphasize his support for the U.S.-Israel relationship.

“Not many people care about Israel, but the people who do care about Israel, it’s their No. 1 issue,” he said in an interview. “They’re one-issue voters.”

Suozzi said he has “always been very strong on Israel, and I wanted to make sure I made that very clear as this race commences.”

A 2020 Pew Research study found 71% of Jewish Americans identified as Democrats, or as Democrat-leaning.

Only 26% of the American Jewish population said they were Republican or Republican-leaning, Pew found.

The reverse is true for Orthodox Jewish voters. About 75% of Orthodox Jews identified as Republican or Republican-leaning, while 20% of Orthodox Jews identified as Democrats or Democrat-leaning, according to the Pew study.

Ilai Saltzman, director of the Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, said the war “has been tearing apart not only [Jewish American] communities, but also families.”

The split isn't only between Orthodox Jews and Reform and Conservative Jews, but also between older and younger Jews. Members of the older generation are more likely to have known Holocaust survivors and remember “the multiple wars where Israel was the weaker party,” Saltzman said.

Younger Jewish Americans, having grown up “with Israel as the more powerful party,” aren't as politically defined by their relationship with the country and may be more willing to criticize the government's response in Gaza, even as they condemn the Hamas attack on Israeli civilians that started the war.

“There's a generational gap that is significant between 65-plus-year-olds and Gen Z's, millennials that will, in all likelihood, tie into this particular race for this particular district,” Saltzman said in an interview.

Saltzman said Pilip’s back story “certainly will have some political appeal, because there's optics there beyond the policies or beyond the positions.”

But Sheskin noted: “Most of the reform Jews, in particular, regardless of who the Republicans put up, are not going to vote for a Republican, particularly right now when control of the House of Representatives is at stake."

Suozzi and his allies have argued that Congress needs a pro-Israel Democrat to oppose progressive Democrats who are critical of Israel.

Mark Mellman, a co-chair of the Democratic Majority For Israel, a super PAC that supports pro-Israel candidates and opposes detractors, said Suozzi will be “willing and able to take on the Israel detractors that are in the Democratic caucus.”

“It’s a small group. It’s a group that needs to be fought,” Mellman said in an interview. “A Republican is not going to fight that battle in the Democratic caucus. You need Democrats to do that.”

Republican backers of Pilip said the opposite is true — that increasing the ranks of Republicans is the best way to ensure maximum support for Israel. 

“The issue is not necessarily one individual, said Pedram Bral, a surgeon and the Great Neck Village mayor. “The issue becomes the party.”

In 2011, 71% of Great Neck residents lived in Jewish households — the largest concentration on Long Island, according to the UJA-Federation of New York's Jewish Community Study of New York. 

Bral, 54, an Orthodox Jew who immigrated to the United States from Iran as a teen, is a former Democrat who said he appreciates Suozzi's support for Israel and has “nothing negative” to share about him.

But Bral is endorsing Pilip, whom he's known for about a decade, noting that even for moderate Democrats, there is intense pressure to tack to the far left, “otherwise they get ridiculed, or they can even be called MAGA.”

A week after Republicans tapped Israeli military veteran Mazi Melesa Pilip to run in New York’s 3rd Congressional District special election, Tom Suozzi, her Democratic opponent, was on a flight to Israel to meet the families of kidnapped hostages.

Both candidates’ full-throated support for Israel in its war with Hamas has become central as they court the district's large population of Jewish voters with varying political ideologies.

While no statistics were available for the number of Jewish voters in the district, as of 2020, Nassau County’s Jewish population was 192,000, according to Brandeis University's American Jewish Population Project. Long Island is home to about 300,000 Jews, the fourth largest in the nation, behind New York City, Los Angeles and South Florida, Brad Kolodny, president of the Jewish Historical Society of Long Island, has said.

The GOP's selection of Pilip, an Ethiopian Israeli immigrant who is beginning her second term in the Nassau County Legislature, along with Suozzi’s early trip to Israel, show the importance of the Jewish vote along the county's North Shore, which has some of the most densely populated Jewish communities in the nation, political experts said.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • Tom Suozzi, the Democratic candidate in the 3rd District special election, and his Republican opponent Mazi Melesa Pilip are courting a large population of Jewish voters with varying political ideologies.
  • Nassau County's North Shore has some of the most densely populated Jewish communities in the country, political experts said.
  • Republicans are working to turn out their base of Orthodox Jewish voters. Democrats are focused on Reform and Conservative Jews in the district.

“Both parties know that Jews make up a big portion of the election in that district, and they’re going to play for them,” said Ira Sheskin, director of the Jewish Demography Project at the University of Miami and editor of the American Jewish Year Book. Sheskin has studied political trends in American Jewish communities. 

The Feb. 13 special election to replace expelled GOP Rep. George Santos pits Suozzi, 61, of Glen Cove, who represented the 3rd District from 2017 to 2022, against Pilip, 44, of Great Neck, an Orthodox Jew and registered Democrat running on the Republican and Conservative Party lines. Great Neck is home to the Island's largest Jewish population.

Republicans say they are working to turn out their base of Orthodox Jewish voters, primarily on the Great Neck peninsula, where Pilip has lived for a decade.

“I think they’re going to be more motivated and reach out to more of their friends and neighbors because of the circumstances,” Nassau Republican chairman Joseph Cairo said of the Orthodox community, citing Pilip's background and the war, which began Oct. 7 with Hamas' attack on Israel. Cairo toured Israel in September with a group of local GOP lawmakers to forge a stronger connection with his constituency.

The Suozzi campaign will target Reform and Conservative Jews in Plainview, Woodbury, Syosset, Jericho, Roslyn and Port Washington, said Jay Jacobs, chairman of the state and Nassau Democratic committees.

“Those areas have leaned Democratic,” Jacobs said. “We need to firm that vote up, solidify it and bring out the vote for Tom Suozzi in large numbers to offset anything that goes on in the Orthodox community.”

Different appeals

While both Pilip and Suozzi are pro-Israel, they are making different appeals to Jewish voters in the district.

Pilip says her military service and personal connection to Israel make her uniquely suited to represent the 3rd District. She immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia at age 12 and served as a gunsmith in a paratrooper brigade of the Israeli Defense Forces before attending college in Israel and moving to the United States.

Pilip said the impetus for her campaign was social media posts last month suggesting that Palestinian supporters during a protest had removed an American flag from a flagpole on the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. The posts appeared about a week before Pilip launched her House campaign on Dec. 14.

“I could not see that — American soldiers died for that flag. I know, because I served,” she told Newsday.

A bridge, highway and transportation authority spokesman told news outlets the American flag was not actually removed, but protesters did hoist a Palestinian flag beneath where it was flying. A widely shared video only showed a lower portion of the flagpole.

Suozzi, a former Nassau County executive and Glen Cove mayor who is Roman Catholic, said he traveled to Israel on Dec. 22 to emphasize his support for the U.S.-Israel relationship.

“Not many people care about Israel, but the people who do care about Israel, it’s their No. 1 issue,” he said in an interview. “They’re one-issue voters.”

Suozzi said he has “always been very strong on Israel, and I wanted to make sure I made that very clear as this race commences.”

Political and generational gaps

A 2020 Pew Research study found 71% of Jewish Americans identified as Democrats, or as Democrat-leaning.

Only 26% of the American Jewish population said they were Republican or Republican-leaning, Pew found.

The reverse is true for Orthodox Jewish voters. About 75% of Orthodox Jews identified as Republican or Republican-leaning, while 20% of Orthodox Jews identified as Democrats or Democrat-leaning, according to the Pew study.

Ilai Saltzman, director of the Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, said the war “has been tearing apart not only [Jewish American] communities, but also families.”

The split isn't only between Orthodox Jews and Reform and Conservative Jews, but also between older and younger Jews. Members of the older generation are more likely to have known Holocaust survivors and remember “the multiple wars where Israel was the weaker party,” Saltzman said.

Younger Jewish Americans, having grown up “with Israel as the more powerful party,” aren't as politically defined by their relationship with the country and may be more willing to criticize the government's response in Gaza, even as they condemn the Hamas attack on Israeli civilians that started the war.

“There's a generational gap that is significant between 65-plus-year-olds and Gen Z's, millennials that will, in all likelihood, tie into this particular race for this particular district,” Saltzman said in an interview.

Saltzman said Pilip’s back story “certainly will have some political appeal, because there's optics there beyond the policies or beyond the positions.”

But Sheskin noted: “Most of the reform Jews, in particular, regardless of who the Republicans put up, are not going to vote for a Republican, particularly right now when control of the House of Representatives is at stake."

'The issue becomes the party'

Suozzi and his allies have argued that Congress needs a pro-Israel Democrat to oppose progressive Democrats who are critical of Israel.

Mark Mellman, a co-chair of the Democratic Majority For Israel, a super PAC that supports pro-Israel candidates and opposes detractors, said Suozzi will be “willing and able to take on the Israel detractors that are in the Democratic caucus.”

“It’s a small group. It’s a group that needs to be fought,” Mellman said in an interview. “A Republican is not going to fight that battle in the Democratic caucus. You need Democrats to do that.”

Republican backers of Pilip said the opposite is true — that increasing the ranks of Republicans is the best way to ensure maximum support for Israel. 

“The issue is not necessarily one individual, said Pedram Bral, a surgeon and the Great Neck Village mayor. “The issue becomes the party.”

In 2011, 71% of Great Neck residents lived in Jewish households — the largest concentration on Long Island, according to the UJA-Federation of New York's Jewish Community Study of New York. 

Bral, 54, an Orthodox Jew who immigrated to the United States from Iran as a teen, is a former Democrat who said he appreciates Suozzi's support for Israel and has “nothing negative” to share about him.

But Bral is endorsing Pilip, whom he's known for about a decade, noting that even for moderate Democrats, there is intense pressure to tack to the far left, “otherwise they get ridiculed, or they can even be called MAGA.”

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