Stephen Koff Plain Dealer Washington Bureau Chief

Dennis Kucinich, the colorful Cleveland congressman and longshot presidential candidate, has outraged Jewish leaders in Northeast Ohio by insisting that Iran’s anti-Zionist leader is not seeking to exterminate Israel.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is regarded by many in the western world as a menace with nuclear ambitions, who recently called for supporters of Israel to, among other things, “burn in the fire of the Islamic nations’ fury.” Kucinich, however, says another translation of that and other statements is that Ahmadinejad merely wants regime change in Israel, not death to its people and supporters.

Jewish leaders say such a translation might be acceptable only if Kucinich ignored Ahmadinejad’s behavior, which includes torture of his own people, and Middle East history since Israel’s founding in 1948.

He and Texas Republican Ron Paul – also a presidential aspirant – were the only House members to vote against a June 20 resolution condemning the Iranian leader and asking the U.N. Security Council to take up charges alleging violations of genocide conventions. Cleveland Democratic Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones and Lake County Republican Steve LaTourette were among the measure’s 103 co-sponsors.

A June 28 letter to Kucinich from Harley Gross, chairman of the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland, and Stephen Hoffman, the federation president, called Kucinich’s interpretation of Ahmadinejad’s statements “both tortured and a clear indication of either a lack of understanding of Israel’s enemies on your part or, and we hope that this is not the case, an antipathy toward Israel.”

“Unfortunately, it goes beyond naive,” Alan Melamed, president of the Cleveland chapter of the American Jewish Committee, said in a phone interview Wednesday.

Kucinich sent a letter on Wednesday seeking to defend his actions, saying that, whatever the translation, he finds Ahmadinejad’s statements “objectionable and outrageous.” The letter to Hoffman and Gross asserted Kucinich’s “full support for the people of Israel.”

Yet he said that he could not back the House resolution because it carried only worst-case translations and he regarded it as an attempt to beat “the war drum to build support for a U.S. attack on Iran.”

This is not the first time Kucinich has upset Jewish community leaders.

After he and his wife, Elizabeth, visited the Middle East in 2006, they described in detail the destruction they had seen caused by Israeli bombs in Lebanon, but they did not visit scenes of Hezbollah attacks in Israel. He said he ran out of time in part because of travel difficulties.

In 2003, Kucinich reversed himself and returned a $500 campaign contribution to a man linked to Middle East terrorists. Kucinich resisted returning the 1997 donation from Abdurahman Alamoudi until Alamoudi was arrested on charges of accepting payments from Libya and supporting terrorists. Other politicians had already returned donations from Alamoudi, who was later convicted. The American Jewish Committee at the time said Kucinich’s refusal showed a lack of moral leadership.

Kucinich’s stances, however, have not hurt his congressional re-election efforts to date. He has support from many Arab-Americans in his district, which does not have a big Jewish community.

Joe Charif, president of the Cleveland American Middle Eastern Organization, called Kucinich a “highly regarded” representative who strives for peace. Charif said that he personally does not know whether Ahmadinejad called for Israel’s destruction, but that he has seen people on Middle Eastern television – critics of Israel – explain it in ways similar to Kucinich.

Said Sam Khawan, chairman of the Arab-American Community Center for Economic and Social Services, which sponsored Kucinich’s trip last year: “All I know is that Dennis is a man of peace and always wants a peaceful resolution.”

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