The ProsenPeople

Yes, Virginia. There IS a Jewish President: Jews in Politics

Friday, February 28, 2014| Permalink

Earlier this week, Emily Stone wrote about Jews and Hollywood (have you taken her quiz "It’s True-ish, They’re Jewish!"?) and Jews and sports (have you taken her quiz " Athlete or Mathlete?"). Her book, Did Jew Know: A Handy Primer on the Customs, Culture, and Practice of the Chosen People (Chronicle Books), is now available. She has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

Jews and politics make familiar if shaky and rivalrous bedfellows. While it would seem that the leftward lean is the quintessentially Jewish way, the relationship between Jews and sovereign states is at once ancient, complex, and old as God. Or at least the Hebrew Bible. As soon as Abraham decided the time was nigh to be in a monogamous relationship with God and the Jews became the Jews, two political challenges arose: how to govern the people from within and how to handle hostile forces from without and do so without ending up with your noggin on a platter. While the former seemed easy enough, the latter was easier argued than done and various divisive factions began forming about which everybody and their uncle had something to say. Or, as my grandmother would say, “If you have two Jews, you have three opinions.”

Some biblical historians assert that Jewish internal party politics began as early as Jacob and Esau, twin brothers in-fighting since ye olde womb. As the story goes, through an act of cunning and utzed by his mother Rebecca, Jacob beats out his hairy older brother who sells him his birthright for a bowl of red stew and Isaac is none the wiser: “Let peoples serve you and nations bow to you.” (Genesis 27:29) Others scholars, such as Stuart Cohen, see three distinct biblical powers arise from this point forward: the priesthood, the throne, and the prophets. In other words, three Jews, three thousand opinions!

If Jew ask me, here’s the dilly: the phrase “Jewish political movement” basically means an organized effort to represent the best interest of the Jews outside the Jewish community. The only glitch of this movement was that from the time of the destruction of the Second Temple, the Jews had community, but no territory. Add to this dilemma the cold, hard fact that Jews were either hounded or excluded from the wider political sphere from all the nations in which they dwelled until the Enlightenment and the Haskalah (the Jewish Enlightenment) in the eighteenth-nineteenth centuries. And even then, it still wasn’t what anyone would call a bed of roses, even after a bottle of schnapps, let’s face it.

As long as Jews lived in segregated communities surrounded by hostile gentile forces that at best excluded them and at worst imprisoned and murdered them, the rabbi was their most important religious and civil leader. When the segregated communities moved toward integration or Haskalah, and Jews were no longer in isolation from other Jews, suddenly the problem arose as to which Jew with what opinion was right about what was best for the Jews.

Fast forward to the Revolutions of 1848, in which Jewish statesmen, like their non-Jewish revolutionary counterparts, were actively pursuing political freedom and equality in the secular sphere. Eventually, the gurgles and rumbles of proto-socialism and communism began to signify a deeper need than could be fulfilled by a simple bowl of ordinary Jew-stew. Moses Hess, a founder of Labor Zionism, introduced the Marx brother to Historical Materialism and it seemed the West, if not one, was won—that is, temporarily, until factions formed factions that formed factions and everyone and their brother took turns crying in the bathroom.

Meantime, over in Eastern Europe and Russia, the Bund—the Esau to Zionism’s Jacob—became an important force in uniting and organizing Jews. On the one hand, Hess set forth the notion that Jews needed both a secular and restored homeland in the Holy Land as a means of becoming a true nation rather than a bunch of schleppy tsotchke-peddling merchants. On the other hand, the Jewish merchant class thought they had a pretty decent thing going and were none too keen at the thought of trading in their buttons and bows for a pickaxe and a suntan—i.e., more divisive arguing.

Next thing you know, it’s the first wave of European migration to America (late-nineteenth century) and the same two factions find themselves floundering and forming on the shores of the New World. While the Jews of Germany tended toward the conservative, the Jews of Eastern Europe, who became the majority, were more liberal. Or rather, the Jacob/Esau rivalry evolved into that of Joseph and Moses. Joseph, an exile in a foreign land, becomes a court Jew who played down his Hebrew ancestry. Moses then arrives on the scene, a big, ripped Jew who didn’t care who the hell knew. Same old story, new singspiel. Only now, in America—the only land to grant full rights of citizenship to Jews—Jewish politicians with diverse goals (and a thousand opinions) began to appear in cities from sea to shining sea as early as Tammany Hall and well into and through the next century. Oy or yay: Jew decide! Gezai Gezunt!

Cut to the 1950s as the Soviet Union emerged as a repressive anti-Semitic regime rather than a cotton candy socialist utopia: More opinions. Then, in 1975, a UN resolution condemns Zionism as racism and out pops the neo-conservative movement—conservative Jews who knew from racism and saw the nation of Israel as essential, Arabs as terrorists and America as a new and improved Zion where a Jew could be a Jew. While earlier Jewish radicals like Abby Hoffman opposed the American mainstream, the neocons, led by the intrepid Norman Podhoretz, opposed the opposition and the Polis was further, well, polarized. Next thing you know, the middle caves in and it’s the fall of the Roman Empire only without Charlton Heston playing the lead.

On some level, this is what is both great and challenging about democracy: It’s all fun and games until everybody has a triple bi-pass trying to define exactly what’s good for it, especially, you guessed it, Jews. While the Chosen Tribe might be a helluva long way from a menorah in the window at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, one thing’s for sure: they’ve made their mark on every political movement from soup to nuts.

Behold some key players who dwelleth outside the Land of Israel and who becameth and have becometh forces to be reckoned with in the secular political sphere:

The Jew-nited States

  • Henry Kissinger: German-born American politician, writer, and diplomat who served as Secretary of State under Presidents Nixon and Ford. He was also a co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973.

  • Ed Koch: Three-term as Mayor of New York City from 1978 to 1989. Note: He originally beat out Abe Beame, the city’s first Jewish Mayor, who governed the Big Apple from 1974-1978. Koch’s epitaph reads, “My father is Jewish, my mother is Jewish, I am Jewish,” the last words of Daniel Pearl just before Pakistani terrorists murdered him.

  • Dianne Feinstein, Democrat: Thirty-eighth Mayor of San Francisco from 1978-1988 and United States Senator since 1992.

  • Madeline Albright: the first woman to serve as United States Secretary of State. Raised Catholic, Albright allegedly did not learn until she was fifty-nine that her parents were, in fact, Jewish. In 1997, when Albright was being vetted to serve in the Clinton Administration, a Washington Post profile revealed that more than a dozen of her relatives were killed in the Holocaust, including three of Albright’s grandparents.

  • Joseph Lieberman: former United States Senator from Connecticut who was the Democratic Party’s nominee for Veep in 2000.

  • Michael Bloomberg: business and media magnate, philanthropist and Mayor of New York City from 2002-2013. If you’re looking to get hitched, he is also the tenth richest person in the United States.

  • Rahm Israel Emanuel, Democrat: Senior advisor to President Bill Clinton from 1993-1998, member of the US House of Representatives from 2003 to 2009, White House Chief of Staff to President Barack Obama, and fifty-fifth Mayor of Chicago.

  • Ari Fleischer: former White House Press Secretary under US President George W. Bush.

The Jew-nited Kingdom

  • Benjamin Disraeli: British Prime Minister for a spate in 1868 and then again from 1874-1892. Though Disraeli’s father had him baptized Anglican at age twelve, Disraeli is the only ethnically Jewish Prime Minister of Great Britain. He is also credited with inventing the political novel.

  • Oona King: British Labour Party Member from 1997-2005. In 2013, King appeared as a contestant on “Dancing on Ice.” She is also playwright Tom Stoppard’s niece.

  • David Miliband: British Labour Party Member since 2001 and Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs from 2007-2010. He and his brother Ed Miliband were the first siblings to sit simultaneously in the Cabinet since 1938.

Freedom Fries: Jews in France

  • André Léon Blum: Active in the Dreyfus Affair, Blum was the first and only Jewish socialist Prime Minister of France (1936 and 1937 and again in 1938). Arrested by the Vichy authorities, Blum survived both Buchenwald and Dachau and was liberated by the allies in 1945. His brother René, the founder of the Ballet de l'Opéra à Monte Carlo, perished in Auschwitz in 1943.

  • Nicolas Sarcozy: twenty-third president of France from May 2007 to May 2012. Sarkozy’s mother was a member of the Mallah family, one of the oldest Sephardic Jewish families of Salonika, Greece.

  • Dominique Strauss-Kahn: Economist, lawyer and Director of the International Monetary Fund until he resigned in 2011 after allegedly attempting to boink a hotel employee.

Born in New Orleans and raised in Brooklyn, Emily Stone is a writer and a yoga teacher living in New York City.

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