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Jewish World Review /Jan. 14, 1998 /25 Teves, 5759

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan S. Tobin

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Have American Jews finally arrived?


This isn't a trick question. Other than their common Jewish heritage, probably not a single thing. But when viewed as a group, these five well-known personalities do give us an interesting insight on the place of Jews in 1999 America.

Just when did a small religious minority group like the Jews go mainstream in this country? A once-powerless immigrant group today stands at the center of American political, cultural and business life.

I wonder if any of our immigrant grandparents could have imagined that on the eve of the 21st century, Jews would comprise 11 percent of the United States Senate, dominate the entertainment industry as never before, while at the same time boasting the most popular professional wrestler as well as the most notorious spy in the country? Whether you look at this development from either the positive or negative point of view, it's still quite an achievement.

Political milestones such as the current makeup of the Senate are no longer considered big news. After you've already had 10 Jewish members of the 100-person body, gaining an 11th in last year's elections (Charles Schumer of New York) is generally considered no big deal. And it's not as if Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., the Senate's only observant Jew, is counting on the other 10 for a minyan.

The point is, American Jews, even those who reach the top, are judged as individuals, not as representatives of the Jewish people. Though anti-Semitism is far from dead it is not a factor in determining how high any American Jew can rise.

And as Lieberman and filmmaker Spielberg have proven, it is now also possible for prominent American Jews to go public with their dedication to Jewish issues and values, something that the Jewish movie moguls of the 1930s, such as Louis B. Mayer, never felt they could afford to do.

Even on the less praiseworthy side of American culture, Jews are able to be openly and even proudly Jewish. The celebrity of an openly Jewish pro-wrestler like Goldberg is a case in point.

No one should ever mention Goldberg in the same breath as genuine Jewish sports heroes like Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax. Professional wrestling is not a sport, it is theater. Nor, despite its popularity, do I find it to be a particularly attractive aspect of our popular culture. If, as writer George Will has said, football (a sport I do like) combines the two worst aspects of American life - violence and committees - then how much worse is pro wrestling, which combines violence and vulgarity.

Sure, some nice people enjoy it (even, it is rumored, some unnamed individuals on the staff of the Jewish Exponent), but the rise to prominence of pro wrestling has to be counted among the indicators that pessimistic philosopher Oswald Spengler really was right: The West is declining.

So should we be happy that the most popular wrestler today is someone whom Jewish kids can call a hero? This is, at best, a mixed blessing. But, at least we can console ourselves that Goldberg is a "good guy" wrestler and not one of the bad guys. Thank heaven for small favors. If he was, I don't doubt that a portion of the Jewish community would be up in arms over the "anti-Semitic" nature of the wrestling tour.

Sinking even farther down the scale of cultural evolution is another prominent Jew. As far as I am concerned,
radio host Howard Stern represents the thin edge of the wedge of the decline of Western civilization. Stern is emblematic of the vulgarization and dumbing down of American pop culture.

But even he isn't ashamed to occasionally speak up on Jewish issues.

A year ago, friends of mine who are fans of the "shock jock," called to inform me of how Stern had criticized Palestinian foes of Israel. They felt that this assertion of Jewish pride by the loathsome Stern should cause his Jewish critics like me to ease up on him. Sorry. I still believe that nothing good for the Jews or anyone else can come from "The Howard Stern Show."

But for all of our acceptance, the Jonathan Pollard story represents the last bastion of Jewish insecurity.

Pollard, the former U.S. Naval Intelligence officer who spied for Israel, and who has been behind bars since 1985, is being considered for clemency again. And, predictably, the push to end his long prison ordeal, and the reluctance of many Jews to join in appeals for his release on humanitarian grounds, is once again stirring up strong emotions.

For some Jews, Pollard has always been seen as a hero of sorts. They see his betrayal of his oath as trivial compared to the perfidy of American refusals to share some vital intelligence with Israel. Other Jews see Pollard as a special villain who undermines confidence in the loyalty of American Jews to their country. Over the last decade, these camps have slugged it out in Jewish forums. But the truth is, they are both wrong.

Pollard is no hero. At best, he can be considered a victim of unscrupulous Israeli intelligence agents (and their government) who exploited his naive sympathy for Zionism. His crimes were serious and deserved punishment.

But contrary to those Jews who would be happy if he rotted in jail for the rest of his life, Pollard ought not to inspire any feelings of insecurity on the part of American Jews. As Louis Brandeis said, there is no contradiction between American patriotism and love for Zion.

The bottom line is, Pollard's life sentence was disproportionate to his crime of spying for an ally. And the special hostility that defense and intelligence officials have for him has more to do with animosity for Israel than the gravity of his offense, which they continue to exaggerate in stories leaked to The New York Times. The same people who have done their best to forestall any chance of Pollard's release, such as former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, did far worse things than Pollard. It was they who helped build up the regime of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein during the same time that Pollard was illegally leaking information on Iraq to Israel.

Though the spooks in the Pentagon insist that Israel betrayed American secrets they learned from Pollard to the Soviets, they are carefully forgetting to mention that the CIA official who did the official damage assessment on Pollard's spying was none other than Soviet mole Aldrich Ames!

Though I believe that Pollard is more an Israeli responsibility than an American Jewish one (and thus I think Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's attempt to free Pollard at the recent peace talks was entirely justified), his presence still lingers unhappily on the fringes of our general prosperity.

For all of our success, perhaps the day Jonathan Pollard is released -- thus finally ending the worry about dual loyalty -- we will have truly arrived.

May that day come soon, both for his sake and ours.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent.


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©1998, Jonathan S. Tobin