On Media / Pop Culcha

Jewish World Review August 28, 1998 / 6 Elul, 5758

Jonathan S. Tobin

Jonathan S. Tobin Defending the undefendable;
Or, the AJCongress
should stop wasting
Jewish resources

I GET A LOT OF FAXES IN MY OFFICE. Some are important, some are not. There are so many that come in on some days that it is hard to keep track of them or to read them all (Want to get my attention? Send me an e-mail). The inordinate number of faxes which have no connection to a weekly Jewish newspaper quickly make their way into the proverbial circular file.

Are groups like the
American Jewish Congress
doing more harm than good?
But last week, I received one fax that caught my attention and set me to thinking again about one of the perennial questions of Jewish journalism: What is a Jewish issue?

The press release was from the American Jewish Congress -- one of American Jewry's three prominent, powerful and influential defense agencies -- and was entitled "Statement from the American Jewish Congress following President Clinton's Grand Jury Appearance." The statement was issued in the name of AJCongress President Jack Rosen and was one and half pages of pure White House spin on L'affaire Lewinsky.

For example: "For too long, the media, the Congress and the American people as a whole have been caught up in the President's troubles; clearly the demand on his time to prepare his case have distracted him and all of us from the real business at hand."

It then listed various foreign and domestic issues (some were real problems, others were liberal cliches) that Mr. Rosen thought the president had been too busy to think about because he had to account for some of his misdeeds.

Rosen then lamented, "Through all this, the nation obsesses with the President's private life." He did refer to the latest and most outrageous scandal attached to Clinton, as "serious questions of decorum and deportment in public office."

"But," he continued, "the problems involved do not merit the attention they have received."

The release went on to laud Clinton as a fitting representative of our democracy and inaccurately described his re-election as a "landslide" (in fact, he got less than 50 percent of the vote in a three-way race against two even more pathetic rivals). Mr. Rosen closed by urging us to "set aside our preoccupation with foolish things."

Their Clinton, right or wrong

Reading it over twice, I couldn't decide what was more breathtaking: the fatuous ‘my Clinton right or wrong' attitude displayed by a supposedly non- partisan Jewish defense agency or the stunning demonstration of how irrelevant and obsolete the release had proved the AJCongress to be.

That AJCongress considers the president having sex in the Oval Office of the White House with an intern to be private and none of anyone's business, strikes me as absurd. That a page and a half of commentary on what the New Republic has deliciously named "Bimbroglio" would omit any reference to the president's bare-faced lying is also amazing but in line with the partisan nature of the statement.

So much for a Jewish commitment to morals and values.

But let's leave that aside, as these are matters of public debate. What is really interesting about this embarrassing drivel issued in the name of American Jewry is that it was sent out in the first place. What makes the AJCongress think that defending our presidential scoundrel from the consequences of his despicable behavior and chronic mendacity is a "Jewish" issue? Unless I missed some previous release, I was still under the impression that the business of the American Jewish Congress is defending Jewish interests--not those of the Democratic party and its leader. Whatever its other priorities, the AJCongress apparently believes its duty is to stick with Mr. Bill until -- as in one of his favorite phrases -- "the last dog dies."

There is certainly room for Jewish partisan groups in the spectrum of our alphabet soup communal world. But we have two whose job is to spin the Jews for the two major parties: the National Jewish Democratic Council and the Republican-backed National Jewish Coalition. They are openly partisan and perform a useful purpose in both representing the parties to the Jews as well as Jewish interests to the two parties.

But surely that is not the job of the AJCongress, which was founded by Rabbi Stephen Wise in 1918 to fight for real Jewish issues such as Jewish survival, protecting civil liberties and the rights of minorities and fighting bigotry.

I may not always agree with their take on every issue but these are clearly Jewish issues.

Are there so few Jewish issues to speak out on these days, that Jack Rosen (and the PR staff at the group's Stephen Wise Congress House in Manhattan who surely wrote the piece in his name) must freelance to find something to say?

Not likely.

But if they think so, then it is way past time that AJCongress took the advice philanthropist Edgar Bronfman gave in a speech a few years ago. Namely: merge with the equally irrelevant American Jewish Committee and the more active Anti-Defamation League and stop wasting so much of American Jewry's scarce resources.

This eminently sensible proposition won't be tried anytime soon because merging three Jewish groups into one will reduce the number of Jewish "leaders"who can gain access to meetings of the Conference of "Major" American Jewish Organizations.

But the real problem here is not the obvious organizational redundancy. It is that AJCongress and other individuals and groups that think like them do believe Mr. Clinton's political fate is somehow linked to the security of the Jewish people!

Can they really be so deluded? Every election year we joke about Jews who define Judaism as the Democratic party platform with holidays thrown in, but there are a significant number of Jews who feel that way. And at the other end of the spectrum are a few equally demented souls who feel the same about the Republicans (Jewish supporters of George Bush quickly come to mind).

Seducing Israel by feeling its pain

The delusion about Clinton is reinforced, in part, by his ties to Israel and the large number of influential Jews in his administration.

Israelis do seem to love him. He is the only American president to act and speak as if he "feels their pain," and that is flattering to a small Jewish state still surrounded by enemies. But they are forgetting that this is his line with everyone -- from countries to star-struck interns he wants to seduce. However, his passion for Israel is limited to when it is making concessions to Yasser Arafat. He has little use for and is eager to pressure its current democratically elected government. American Jews and Israelis should realize that America's alliance with Israel is bigger than Bill and stronger than his ability to resist temptation. Almost all of Clinton's possible successors would be as supportive of it -- if not more so -- as he.

There are a whole range of issues that Jewish groups should be speaking about:

human rights abroad, persecution of religious believers, immigration rights and support for Israel, just to name a few. The resources and influence of groups like AJCongress also need to be focussed on real issues of Jewish survival, such as the need to prioritize Jewish education and supporting day schools, not spouting the sterile dogmas of the American Jewish political past.

If AJCongress thinks defending Bill Clinton's right to disgrace the American presidency is a Jewish issue, than it is time for them to stop wasting my fax paper and throw themselves into the circular file of Jewish history.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Connecticut Jewish Ledger. He was the recipient of the American Jewish Press Association highest award: First Place in The Louis Rapoport Award for Excellence in Commentary and Editorial Writing. The Rapoport award is named for the longtime editor of the Jerusalem Post and was given to Mr. Tobin at the AJPA's 1997 Simon Rockower Awards dinner at Cleveland on June 18, 1998.


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3/29/98: Bigshots or activists?: Clinton's three clerics return from China
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3/22/98: Anti-Semitism then and now
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©1998, Jonathan S. Tobin