January 21, 1999
Our State of the Union
Let us not, for the moment, worry about President Clinton, since he obviously can take care of himself. But Clinton's State of the Union address made me wonder: What is the Jewish State of the Union? By this I don't mean intermarriage or assimilation; I mean how are we, as activists in a free country, dealing with the political and social implications of the president's predicament.
Clinton's address finds us back, full circle, into the bosom of the Democratic Party.
His problems with the Republican right wing have arguably done more to revive and reshape the very notion of a Jewish domestic agenda than any other development of the last 30 years. His crucible has focused our attention not on Israel and the Holocaust, not on who is a Jew, but on who is a free American and what freedom means today.
I can easily recall the days during the Reagan and Bush administrations when political battles on issues such as abortion and private religious education became so heated that the Jewish Community Relations Committee had to develop policies on what subjects were grist for community discourse.
The brilliance of the Reagan Republicans was their success in splintering every Democratic group into rival factions. Jews were not exempt from this tactic. Orthodox Jews were boldly courted for administrative positions, the Christian Coalition leadership showed up at traditional Jewish conventions, and rabbis were guests at family-values conclaves. It was a hard time to be a liberal, seen as the very personification of welfare apologist. Torah itself was reinterpreted as a conservative document written by the likes of Ralph Reed. On every issue of social importance, from Social Security to abortion, Reagan Republicans found a way of chipping at the insides of the Jewish community, leaving us to fight among ourselves at board meetings, from Washington to Wilshire Boulevard.
But the Clinton crisis has made clear that our community has no stomach for fundamentalism. Every political issue is swamped by the specter of a president hounded out of office by a right-wing faction. On this issue, we are unified.
The more interesting question is, What social issues will evolve from the Clinton struggle? To this, I look to the children.
So much has been made of the moral lessons Clinton's peccadilloes have taught our young people. But ask them yourself. My reading is that young Jews, those coming up now in our high schools and colleges, know who and what the real enemy is. They perceive Kenneth Starr and Rep. Bob Barr as more toxic to the nation than the "evil" these men intend to root out.
What can be the impact of the Senate trial on the young?
It's strange to consider now how much my politics, and that of my generation, owes to Sen. Joseph McCarthy. I was in grade school when the Army v. McCarthy hearings took place. McCarthyism -- totalitarianism masquerading as patriotism -- was everywhere, in the newspapers, in my classroom, on television. The fight against oppression was the metaphor for my time. Not surprisingly, when it was over, and McCarthy brought to shame, this battle gave birth to every important free-speech movement of the late 20th century: civil rights, anti-nuclear arms, anti-war, feminism. The issues were imbued with the fire of a nation freed from tyranny.
Today, the dangers of tyranny are even more ominous, with the ever-expanding reach of technology. Both Ken Starr and Matt Drudge use the Internet to slice at the privacy of individuals in authority, or otherwise. And yet we continue to log on.
This is the Internet generation. Our children, naturally and without fear or hesitation, live their lives on line. They pay their bills and buy their clothes, cars, vacations, books and gifts with the click of a mouse. And they do so, assuming that "safety," "security" and "freedom" are guaranteed.
It is not by accident that Clinton peppered his State of the Union address with Internet lingo. He knows who is listening. "Safe, secure and free," the new world he wants to see, is not an update of Woodrow Wilson's foreign policy but a reference to AOL and Yahoo!
This new world is vulnerable to overzealous prosecutors and reporters without scruples. They are threats to the public order because they don't play by the rules, bringing dread to the market place.
And that's why our children are transfixed by the Clinton show. They see him not as a man who violated his marriage vows. They see him as the first Internet victim, a man who was violated by excessive interference and inquiry.
From a Jewish community standpoint, forging the balance between the protection of privacy and the guarantee of free expression on the Internet is every bit as vital as civil rights and feminism were to my generation.
Long after the spectacle in the Senate chamber is played out, the search for balance will shade our children's consciousness.
Senior columnist Marlene Adler Marks will moderate a panel, "Activism in the 21st Century," sponsored by the Jewish Federation/Valley Alliance, this Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the Milken Jewish Community Center.