November 12, 1998
The Liberal Revival
The vast proportion of the Jewish community -- a strong 80 percent -- knows itself to be liberal in the old-fashioned meaning of tolerant about the extension of rights and freedoms within American society. Jewish liberalism results from our experience in exile, our tradition of empathy for the stranger, our knowledge that all freedoms are knit together, the precious garment we all wear. A liberal worries that Social Security will survive for two decades until she retires, but still wants national health insurance for the poor. A liberal may send her child to private school, but rejects vouchers because it will kill the public schools upon which society relies. A liberal's teenage daughter might weigh having a tongue ring while deciding to become a cantor -- creative self-expression vs. tradition. All her confusions are on the surface, and they are, to my mind, healthy ones, the ambivalences that come from living in democracy.
Healthy ambivalence is a big reason why, after four years of rigid religious triumphalism, liberals are back, at least in the urban areas. Davis beats Lungren. Boxer defeats Fong. Chuck Schumer in New York bests three-term Sen. Al "Pothole" D'Amato. And now, "The Fall of Newt" reads the cover of Time magazine, and doesn't that beat all!
Now that I've chortled, what does it all mean, this temporary resurgence of liberalism, and especially what does it mean to us?
The Gingrich years have dramatically changed the political dialogue in America, and that includes the Jewish community as well. They caught us divided, bereft of ideas, unable to formulate our own contract with America. And if we are to stay a politically viable community, we'll need new ideas and new strength soon enough. Since 1994, as the Christian right dominated the national agenda, Jews have exhibited in our own community a degree of self-doubt, split thinking and vulnerability that belies our status as a people who tell themselves they are the "new WASPs."
Time for analysis will come soon enough. For now, let's focus on the immediate road ahead.
I spoke this week with Mark J. Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Community, which is the Reform movement's legislative center based in Washington. I wanted to hear him chortle too, but he did not. In fact, he sounded cautious and concerned.
"Just look at what happened last week in state-wide referenda," Pelavin told me. "The contract with America is being fought for state by state, county by county. This year we saw it in ballot propositions about affirmative action. The Jewish community has to get its act together."
In fact, even before Nov. 3, there have been recent signs of political resurgence in the Jewish community. Activist forces in Washington worked in a strong coalition this June to defeat the infamous Istook Amendment, the so-called Religious Equality Act, which would have authorized prayer in schools.
"This was the religious right's big push, the central focus of the Contract with America," Pelavin said, "but we organized and we beat them well."
But there's no time to rest on laurels. Pelavin outlined a half-dozen issues that will need vigilant attention from our activist community as the religious right, smarting from its defeats, re-enters the fray. He predicted the right might reintroduce a Religious Equality Amendment or challenge abortion rights. Moreover, friendly Republicans, who carried the burden of defeating extreme legislation on issues like church/state relations, are now under fire in their own party.
The fact is, Newt Gingrich may be out of office, but the Contract with America is still alive. The time for liberal strength is at hand.
Marlene Adler Marks, senior columnist of The Jewish Journal, discusses "Election '98" with political gadfly Arianna Huffington Sunday at the Skirball Cultural Center. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
Marlene Adler Marks, senior columnist of The Jewish Journal, will host a post-election conversation with Arianna Huffington on Sunday, Nov. 15, at the Skirball Cultural Center.Her e-mail address is email@example.com