August 19, 2004
At a time when Jews have unprecedented access to money and political power, it's a fair question to ask: What do we bring to the table as Jews?
Better yet, what should being Jewish have to do with being rich or influential or powerful -- or all of the above?
This is a good problem to have, mind you. It's better to ponder how to dispense power than how to defend powerlessness. But the challenge remains, and this week the Case of the Gay Governor brought it once again to the fore.
By the time you read this, you'll know even more of the sordid details behind New Jersey Gov. James McGreevy's alleged affair with the Israeli man he then appointed as his homeland security director, Golan Cipel.
Cipel, 35, served as an Israel Defense Forces naval officer in such a low command that, as one New Jersey Republican state senator told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, "He wasn't going to be able to pass the simplest of four-way background checks to be a state trooper," much less a homeland security adviser.
At an Aug. 12 press conference, McGreevy, 47, acknowledged he is a homosexual and said he was resigning, but no one believed for a second his sexual predilection was the sole cause for his resignation.
What we have here is chicanery disguised as soul-searching. There is the governor, who kept his alleged Israeli lover on taxpayer's money. There is Cipel, the lover, who now claims he is not homosexual but was the victim of serial harassment and inexplicable professional advancement.
There is the Cipel's Jewish lawyer, Alan Lowy, who presented a pre-press conference settlement offer of $50 million. There is the Cipel's sponsor, McGreevy's friend and campaign donor Charles Kushner, a prominent New Jersey Jewish leader who is now the target of a federal investigation involving an alleged scheme to blackmail his brother-in-law using the services of a hooker.
Well, I thought as I followed this story, at least the hooker's not Jewish.
Of course there is the shonda factor here -- the shame of reading so many Jewish names connected to such sordid business. My New Jersey friends tell me the cringing will only increase as more revelations come to light concerning Kushner -- a major donor to Jewish schools and institutions.
"Even if you discount the usual conspiracy theorists," New Jersey Jewish News editor Andrew Silow-Carroll editorialized, "the scandal retroactively casts a shadow over Jewish communal politics in the state. By appointing an Israeli of dubious experience as head of an office as sensitive as homeland security, the governor raised questions at the time over whether he was being overly solicitous of the Jewish power brokers who were so helpful to his successful run for governor."
The temptation to curry favor, to rub elbows, to advance even our noble causes through ignoble means or people increases as we accrue power and influence. Before we know it, we find ourselves handing out awards to the wrong people for the right reasons, seduced -- figuratively speaking -- into loving governors and others when, deep down, we know better.
It's not that we are better than anyone else, or that we should be held to a higher standard, but that we can and should aim higher. Our tradition makes this very clear, like when the prophet Nathan upbraids King David for sleeping with another man's wife, or when Isaiah chastises the powerful elders and princes.
"This is the material, the stories, the biblical record that cultivates conscience," Rabbi Harold Schulweis once said. "The prophet is not a fortune teller; not a prognosticator, and the prophet speaks forth against the grain of power. He will not pretend muteness or deafness."
The problem is not unique to New Jersey. Last Feb. 3, I attended an American Jewish Committee (AJC) banquet honoring Doug Dowie, the Los Angeles general manager for the public relations firm Fleishman-Hillard. The AJC does fine work, as does Fleishman-Hillard, as has Dowie in a long and distinguished career. But not long after that banquet, the Los Angeles office of Fleishman-Hillard came under investigation for, among other things, over-billing the Department of Water and Power and soliciting illegal campaign contributions.
Dowie, who oversaw public sector contracts, has been placed on indefinite paid leave. It is fair to say, as one local activist told me, the who's who of Los Angeles' Jewish and non-Jewish power elite who sang the company's praises and posed for photos in the hotel ballroom that evening would stay far away from such an event today.
In an ideal world, we would never be embarrassed by the names on our institutions or the pictures in our tribute books. But it happens. Our charge is not to stay away, but to resist getting too close. As we strive to be Davids, we must remember the voice of Nathan. We need to look those we honor straight in the eye, speak truth to power and demand to know if they are, indeed, honorable.