Clinton, Lewinsky and the Jews
By Joel Kotkin
Arthur Hertzberg, arguably one of America's most prominent rabbis and Jewish intellectuals, has been a familiar guest at every White House since Lyndon Johnson. Yet this lifelong Democrat and former president of the liberal American Jewish Congress, has refused to enter the inner sanctum of the White House -- he did attend the lawnside ceremony for the Middle East peace accords -- since Bill Clinton became president.
"When Clinton was first elected, my instinct was this was the Democratic Nixon," says Hertzberg, from his home in Englewood, N.J. "I consider this administration to be morally unacceptable. I think the Clinton White House is unacceptable. It's clear to me this man has lied in the past -- Gennifer Flowers. The man is dishonorable."
Yet despite recent revelations about the president, Hertzberg's antipathy for Clinton remains a distinctly minority opinion among Jews, their rabbis and community leaders. Hertzberg insists Jews are violating their own moral traditions -- and perhaps even risking a political backlash -- by clinging to a damaged chief executive whose greatest claim to history is an extra-marital liaison with a Jewish woman from Los Angeles.
"I think the Jews are just like the feminists who are excusing an encounter with a 21-year-old intern," says Hertzberg. "If it had been another politician they didn't like, they'd be tearing the country apart. Because Clinton is good for their political interests, it's OK. It's exactly the same with the Jews."
Indeed, even as Clinton's scandals deepen and fester, Jewish political leaders, celebrities and financiers remain, along with leading African American figures, Clinton's most fervent backers, helping to provide a patina of respectability for a disgraced chief executive. "When he needs money, he goes to the Jews -- in Hollywood, Wall Street or Miami," says Hertzberg, author of "Jews in America: Four Centuries of an Uneasy Encounter." "Many of these people are protecting their access. They think this high-wire act will remain on the high-wire."
Los Angeles Jews have been particularly prominent in funding Clinton's growing defense fund, including David Geffen, Barbra Streisand, Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Stanley K. Sheinbaum and SunAmerica's Eli Broad. Other high-profile Jews who have backed Clinton in his hour of ignominy include Revlon CEO Ron Perelman and Boston developer Richard Friedman, at whose Martha's Vineyard estate the president sojourned last week. There is even speculation that, after he leaves office, his Hollywood friends are ready to set him up with a lush Westside Los Angeles home.
To be sure, this support is not entirely perverse. As even Hertzberg acknowledges, many Jews feel there are ample reasons to rally behind the man who has presided over perhaps the most Jewish-oriented administration in American history. Many of Clinton's most powerful associates -- including Robert Rubin from the Treasury, William Cohen from Defense, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and National Security Advisor Sandy Berger -- are at least part Jewish. So, too, are two Clinton appointees to the Supreme Court -- Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.
Also important, Clinton has proved a very reliable ally of Israel. Even after threatening to pressure Prime Minister Netanyahu, Clinton, Hertzberg says, quickly backtracked. Compared to his predecessor, George Bush, Clinton has proved a pliable president, willing to "fold" when faced with political pressure from the Israeli and American Jewish lobbies. "Do our rabbis lack morality?," Hertzberg asks. "They are simply playing realpolitick."
Of course, the rabbinic disinterest in condemning Clinton reflects a broader tendency among mainstream religious leaders not to denounce the president -- with the predictable exception of preachers from the fundamentalist far right. Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom traces this reluctance both to Clinton's clearly philosemitic tendencies as well as a general distaste, even among those charged with shaping morality, about confronting the president's personal foibles.
"There's clearly something that's very wrong and something that should not be ignored," Schulweis says. "But there is a distaste for looking at what happens in private. But what is really happening is a general kinship with Clinton's outlook in domestic and foreign affairs. And the fact that he's surrounded himself with Jews."
Schulweis also cites the Talmud's tendency to balance justice with forgiveness as underpinning Jewish acceptance of Clinton's behavior. Democracy, he says, rarely produces leaders of sterling moral character, suggesting that the president's failings should be seen in a broader context. "Any politician who wants to govern this heterogeneous country cannot be the Prophet Isaiah," Schulweis says. "There is always the question of who among us has not sinned?"
But American Jews are taking that predisposition too far, says Hertzberg, in the process undermining their own moral legacy. Unlike most ancient societies, the Hebrew prophets traced their own often troubled history not to auguries or conflicts between gods, as many ancient peoples did, but as a reflection of moral values inspired by a single omniscient God. "Instead of foisting history on Fate," writes historian Herbert J. Muller in his landmark 1952 study, "The Uses of the Past," "they explained it by human character and conduct."
At the same time, Hertzberg says that Jews may also find their own political position in society under assault, although this has yet to surface as an issue outside the political lunatic fringe, reflecting what the rabbi and historian sees as "[the] extent of American maturity" about the Jewish role in society. Yet over time, particularly if the economy sours, international tensions grow and Clinton's reputation plunges further, the Jewish links to this administration's corruption could prove troublesome.
Access to power and its abuse can prove highly toxic to exposed minorities like Jews, just as the Chinese have learned recently in Indonesia. "The country has not said anything about this yet," Hertzberg says, "but the day of reckoning could come."
But by far the most pressing danger lies not from outside forces, but on the undermining of our own moral traditions. Indeed some rabbis, such as Temple Aliyah's Stuart Vogel, are so horrified by the president's behavior -- at least on a personal level -- that he asks his 10-year-old daughter to leave the room when the news comes on.
"Somebody has to say 'this stinks,'" Hertzberg says. "I'm of the opinion [that] it is important to show that not every Jew kissed ass."