J.J. Goldberg writes regularly for The Jewish Journal.
There was an awkward moment at the State Department one July morning, when officials sat down to discuss the latest foreign tirade against Jewish influence in Washington. Nobody was sure how to respond.
Days before, faced with a similar attack, the administration had offered a swift, firm response, calling it a "dramatically offensive ethnic slur" and demanding an apology. But that first slur had come from the foreign minister of Iraq, who accused a senior administration figure of being "a known Jew and Zionist."
This time it came from Natan Sharansky, the icon of the Soviet Jewry freedom struggle, now a senior minister in the Israeli government. Sharansky said that Israel was suffering because there were too many liberal Jews in the Clinton administration.
"It is precisely because of the large number of Jews in the U.S. administration," Sharansky said, that the president thinks he can pressure Israel. "Why? Because many of these presidential Jews belong to the American branch of Peace Now."
It wasn't your usual sort of ethnic slur, and the State Department opted for silence. "It was discussed and [department spokesman] Jamie Rubin was told not to respond," an official said.
Privately, Jews throughout the administration were appalled. "It makes me heartsick," said one ranking White House official. "Think if this were a French minister saying there were too many Jews in the American government. We would find it completely unacceptable. And here it is coming from Israel. From Sharansky, of all people."
Others voiced more anger than sadness. "Everyone I talk to is feeling something between embarrassment and betrayal," said a Jewish activist with broad contacts in the administration. "Especially people who are involved in foreign policy. They're feeling like, 'We did all this for you, and this is what we get.'"
Surprisingly, the one group claiming not to be offended was the group directly in Sharansky's line of fire: the small cadre of Jewish Middle East experts who make up the State Department's "peace team." "We've been through this before, and worse," said one member. "It comes with the territory."
Still, an administration official mused, "It's a little odd that the Israelis and the Iraqis are the ones making this sort of comment."
Of course, Sharansky's comment and the Iraqi's were worlds apart. One was from a friend, the other from an enemy. One said that government Jews were too pro-Israel, the other that they weren't pro-Israel enough. "My hunch is that Sharansky's comment was unfortunate, while the Iraqi's was typically disgraceful," said Richard Haass, foreign-policy director at the Brookings Institution, who headed Middle East affairs at the National Security Council during the Bush administration.
Yet one basic assumption united both attacks: that American policy is skewed by the personal agendas of Jewish officials. This, observers agree, is wrong and dangerous. "Singling out American officials on the basis of their ethnic or religious background is insensitive at best," said one.
The Iraqi slur appeared in a June 19 letter to the U.N. Security Council from Foreign Minister Mohammed Said Al-Sahaf, who complained about American support for Iraqi dissidents. Al-Sahaf cited a June 18 press briefing on the U.S. support program by "the United States Assistant Secretary of State Martin Indyk, who is a known Jew and Zionist," as the latest proof of America's "conspiracy " against Iraq. The letter was published June 22 as a Security Council document.
On June 24, U.S. Ambassador Bill Richardson replied in an angry speech to the council. He called it "deplorable" to drag in Indyk's ethnic background, and demanded Al-Sahaf "apologize for this dramatically offensive ethnic slur."
Sharansky's comment, far more dramatic than Al- Sahaf's, appeared the next day. The Iraqi had merely cited one official's religion as evidence of administration leanings. Sharansky said the government has too many Jews.
It came in a June 25 interview in Vesti, a Russian-language Israeli daily. After complaining about American pressure on Israel, Sharansky was asked if President Clinton realized that most American Jews oppose such pressure.
His reply is reproduced here in full, as quoted in a June 30 press release from the Zionist Organization of America:
"You may find it incomprehensible, but it is precisely because of the large number of Jews in the U.S. administration -- there are more of them now than in any previous U.S. administration -- that it is hard for the president to truly understand the trends in the Jewish community. Why? Because many of these presidential Jews belong to the American branch of Peace Now. They are wonderful people, and I have been friends with some of them ever since the struggle for Soviet Jewry. But they are not really in touch with their community's political orientation, and it required special efforts on our part to point it out."
Beyond his political obtuseness, Sharansky had a key fact wrong. There are no Peace Now members currently working in the Clinton administration. During Clinton's first term, a handful were known to have his ear, and three -- Peter Edelman, Sara Ehrman and Eli Segal -- received administration posts. None was involved in foreign policy. All three have since departed.
Today, the most visible Jewish figure in Middle East policy making is Indyk, head of the State Department's Near East bureau. He came to government not from Peace Now but from the mainstream world of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and its offshoot, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He was, in effect, a career Zionist. Al-Sahaf was closer to the mark than Sharansky.
"It's true the administration has misjudged the mood in the Jewish community, but it's not because of the professionals who work inside the administration," said Peter Rodman, a National Security Council aide in the Nixon administration. "It's because so many of its contacts outside are liberal Jews in Hollywood and New York."
More important, says Haass, "It's presidents who set policy. They can hire and fire and disregard whomever they choose. It doesn't really matter whether the people involved are Jewish. My guess is that U.S. policy in the Middle East would be attracting this kind of controversy even if the people involved were Catholic."
But the people involved are not Catholic. Jews hold key positions in the Clinton administration in unprecedented numbers. Many work in Middle East policy and other areas crucial to Jewish destiny. That's where Sharansky had it right.
It makes a difference. When two strongly affirming, synagogue-going Jews such as Dennis Ross and Aaron Miller, the "peace team," show up in Gaza as the American government's negotiators, it sends a strong message of American commitment. The same message is sent when a lifelong Jewish activist such as Undersecretary of State Stuart Eizenstat arrives in Geneva as the U.S. government's mediator on Nazi gold.
This is a unique moment in Jewish history. The world's superpower has opened its arms to Jews in a way no country ever did. Jews are free not just to live Jewishly but to serve the Jewish people with America's backing.
Where Sharansky had it wrong was in failing to value this precious gift.