He was supposed to be one of Congress’ rising stars, a Jewish boy from Brooklyn with great ambition and promise.
A truculent Democrat with a penchant for media attention, Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) was an unabashed liberal on domestic affairs and a hard-liner on foreign policy, particularly Israel. Like his predecessor in his U.S. House of Representatives seat, Sen. Charles Schumer, Weiner had larger ambitions—in his case, mayor of New York City.
But then came his shamefaced news conference Monday, when the 46-year-old congressman, who was married last year, admitted to lying about sending a lewd photo to a woman he met on the internet.
It was the culmination of a week of dissembling since the conservative blog biggovernment.com had posted the photo. In all, Weiner confessed to carrying on inappropriate online relationships with six women. He said he would not get a divorce from his new wife—Huma Abedin, an aide to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who is Muslim—nor would he resign.
In the Jewish community, which long had regarded him with pride, Weiner’s spectacularly public downfall was a reminder of the perils of associating a particular person’s successes or failures with his Jewishness.
Weiner’s perennial prefixes—“Jewish congressman, from New York, staunch supporter of Israel”—clearly identified him in the public mind, said Susan Weidman Schneider, editor in chief of the feminist Jewish magazine Lilith.
Just as Italian Americans worry about blanket generalizations with “The Sopranos” or “The Godfather,” Jews sigh reflexively when there is a Jew whose bad judgment and bad behavior are in the spotlight, Weidman Schneider said.
“Only this isn’t fiction,” she said. “There’s a foolishness to Weiner’s attempted cover-up, no pun intended, that’s as embarrassing and cringe-inducing as the acts themselves.”
Reaction to the scandal has come straight from the standard American Jewish playbook, Democratic political consultant Steve Rabinowitz said—loudly celebrate Jewish success and “cringe or mourn Jewish failure.”
“When the Son of Sam turns out to be David Berkowitz or the greatest Ponzi scheme ever is perpetrated by Bernie Madoff or a humiliated politician is named Eliot Spitzer or Anthony Weiner,” Rabinowitz said, “you can almost hear it as a community: Why did he it have to be our guy?”
Weiner’s political identity has long been intertwined with his Jewishness. He has been celebrated by the pro-settlement Zionist Organization of America for his positions on the West Bank, and Weiner routinely introduces a bill that would deny assistance to Saudi Arabia, even though that wealthy country does not receive U.S. assistance beyond a small program that trains Saudi army officers in democracy.
ZOA President Morton Klein said the Weiner scandal represents a “terrible loss for the pro-Israel community.”
“As long as Anthony Weiner remains in Congress, his position on Israel will be among the best,” Klein said. “The only issue now is whether his influence will have diminished and whether his credibility will have diminished.”
Robert Wexler, a Democrat and former Jewish congressman from Florida, said regaining voters’ trust will have to be a top priority for Weiner.
“Up until last week, Anthony was an excellent congressman and a fine public servant,” said Wexler, who now runs the Washington-based S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace. “The bottom line is that he’s a good and decent person that made some grave errors.”
With sincere and honest repentance and a reminder of the Jewish value of “seeing the other person in the image of God,” there’s a way for Weiner to put the scandal behind him, said Orthodox feminist activist Blu Greenberg.
Judaism appreciates forgiveness, and Weiner has the chance to atone by making changes to his life and way of thinking, Greenberg told JTA.
“He doesn’t necessarily have to be a condemned man the rest of his life,” she said. “If others are big enough to forgive him, then his life isn’t over.
“He’s not an ax murderer. He’s a very foolish man in power lacking a sense of appreciation for what he had.”
But whether Weiner can recover to the degree where the American Jewish community will proudly count him again among its ranks is a tougher question.
“He provided a negative example for our children,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. “We appropriately feel outrage for that.”
(JTA Washington Bureau Chief Ron Kampeas contributed to this report.)