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Jewish Journal

With Power Comes Responsibility

by Gene Lichtenstein

August 17, 2000 | 8:00 pm

From a Jewish perspective, this past week in Los Angeles was a tremendous success. Among other things, it tended to confirm the influential role of the Jewish community in L.A. From the parties that President Clinton attended to the panelists at the Shadow Convention who derided and dogged the very proceedings at Staples Center, Jewish organizations and activists were dominant figures.

Is there anything wrong with that? Definitely not. We play a major role in this city today (unlike, say, in 1960) culturally, economically and politically. The decision of the Democratic Party to hold the convention in Los Angeles only highlighted the reality of that demographic turn of events.

Of course it was not always this way in these United States. In earlier days of this century, we were the outsiders. A minority of Jews were themselves in the streets, clamoring to be heard, fighting for labor unions, demanding fair wages. At mid-century and into the '60s, some of us (again a minority, but a vocal one) argued against a death sentence for the Rosenbergs and joined marches for civil rights and against continuation of the war in Vietnam. Because we were still viewed as immigrants or different and outside the establishment, Jewish protesters were, at times, wary of the police. They were the enemy, out to silence us. Today we and the police are allied.

On one level, it feels good to be part of the Establishment, indeed at its very center. On another, it calls forth nostalgic memories of those days when we were struggling to defend our rights alongside all the other outsiders. It was we, after all, who were opposing inequality and social injustice.

Don't misunderstand. It feels wonderful to be invited to the ball - and of course that is what conventions have become today: one long celebratory party where everyone has a grand time. The political parties convert the scripted evening spectacle into a weeklong series of television shows that are free of charge and, at the same time, dominate the national news coverage, even when there is little news.

Behind the scenes, lobbying groups and corporations and individuals mingle with Democratic White House leaders and key congressional committee members, funding the parties, doling out corporate wealth to insure sympathetic political responses to some of their causes. We are very much present here too.

All of the above would suggest that changing the status quo might affect us adversely. We definitely have much to lose. Nevertheless, it is important to weaken some of the political authority of corporate money. Which means that we in the Jewish community should find ways to restrict soft money and campaign fundraising, both of which have become central to our political system. In some very specific ways, cutting back on the influence of money on politics may curtail our effectiveness, may work against our present political strength. But it also may well help the nation.

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