Jewish Journal


July 10, 2011

Jewish numbers dropping in Congress



Sarah Pulliam Bailey sent me a CNN blog post that caught my eye. The focus was what some are claiming is the “end of the Jewish golden age on Capitol Hill.”

Here’s an excerpt:

“The massive overrepresentation of Jews on Capitol Hill, long a source of pride for the community, has been shrinking in recent years and could drop in the coming election cycle from 41 to the mid 30s, a level last seen 15 years ago,” Nathan Guttman recently wrote in The Forward, the Jewish newspaper.

Perhaps a golden age of sorts is coming to an end.

“It is the drawing down of a generation that believed in civil service,” Jacques Berlinerblau, director of Georgetown University’s Jewish civilization program, told Guttman, citing generations of post-World War II American Jews who, as Guttman phrased it, “saw special value in entering public service and also in reaching beyond the interests of their own community.”

Now what’s wrong with this picture. (Besides the awkward lede, which I left out.)

First, let’s define in recent years. Here Guttman was talking about really, really recent years. In fact, it was less than five years ago, at the end of 2006, that Jewish representation in Congress hit a record high. I know because I wrote about it at the time:

After a handful of victories in Tuesday’s election, Jews are poised to have their largest congressional representation ever. This U.S. community of roughly 6 million people - about 2 percent of the nation’s population - will contribute 30 members to the House. With 13 Jewish members of the Senate, the proportion in the upper chamber will be 6 1/2 times greater than that in the general population.

“Jews are just political animals,” said Steven Windmueller, dean of the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.

“Politics sort of is the Jewish religion,” he added. “There is just such a passion for being in the game, in the process. Jewish life thrives in societies where democracies work, and that is why there is such a heavy buy-in into the American political process.”

Like Catholics, Jews long ago abandoned their early 20th-century reputation for living on the fringes of society in immigrant ghettos. Since the 1960s, they have risen sharply in politics, falling short of only the presidency and the vice presidency (although in 2000, presidential candidate Al Gore’s running mate, Joe Lieberman, came within 537 Florida votes of the White House).

The Nov. 7 election may have been a turning point for Jewish pols, who have typically represented Jewish communities. They were elected to Congress not just in California, Florida and New York, but also in Arizona, Kentucky, New Hampshire and Tennessee.

“If you would have told me in the ‘50s and even the ‘60s that (some of these states) would elect someone from the Jewish faith, I would have said, `You’re crazy,”’ said Rosalind Wyman, who in 1953 was the first Jew elected to the Los Angeles City Council.

And now five years later we’re being told the tide has turned again? I don’t really get the panic.

Second, Jews will still be represented in Congress at a rate almost four times their proportion in the U.S. population. (That is, of course, different than saying Jews control America.)

That being said, Berlinerblau makes an important point about a changing of the guard being affected by a different cultural emphasis. Jews have been very involved with American politics for quite some time. But maybe the Elders of Zion are slipping.

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