Jews in Bush’s Cabinet? Don’t Hold Your Breath

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except Jews, and no one has complained about this, even though everyone knows

it’s nuts. Remaking the American power structure without Jews is like remaking

sports without blacks. At least when it comes to blacks in sports, you can talk

about it; you can say that blacks changed sports. But no one is allowed to

speak up about something we all quietly know: Jews changed America.

There is hardly an area of public life on which Jews have

not had a profound impact in the last generation, as discrimination against

them ended and as they gained power. The civil rights movement reflects Jewish values

of justice. Feminism is a reflection of liberal Jewish matriarchal values (note

the Jewish groups that are talking about Roe

v. Wade in opposing John Ashcroft for Attorney General). Ever-more-powerful

Jews in the media have ushered in the information age. Psychologically attuned

Jews and Hollywood Jews changed the language of popular culture-Seinfeld,

Weinstein. And the new emphasis on educational achievement throughout our

society reflects the Jewish love of learning.

I have not even gotten to finance or the law, though anyone

who doubts the Jewish influence here should ask how many white-shoe law firms

still keep gentlemen’s hours.

These trends have made America a fairer and more creative

place-and no, it’s not as if one or another of them would not have occurred

without Jews. But altogether they represent the force of Jewish values coming

into public life. In a recent study, Jews

and the American Public Square , the Center for Jewish Community Studies

argues that Jews have fostered an important legal trend in the last half

century, the separation of church and state. I’d go further and argue that the

greatly diminished influence of church on public mores wouldn’t have happened

without secularized Jews gaining cultural power.

And no one ever talks about it. The most important change in

establishment culture in the last 25 years, and it goes unspoken. Instead,

people talk about blacks all the time, as the press did throughout the Florida

election struggle, as if blacks and Jews share a political identity, which they


From its beginnings, the Bush campaign represented, in the

hearts of many Jews and apparently in the heart of George W. Bush himself (that

knower of hearts), an attempt to reverse Jewishness in the establishment. The

press has only been able to discuss this power struggle in code. The most

perfectly coded statement appeared in The

New York Times ‘ long series last year on George’s life, from swaddling to

bottling, when The Times’ Nicholas

Kristof marveled that when Bush went to Yale he directed all his anger at East

Coast “elitists.” But, Mr. Kristof pointed out, George Bush was in Skull and

Bones-wasn’t that an elite?

Nicholas Kristof knew exactly what George Bush was talking

about: the new elite, the ones who could take SAT’s. Mr. Kristof knows better

because he was himself part of that trend, and so was I, at Harvard. Yes, there

were Italian-Americans, Asians, but the sea change that was upon us was that

middle-class Jews were taking up an important place in the establishment. Which

was threatening to George Bush, as he’s made clear in his cabinet choices.

The Jewish press has been concerned about those choices. Forward said warningly that the cabinet

picks were a symbolic “snub.” Phil Baum, executive director of the American

Jewish Congress, was quoted by The

Jerusalem Post as saying that the lack of Jews was “a little distressing.”

But outside Jewish circles, no one is actively complaining, apparently in the

belief that Jews will weather this one, too. There was a letter to The Times . William Safire mentioned it.

Richard Cohen lamented it in The Washington Post . Not much else.

The Jewish silence comes out of a profound fear among Jews

that this powerful moment will pass, that Jewish prominence in America is like

Jewish prominence in Vienna in 1920, teetering on the brink. The more power,

the less anyone wants to talk about it. Though there is Alan Dershowitz, who in

his nervy book, Chutzpah , said that

Jews must strive to gain even more power disproportionate to their numbers,

because of growing envy and anti-Semitism. Not long ago, over lunch with a

power Jew at a major New York firm, I marveled at the proliferation of Jews in

the establishment. He held up a warning finger. “In every generation, our

enemies will rise up to destroy us.” He was quoting the Haggadah, the Passover

story, and for the rest of our lunch told me movingly about a visit to Anne

Frank’s home.

I wanted to say, “Wait, bub-wrong country.”

But you can’t say “wrong country.” The Jewish history of

persecution transcends boundaries, and the Constitution. A recent study by a

group called Public Agenda said that 80 percent of American Jews see

anti-Semitism as a potentially powerful force in American life, while only 55

percent of non-Jews see that reality. That’s a giant difference, reflecting

ancient Jewish paranoia. In this space I’ve argued that Jews are wrong. Most

Jews say, “Just you wait.”

The problem with this belief is that it short-circuits any

discussion of Jewish power in America. If you talk about Jewish influence,

you’re risking a Holocaust. So there’s no public acknowledgment  of something almost everyone understands:

Jews are major players in the establishment.

On Jan. 15, the Center for Jewish History on West 16th

Street held a discussion on the subject “The Jewish People in the 20th Century:

From Powerlessness to Power.” The moderator, Sylvia Hassenfeld, said that Jews

had “blithely” ignored the question, and then the three professors on the panel

promptly attacked the assumption that Jews are powerful.

There are so many Jews in the media that the cone of silence

falls over the territory where you might expect wider discussion. The

establishment tends to be portrayed as a kind of bland rainbow of

excellence-all welcome, Jews, suburbanites, Asians, Hispanics.

By the way, I don’t claim to know how Jewish the membership

of the establishment is. Twenty percent, 50 percent? I’m guessing 30.

There’s nothing wrong with an elite. Society couldn’t

operate without one. But a democracy demands some accountability of these

elites. A generation ago, the scholar 

E. Digby Baltzell, a good Philadelphia WASP, published The Protestant Establishment , in which

he argued that “a crisis in moral authority” had developed because of the

inability of WASP’s to share power, and in particular because of their

anti-Semitism. In his more recent book describing the end of that order, The Big Test , my friend Nicholas Lemann

detailed the ways that certain members of what he called “the Episcopacy” felt

compelled to make the system fairer, and ushered in the meritocracy. I remember

when I got to Harvard in 1972, and all my outsider Jewish energy was focused on

tearing down the WASP bastions that kept me back. And we tore them down.

Jewishness is not a social bastion, but the failure of Jews to

acknowledge their status is problematic.

“Jews are very much insiders who continue to be fixated on

the mentality of the outsider,” says Alan Mittelman, a Muhlenberg College

professor and the director of the project, Jews

in the American Public Square.  “We’re certainly part of what they used to call ‘the

establishment.’ But we continue to think about ourselves as this embattled

minority. We have to re-orient ourselves to a greater sense of responsibility

for the culture, rather than a sense of the precariousness of the outsider.”

Mr. Mittelman wants political Jews to show greater

flexibility on the issue of school vouchers, which are supported by many blacks

who were once so allied with Jews. But on this question as on others, Mr.

Mittelman says, Jews vote as outsiders, as if “we’re voting against the czar.”

Mr. Mittelman is getting at the heart of the new Jewish

problem in America: the degree to which Jewish caste identity as victims of

power obscures a real understanding of their place in America. This belief can

often be smug and self-congratulatory, reflecting a refusal to cop to power and

its responsibility.

I can think of a few examples of this attitude. Last year, The New Yorker published a glowing

profile of outgoing Monsanto chairman Robert Shapiro, by Michael Specter. The

unspoken theme of this article was, “He’s a Jew from the Upper West Side who

gardens, so he must love the planet!” The piece was remarkable because it

casually overturned the magazine’s long-standing environmentalist stance. Monsanto

is the producer of Roundup, an herbicide that is a nightmare among greenies,

but Roundup went virtually unmentioned in Mr. Specter’s assessment, which was

awash in Jewish chauvinism, in the warmth of Jewish social arrival-Mr.

Shapiro’s and Mr. Specter’s. This is how meritocracy works: The successful

adore the successful, and everybody else is a loser.

Or there was an aside by Hanna Rosin, in Slate last summer, in which she

characterized Reform Jews as blending into the “American mush” of religion. Hers

is certainly a widely shared attitude. What is remarkable is that Ms. Rosin was

identified as the religion correspondent for The Washington Post . The Post

is an important newspaper; what is the responsibility of such a reporter to

have some sensitivity to the varieties of modern religious practice?

Or there’s the continuing attack on politicians for merely

visiting Bob Jones University-whose intolerant policies are justly

criticized-when Jewish groups are given a complete pass for promulgating

policies of in-marriage that half of the Jewish population have said in surveys

are racist (and which few goyish Americans even know about).

Or there was the profile of Hadassah Lieberman in The New York Times suggesting that she

was a humanitarian because she had given to Jewish causes. Shouldn’t we make

the definition a little broader? Indeed, the same sort of definition that

caused the media to all but ignore the troubling aspects of the raid on Waco,

whose victims-besides 25 children-were ignorant gun-toting Christians, the very

sort who, in the Jewish imagination, might have been responsible for pogroms in

the old country.

That Jewish imagination has been the most powerful force in

elite life in the last generation. The rise of the meritocracy, the celebration

of feminism, the emergence of the media: all have been spearheaded by Jews who

re-imagined America.

So long as Jews continue

to see themselves as powerless, they fail to recognize the effect they have had

on society and, worse, fail to move outside a privileged position of wounded

self-regard and come to terms with their real spot: big winners in the new

order. It looks like the next chapter in the democratic discourse is going to

be about winners and losers in the globalist pursuit of excellence. Liberal

Jews owe it to themselves and to American ideals to take an honest part in that

conversation. Doing so might begin with asking the President-elect bluntly

what’s in his heart.

Jews in Bush’s Cabinet? Don’t Hold Your Breath