Jewish Party Politicians

Gerald M. Pomper and Miles A. Pomper

Perhaps Jewish party politics began with the rivalry of Jacob and Esau. Each sought their father Isaac's blessing of political power: "Let peoples serve you, and nations bow to you" (Genesis, 27:29). Jacob wins the prize, but he does so by making a deal for a bowl of porridge, by using the wily strategy of Rebecca, his mother and campaign manager, by pretending to the natural advantages of his first-born brother, and by deceptively imitating Esau's competitive skills as a hunter.

In America, party politicians descended from Rebecca and Jacob certainly have had less impact on world and Jewish history, but they too have demonstrated dealmaking, originality, ambition, occasional deceptiveness, and considerable success. We will discuss three kinds of American Jewish party politicians: machine leaders, reformers, and national party organizers.

These three types roughly trace the chronological development of Jewish politics, indeed Jewish life,  in America. Once large numbers of Jews arrived here, they first settled in distinct areas, separated from Christians either by voluntary preferences or social barriers. This ghettoization provided the residential foundation for urban machine politicians. Soon, Jews began active involvement in their new nation's politics. They often took the stance of critics and reformers, often at first  from the socialist left, then from within the established parties, and later from the neoconservative right. Most recently, Jews have reflected their general assimilation into American life by organizational leadership of the mainstream parties, and even as prominent candidates for public office.

The characteristic forms of Jewish politics in America are also broadly related to Lawrence Fuchs' classic description of fundamental Jewish values. Fuchs argued that three basic values provided the sources of American Jewish liberalism: learning (Torah), charity (zedakeh), and non-asceticism, a celebration of life's pleasures. The emphasis on Torah made Jews receptive to intellectual designs for social reconstruction. The duty of zedakeh stimulated Jews to support efforts toward redistributive justice. The emphasis on worldly pleasures made Jews seek  improvements in their earthly life rather than patiently await redemption in a heavenly paradise.

We admittedly stretch these terms in the following three-part analysis. In the first section, we examine machine politics,  an expression of materialist values  - another possible meaning of non-asceticism. What Fuchs defined as an "emphasis on this-worldliness and the enjoyment of life here and now" can become manifest in Jewish striving toward the machine's material rewards of money, prestige, and power.  In the second section, we discuss reform politics as an expression of zedakeh. The commitment to social justice is particularly evident in socialist and other left-wing parties, and can also be seen in reform movements both within and outside the major political parties.  Another variety of reform is evident among contemporary neoconservative Jews. In the third section, we examine the group members' leadership in national party organizations. This leadership may be considered an expression of the bent toward order and planning embodied in the learning of Torah.

Machine Politics

Jewish involvement in party machines was evident from the beginning of American political parties. At least five Jews were among the founders of Tammany Hall in 1794 and one of them, merchant Solomon Simon, became its president within three years. Jewish politicians would soon appear in cities across the growing nation, including Baltimore, Boston, Charleston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Philadelphia, San Francisco and St. Louis.

The successful party machines were skilled in assimilating competing ethnic groups into vote-seeking coalitions. While less prominent and perhaps less politically adroit than the legendary Irish, Jews evidenced a familiar pattern of ethnic political development. As Jewish immigration rose, first in a stream from Germany in the 1840s and then in a flood from Eastern Europe at the beginning of the 20th century,  ethnic representatives soon gained positions as election workers, patronage appointees, ward heelers and ward leaders. Their number was certainly substantial, but will never be known precisely.

The urban political machine flourished because it met some social needs of the time, of Jews as much as other groups. Cities teemed with poor and needy residents, but government provided few social services or welfare. Immigrants, driven by discrimination and attracted by economic opportunity, faced many problems in their new country - an unfamiliar language and strange customs, separation from family and known friends, dangerous and unhealthy living conditions, uncertain prospects for jobs and social life.

The machines met some of the needs of the poor and the new immigrants, even as the politicians were amply rewarded for their services through offices, contracts and more than occasional graft. The poor gained some social welfare - the legendary Thanksgiving turkey or bucket of coal (and perhaps Passover matzot?)  - and many were helped through jobs on the public payroll or with utility companies doing city business. Individuals in trouble with the law received lenient sentences  after the party precinct worker put in a good word with the judge. Immigrants found new friends who spoke their language at party rallies, and learned, however crudely, the techniques and opportunities of electoral politics in a mass democracy. In these respects, Jews were little different from other ethnic groups, and their leaders in practice resembled their Irish, German, Polish and Italian colleagues. 

The character of Jewish machine leaders can be suggested by brief portraits of a few party politicians. One, Hymie Shorenstein, a Brooklyn ward leader, deserves mention as the author of a classic, perhaps apocryphal political tale, recounted by Theodore White. As the legend has it, a local candidate in 1940 worried that his candidacy, and contributions, had yielded no election posters or other campaign efforts, and that Shorenstein seemed to focus all of his attention on the head of the ticket, President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Shorenstein explained the simple electoral logic of machine politics:

Ah, you're worried? Listen. Did you ever go down to the wharf to see the Staten Island Ferry come in? You ever watch it, and look down in the water at all those chewing-gum wrappers, and the banana peels and the garbage? When the ferryboat comes into the wharf, automatically it pulls all the garbage in too. The name of your ferryboat is Franklin D. Roosevelt - stop worrying!

Of course, Shorenstein was right. Roosevelt and the local "garbage" - surely including some Jews - were both elected as their co-religionists overwhelmingly voted for Roosevelt and the Democratic party during the high tide of the New Deal. 

Other Jewish party politicians surpassed Shorenstein, and not only in the elegance of their language. As they rose to higher positions, many demonstrated a broader understanding of politics, and selected candidates for public office more seriously.

Jack Pollack resembled Shorenstein, but rose higher, becoming the Democratic boss of Baltimore. The child of immigrants from Poland, Pollack left school in the fifth grade and never resumed his formal education. Although raised in an Orthodox home, he was not an exemplar of Judaism. He became a prizefighter, neglected religious rituals, indulged in Maryland's famed (and obviously non-kosher) crabs, and married a non-Jewish woman, although his children were raised as Jews. In the following years, he accumulated sixty arrests, including one for murder, but stayed out of jail.

Pollack first built his fortune on bootlegging during Prohibition, building a secret lower level to his home to hide the illegal liquor. Laundering the proceeds, he developed insurance and real-estate businesses, using his political contacts to win customers. With the cohesive support of the Jewish population in his ward, he came to dominate the Baltimore Democratic party and to exert strong influence on the Maryland state party. One of his allies was Thomas D'Alesandro, who served as his family's "Shabes goy" before going on to become the local congressman and then Mayor.

Politics consumed the Baltimore leader, so much so that his closest lieutenant described meetings at his party club as "political science lectures." Although a strong supporter of FDR and progressive Democrats, Pollack's interest was not in public policy, but in political power itself. The key to this power was commonplace: handouts and intervention with the government for the poor, patronage distributed to election workers in keeping with their achievements in winning votes, payoffs from businesses that wanted city contracts and favors, retribution for those who opposed him. Pollack established a frightening reputation for vindictiveness. "When you really got Jack angry and he wanted to dismiss you," his closest associate reported, "he would say goodby to you by saying, 'Good luck and best wishes.' It was like he was sitting Shiva."

By the 1950s, Pollack began to lose his voter base, as Jews and other whites took flight from Baltimore, and blacks rose in number, eventually becoming a majority of the city's population. A series of electoral battles ensued, with the first black success coming in 1954, as a young lawyer Harry A. Cole defeated the Pollack machine to become Maryland's first's black state senator. Pollack grudgingly tried to accommodate, slating a small number of receptive black candidates along with predominantly Jewish candidates, while challenging new voters and bringing white voters to the polls in Baltimore even after they had moved to the suburbs. The population tides eventually could not be held back; by the 1960s blacks leaders and machines replaced Pollock and took control of Baltimore's party organization and the city government.

Abraham Ruef of San Francisco came earlier. He was the first notable Jewish leader of a city-wide machine. Intellectually distinguished, he graduated with high honors in classics from Berkeley before  the age of 19, and earned his law degree three years later. He spoke several modern languages, and had a life-long interest in philosophy and the arts. Beginning as an insurgent within the weak Republican party, he led an unsuccessful reform movement at the turn of the 20th century, then became a  dominant  major figure within the party.

Following the "general strike" of dockmen and teamsters in 1901, Ruef was active in the formation of the Union Labor party, and its successful campaign for Eugene Schmitz as an independent candidate for Mayor. Ruef maintained his leadership of the Republicans, even as he served as the mayor's attorney and twice achieved his re-election.  As he spun dreams of Schmitz's possible election as Governor and even President, Ruef began to envision himself as a future U.S. Senator.

These fantasies did not prevent him from gaining material advantages from his city position. Corporations seeking franchises, municipal contracts, or utility rate increases hired him at handsome fees to plead their case, and provided bribes for him to pass on to city officials. In the liberal environment of San Francisco, brothels and gambling dens paid for protection from the police and restaurants paid for liquor licenses. In a particularly licentious incident, the city built a "municipal lodging house," actually a house of prostitution, which paid Ruef and Schmitz a quarter of its profits.

Ruef came to the height of his power in 1906, when he won control of the state Republican convention. Soon after, however, he was indicted on 65 counts of bribery and other corrupt actions. After winning a promise of immunity, he testified against Mayor Schmitz, who was convicted and then released on appeal. Ruef was then newly prosecuted, convicted, and sentenced to nine years in prison, the only public official to actually serve time in prison for the civic corruption of his time. There, he wrote his autobiography and developed plans for reforming politics and eliminating the business sources of corruption. Eventually, with support from the Jewish community, Ruef was paroled, pardoned, and rehabilitated.

Jacob Arvey was a later, more prominent, and more honest machine leader, probably the most influential local Jewish machine leader in American politics. The son of immigrants from Poland, he began his political career in typical fashion, as a precinct party worker for the Democratic organization in a Jewish area on the western side of Chicago, quickly rising to the position of ward committeeman and city Alderman. As Jewish support for Roosevelt and the Democrats rose, Arvey's ward produced the highest Democratic percentages of any local jurisdiction in the nation, and the party tradition continued even as blacks replaced Jews in the area.

Although he dropped out of high school, Arvey later resumed his education, completed college, earned a law degree, and became a commissioned Lieutenant Colonel in the Army during the second world war. Soon afterward, he was chosen to lead Chicago's Democratic machine, the Cook County Democratic Committee, which carried with it effective control of the state party and a leading national party role. He moved against the former party leader and Mayor, Ed Kelly, who had become tainted by corruption. Soon, he groomed Richard B. Daley for the mayor's office and as his successor as county chairman. Under Arvey and then Daley, Chicago achieved both a fair measure of civic development and political longevity, as the Democrats sustained the last of the big-city machines. 

By mid-century, Arvey's evident intelligence and skill made him one of the most respected local party politician in the nation. Arvey maintained the strength of the county and state party by selecting prestigious persons to head the electoral ticket.  His most notable success came in 1948, when he arranged for the nomination of Paul Douglas, a distinguished university economist, for U.S. Senator, and Adlai Stevenson for Governor. Arvey participated in the maneuverings that led to Stevenson's "draft" as the Democratic presidential candidate in 1952, when Stevenson unsuccessfully opposed Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower, and supported his renomination in 1956. Four years later, however, the party organization spurned the former governor's try for a third nomination, and threw its critical support to John F. Kennedy.

These individuals are not a full, or representative group, but they do suggest some general comments about Jewish machine politicians. These leaders were rooted in their ethnic and religious communities, gaining support from fellow Jews and maintaining their connections to Jewish congregations and causes (although there surely were other Jews who were so thoroughly assimilated that they cannot be identified). Their Jewish heritage is reflected in some of their behavior.

At least two - Ruef and Arvey -  of the more important, city-wide leaders show relatively high intellect, perhaps reflecting the basic Jewish value of learning and Torah. It may be true, however, that only Jews with exceptional intellect would have been able to overcome prejudices against their religion. Compared to other major examples of the species, leaders such as Arvey seem to approach politics with a somewhat greater theoretical understanding, a broader view beyond the mechanics of party organization or the pragmatic concerns of coalition-building. While convicted of conventional corruption, Ruef also showed an unconventional intellectual approach to politics in his attempted creation of a social movement. Although Pollack was a more conventional machine leader, his devotion to the "political science" of party management also suggests show a certain intellectual bent.

Perhaps the most notable feature of these politicians is the sheer scarcity of Jewish party leaders at the top of urban machines. Beyond the three persons sketched here, it is difficult to name any others who led the parties of major cities, even though there were millions of Jewish voters who were often critically important at the polls. There were many Jewish officeholders in the big cities, including local and state legislators and Representatives in Congress, and a disproportionate number of judges, as well as prominent policy advocates and generous campaign contributors. Yet, within the parties, Jewish activists rarely rose beyond positions in their home wards.

New York is conspicuous in this thin portrait of big city politicians. In the heyday of machines, New York had more Jewish residents than any city in the United States and possibly more than any city in the world. Jews, a fourth of New York's  population,  may have been the largest single ethnic group in the city.  Yet no Jew of the time ever headed any of the five county Democratic organizations (although there were some early county leaders of the minority Republican party). In the Bronx, for example, where Jews were actually a majority of the total population, Ed Flynn of Irish descent ran the organization without challenge, while Jews were mollified by positions on a "balanced ticket" of nominees for public office. Only later, when the machines were in decline, did Jews rise to the top positions, including Stanley Friedman in the Bronx, Ruth Messinger in Manhattan, Claire Schulman in Queens, and Stanley Steingut and Sheldon Silver in Brooklyn. 

 The relative absence of Jewish machine leadership was probably not due to a lack of ambition or talent. We must seek other reasons for this limited achievement among a population with a rich network of community organizations, striving mightily toward success in business, education, entertainment, and even in sports and crime. Jewish political success may have been undermined by the group's internal divisions, such as the conflicts of immigrants from Germany and Eastern Europe. A further explanation might be the diversion of Jewish possible political figures into radical politics and social causes. Combined with the disproportionate support of Jewish voters for these movements, third parties drew political talent that otherwise might have brought more Jews into leadership of the major party organizations.

The contrast is striking between the scarcity of Jews and the dominance of the Irish in machine leadership. The Irish did begin with some natural advantages - early arrival, familiarity with the English language, experience with some English political practices, a cohesive group identity. Yet Jewish immigrants also brought some political assets with them - relatively high literacy, an urban heritage, close social bonds, and a knowledge of political combat extending back to the Bible. It may be that Jews were less disposed than the Irish to accept the hierarchical loyalties inherent in machine politics and less willing to subordinate internal conflicts.

More basically, Jews were often not welcomed by existing leaders, and were more likely to face discrimination within political parties. Republicans would often support restrictions on citizenship, and Democrats were often uninterested in registering the new immigrants. The Irish who typically had established the machines were willing to seek Jewish votes when needed, and to provide favors and jobs for Jewish workers. Yet, fearing the competition for patronage and power and sometimes tinged by anti-semitism, they were far less willing to cede leadership to the newer arrivals. Instead, as Steven Erie describes Boston's machine leaders, the Irish practiced "minimalist politics." They

dispensed food, loans, and licenses to the newcomers but not city jobs, nominations to office, or major party posts. James Michael Curley inaugurated a new era in symbolic politics. Elected to Congress in 1911, Curley crusaded against literacy tests, immigration restriction, and commercial agreements with Russia, where pogroms were raging. Elected mayor in 1913, Curley made symbolic 'League of Nations' politics a regular feature at flag-bedecked city hall.

Reform Politics

Irish leadership eventually declined, and power passed late, unwillingly, and often into Italian and black hands, not to Jews. For the most part, Jewish gains came outside of the machines through independent parties, or through reform movements that supplanted the old organizations. New York dramatically illustrated the change in 1977, when Abe Beame, the city's first Jewish mayor, lost to Ed Koch, a leader in the Democratic reform movement, and probably New York's last Jewish chief executive. The succession marked the change from machine politics to the new politics of issues, media, and personalities.

Jews have been prominent in two different kinds of reform, ideological and organizational, although these goals have often overlapped. Ideological reform includes efforts to promote a coherent policy agenda. For Jews this agenda has typically been of the left, towards liberalism, socialism, even communism - but modern conservatism also has prominent Jewish advocates.

Ideological reform of the left clearly stems from the basic Jewish values of zedakeh and non-asceticism. The connection is underlined by the continuing Jewish identification of most leftists, who combined their political and religious faiths, rather than abandoning Judaism in their search for secular improvement. Liberalism and socialism, to many Jews, have been the worldly embodiment of the Yom Kippur admonition (Isaiah: 58):

This is the fast I desire:

To unlock fetters of wickedness,

And untie the cords of the yoke

To let the oppressed go free;

To break off every yoke.

It is to share your bread with the hungry,

And to take the wretched poor into your home;

When you see the naked, to clothe him,

And not to ignore your own kin.

The leftism of Jews was evident in their creation and leadership of trade unions for the Jewish immigrant masses, which went beyond demands of the workplace and developed a broad political agenda. Samuel Gompers came out of this tradition although, as he rose to leadership of  the American Federation of Labor, he came to epitomize its more cautious "bread and butter unionism." The radical tradition continued strong in the needle trades, where unions were created, led, and politicized by such Jews as Alex Rose and David Dubinsky.

Women were also active in the socialist and union organizations, including Pauline Newman, Fannia Cohn and Rose Schneiderman. They faced additional  obstacles in their political efforts, beyond the poverty and low status they shared with men. Not only did they lack the vote before women's suffrage, they also confronted a Judaic tradition that restricted women's activism outside of the home, as well as male domination and disrespect even from radicals, amid an American society that would not know of feminism for another fifty years.

Until the New Deal, socialist parties won extensive votes from Jews, and two New York Jews - Morris Hillquit and Congressman Meyer London - were nationally recognized leaders. Although Roosevelt captured much of this vote for the Democrats, the unions maintained their influence in New York by forming independent parties. In 1936, they created the American Labor Party to give FDR a separate and non-machine ballot line. In 1944, to combat communist infiltration, the unions created the Liberal Party, which held the balance of power in New York politics for decades.

The Jewish proclivity for these parties of the left probably went beyond the implications of zedakeh. There was surely considerable self-interest in promoting welfare programs for a working class that at the time included most Jews, and in building third parties that gave independent power to Jewish politicians. Yet self-interest cannot explain why Jews continued to vote for, and to lead, these parties even as they rose to middle-class status and wealth. An additional reason might well be that the coherence and apparent logic of ideological programs spoke to Jewish values of learning and intellect. That rationalistic appeal may also explain the latter-day appeal of more conservative programs to contemporary Jewish ideologues of the right, such as Norman Podhoretz and William Kristol.

The second kind of reform has been directed toward change in the structure of government and political parties, including efforts to diminish political corruption, establish universalistic practices in government such as merit systems of civil service, and increase popular participation within the parties. These goals often have been combined with policy objectives, usually liberal in character.

Jews have long been active in local reform movements. Jacob Shiff and Oscar Straus, for example, were prominent among early anti-Tammany leaders, often allied with old-line Protestants against the Irish Catholic organizations. Their co-religionists were notable supporters of the city's most prominent reform mayor, Fiorello LaGuardia, himself of mixed Jewish descent. The same ethnic alliance was evident when John Lindsay, a Protestant, was elected twice as New York mayor. In his second candidacy, Lindsay no longer had the support of his own Republican party, but won solely as the nominee of the Liberal party, still led by Jewish trade unionists.

A broader reform movement came with the development of local Democratic "amateur" clubs, most prominently in Chicago and Los Angeles, as well as New York. These organizations attempted go beyond sporadic defeats of the established machine, to institutionalize reform within the party by winning control of the organization. The effort was led by Jewish politicians, and drew its greatest support from Jewish residents in such areas as Fairfax in Los Angeles, the University neighborhoods of Chicago, and the West Side of Manhattan.

The New York reform movement was the most successful. It took over the party leadership, literally tore down Tammany Hall when it sold the organization's building, and eventually accomplished the nomination and election of Koch as Mayor. Ideological leftism has remained strong, with the reform groups breeding such candidates as Bella Abzug, Jerrold Nadler, and Ruth Messinger.

These reform movements were dedicated to a liberal policy agenda, but their distinctive characteristic was the emphasis on change in the party's processes. They sought more open participation within the party, giving more power to the enrolled membership and less to the leadership. The reformers  argued that members should be recruited, candidates selected, contracts awarded, and officials appointed because of their professional qualifications and policy positions, not on the basis of patronage or personal loyalties.

Jewish support for these movements is, again, partially rooted in self-interest. Machine rule has often blocked the rise of Jewish politicians, and corrupt contracts - although not unknown to Jews - were more likely to be given to other ethnic groups with closer friendships to the established politicians. Universalistic standards such as merit promotions would probably work to the benefit of Jews, given their educational achievements, as fair contracting would probably aid assertive Jewish businessmen. Control of machines by Catholics, first Irish and then Italian, made natural allies of excluded Protestant and Jews. 

Beyond self-interest, however, basic values also probably come into play. The Jewish respect for intellect had some effect, gaining the group's support for abstract principles of reform. A personal example of this appeal could be seen in 1960, when many reformers preferred Adlai Stevenson over John Kennedy as presidential nominee, even though Kennedy was arguably more liberal in policy terms. As James Q. Wilson explained Stevenson's appeal,

He was urbane and witty, he often uttered speculative rather than declamatory remarks, he keenly felt the ambiguity of the political situation and the complexity of public issues. He generalized and dealt in abstractions, and his generalities and abstractions were fresher, more polished, less obvious or chauvinistic, than those of his predecessors….Beyond these elements was the belief he engendered that he was a true intellectual.

Another source of reform support came in Jews' apparent commitment to a "public-regarding" ethic, rooted in Torah ethics, and also reflected in Protestant conceptions of absolutist morality. According to this ethic, government should be structured and pursue policies that promote "the general welfare," however the term is defined, rather than the narrower self-interests of private groups. Jews often do show a willingness to vote against their particular interests, as in their support for redistributive social programs that will cost them taxes but provide little personal benefits, and will not reflexively vote for a Jewish candidate simply on the basis of his or her religion. Thus, Jews do ask Hillel's first question, "If I am not for myself, who will be?" But they also add his second question, "If I am only for myself, what am I?"

Reform activism by Jews also has extended to national politics, in both major parties and in both liberal and conservative ideological directions. Americans for Democratic Action provides one important example of a group active in partisan politics. The group was founded in 1948 to provide a liberal but anticommunist voice, headlined by such prominent Democrats as Eleanor Roosevelt and Hubert Humphrey. Jews were among its most active founders, including Joseph Rauh, an early president, and  Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., the distinguished historian and later biographer of FDR and John Kennedy.

ADA won early attention when Rauh coordinated the successful effort of liberal Democrats to add a civil rights plank to the 1948 Democratic platform. Although supportive of Israel, the organization's agenda has gone far beyond causes particularly identified with Jews, and its annual ratings of members of Congress has become a scholarly index of liberalism. It has dealt with the broad spectrum of national issues, including economic programs, social welfare, civil rights including critical support for the 1960s Freedom Rides, and international policy. Jews continue to be important figures in the organization. Leon Schull was ADA's long-time national director. He was succeeded by the current director, Amy Isaacs, herself related by marriage to a founding Jewish member and rare Republican - Stanley Isaacs, Manhattan borough president in New York.

Another form of Jewish involvement in the political parties has come through influence on the party conventions and their nominations for national office. A notorious historical episode occurred in 1944, when Roosevelt was nominated for a fourth term.  Recognizing FDR's failing health, party leaders gave unusual attention to the vice-presidential candidate, and sought to replace the quixotic incumbent, Henry Wallace. Roosevelt was persuaded to choose Senator Harry Truman of Missouri. He insisted, however, that the Democratic barons "Clear it with Sidney," meaning Sidney Hillman, president of the Amalgamated Clothing Union and a major figure in the labor movement. 

Allard Lowenstein had a different effect on the Democratic party. A student leader of protests against the Vietnam War, Lowenstein organized the 1968 campaign to deny the party's renomination to Lyndon Johnson. Unable to persuade Robert Kennedy or George McGovern to challenge the incumbent president, he successfully recruited Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy. When McCarthy came close to winning the New Hampshire primary, Johnson withdrew from the race, bringing  Kennedy and, later, McGovern back into the race.

Lowenstein was himself elected to Congress for one term and continued his efforts to move the Democrats to the left for the next decade. Although party rules were changed to encourage more direct participation, he was generally unsuccessful in exerting influence on the nominations, as shown by the defeat of McCarthy in 1968 and Edward Kennedy in 1980. Lowenstein brought many young people into national Democratic politics, such as Representatives Barney Frank and Patricia Shroeder, but his reformist career ended violently with his assassination in 1980.

Jews are also active in the most recent, and successful, reform  movement in the Democratic party, the Democratic Leadership Council. Created in 1985, the group has worked to increase its party's electoral appeal by moving it  toward "the vital center" (interestingly, the title of a book by Arthur Schlesinger in the early period of ADA). The DLC  provided a national stage and a policy program for Bill Clinton's capture of the presidency and for Vice-President Al Gore's succession to party leadership. With Jews as significant leaders, notably its co-founder and current President Al From, the Council has become a major source of advice and personnel for the national Democratic party. The Council's most prominent Jew, clearly, was Senator Joseph Lieberman. His nomination as the Democratic candidate for Vice-President in 2000, and the success he achieved in the campaign, marked the definitive acceptance of Jewish politicians into American public life.

The Jewish impulse toward reform has not only been evident within the Democratic party, but also - a generation after Franklin Roosevelt - in direct opposition to it. In the social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s, some Jews came to believe that the Democratic party had been corrupted by narrow, special interests - too corrupted to be reformed. Dismayed by  the weaknesses they perceived in the presidency of Jimmy Carter, they argued that the United States had lost its moral compass  both  internationally and domestically.

Inheritors of the ADA tradition on international issues,  they came to believe that the Democratic party was increasingly "soft" on Communism, indifferent to the Soviet Union's persecution of Jews and acquiescent to third world countries' domination of the United Nations on such issues as the notorious 1975 U.N. resolution condemning Zionism as racism. At home, they began to react against conventionally liberal policies such as affirmative action. Racial preferences  were seen as contradictory to Jewish ideals of merit-based achievement and objective academic advancement. Not insignificantly, these programs were also seen as harmful to Jewish self interests.

These "neoconservatives" had actually been slowly moving to the Republican Party since the 1950s: a half-dozen Jews were among the founding members of National Review, the leading magazine of the intellectual right. But two events accelerated their movement to the Republican Party in the late 1970s: the defeat of their Democratic champion Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson in the 1976 Democratic party and the emergence of Ronald Reagan as the GOP standard-bearer in the 1980 elections.

Reagan's moralistic voice in international relations struck a chord with these Jews. They too regarded the Soviet Union as an "evil empire," and they welcomed his hardline defense of Israel. More basically, Reagan's  upbeat, optimistic view of the United States's role in the world resonated among these successful Americans,  who felt that their fellow Jews had finally found a safe  home in the United States, and angrily rejected  the left's constant criticism. As one of their leaders, Irving Kristol, wryly said of American tolerance, Christians in the United States were less eager to persecute them than to have them marry their sons and daughters. Kristol's son, William, became a key player in GOP policy circles, serving as a key Republican strategist, editor of the Republican-leaning Weekly Standard, and as Vice President Dan Quayle's chief of staff.

The neoconservatives constituted a bridge between Jewish radical reform and contemporary conventional political involvement. Earlier, Jewish activists stood outside American society, acting  even as virulent critics,  such as 1960s Jewish radicals Jerry Rubin and Abby Hoffman. The newer Jewish intellectuals of the right accepted the worth of mainstream politics because they accepted the worth of American society itself. To them, foreigners, particularly communists, were the "other," the alien forces that merited criticism.

Norman Podhoretz personifies the change. In his recent book, My Love Affair with America, he traces his own personal journey from leftist social reformer to neoconservative as a reaction against the cultural left of the late 60s and early 70s. Podheretz's unique role as editor of Commentary, the magazine of the American Jewish Committee, gives this voyage a special resonance. Indeed, he links his current views  to biblical tradition., remembering the Passover prayer of "Dayenu,"  "it would have been enough."

"In the end I suppose it comes to gratitude,"  Podhoretz  writes. "Gratitude was once regarded as a great virtue. It is, for example, at the very center of Judaism, which requires the observant Jew to thank God so often that is a wonder he has time for anything else."  In this spirit, Podhoretz maintains that Jews should praise the United States, and be happy for their security and prominence in the nation.

Jews in the National Political Parties

Podhoretz and Kristol were the intellectual vanguard of what has become a broader entry of Jews into  Republican party politics. For example, in the 2000 election cycle, GOP nominee George W. Bush boasted a Jew, Ari Fleisher, as his campaign spokesman, and Bush placed  Jews in key policy roles from policy director to senior domestic policy advisor, as well as including them as his most prominent foreign policy advisers.

Yet, with a few exceptions, such as Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who unsuccessfully sought the Republican presidential nomination in 1996, the Jewish role in GOP politics has been largely behind-the-scenes. But, aside from the major recent exception of  Lieberman, that description is also true of the Democrats. In a role that harks back  to the old "court Jew" tradition of hidden influence over political decisions, and invokes Fuchs' description of Torah or "learning," Jews have served as key advisers to both political parties, using their intellect to influence leaders while largely remaining out of the limelight.

In both the Republican and Democratic parties, however, it is Jewish money and fundraising ability, even more than intellect, that has spoken most loudly. For example, Matthew Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition said he expected his group to raise $7 million for the Republican party in the 2000 election cycle, and noted that the finance chairman of the GOP, Max Sembler, was Jewish.

The GOP effort to tap Jewish money only began in earnest with Reagan's 1980 election. On the other hand, the Democratic party can trace its long relationship with Jewish financiers as far back as the beginning of the Civil War.  At that time, August Belmont, the financial agent of the Rothschilds in America, was the best known German Jew in this country.  Belmont, now memorialized in the New York racing track he founded, was an active Democrat, who eventually served as chairman of the National Democratic Committee.

In recent years, two Democrats have chaired the Democratic National Committee:  Robert S. Strauss and Steve Grossman.  Both followed Belmont's pattern of using their fundraising and organizational savvy to work their way to the top of the national party. But the role of Judaism in their lives differed greatly.

For Strauss,  being Jewish has not been central to forming his political views or shaping his political career. He grew up in the tiny town of Stanford, Texas, where his mother and her sister headed the only Jewish families; his yearly visits to a Dallas synagogue were viewed more as family gatherings than religious occasions. "Education in anything Jewish was totally foreign to me," he said in a personal interview. When religious segregation forced him to join a Jewish fraternity at the University of Texas, he found the situation extremely uncomfortable and soon left.

Paradoxically, his mother instilled great pride in his religious affiliation: " My mother gave me so much pride in our faith, that I started feeling sorry for people who weren't Jewish," he remembers. While she would repeatedly boast at family occasions that "Bobby is going to be the first Jewish governor of the State of Texas," Strauss says that "my mother wanted me to be a political person, not a Jewish political person."

She soon got her wish. After a position as a clerk at the Texas State legislature, Strauss got his real start in politics by helping Lyndon Baines Johnson launch his first race for Congress in 1937. Johnson's campaign was centered around his support for President Roosevelt, and Strauss was an enthusiastic supporter of F.D.R.

From then on,  Strauss's fortunes rose along with that of Johnson and another close friend, John Connally. After Connally was elected governor, he appointed Strauss to the State Banking Board and to the Democratic National Committee. A long succession of behind-the-scenes jobs followed, including chairman of the Democratic National Committee, U.S. Trade Representative, and U.S. Ambassador to Russia. In the process, Strauss became known as a "fixer," someone who could cut difficult deals in Washington or overseas.

Indeed, despite his strong partisan background, Strauss's skills in courting favor with elected officials were so strong that it was a Republican president, George Bush, who named him ambassador to Russia, perhaps the single most important diplomatic post. Even foreign officials were impressed. Despite Strauss's Jewish heritage, he played a crucial role at the original Camp David peace talks because he enjoyed the confidence of both Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin.

In many ways, Strauss was the epitome of the modern "court Jew," with little interest in elective office. Twice in his life he considered, but chose not to run for public office: in 1972 for the U.S. Senate against Republican John Tower and in 1984 as a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, when there was an effort to draft him as a consensus alternative to former Vice President Walter Mondale and Senator Gary Hart. His reluctance to run for office was personal, not political. He discounted the potential electoral damage of his religion. In the 1984 campaign, his pollsters examined the possible effect of his Jewish heritage in upcoming primaries in New York, Illinois, and Texas, and concluded that "it wouldn't have been a killer."

Steve Grossman is different. In his case, his political rise, his fundraising savvy, and his Jewish identity were all closely linked. And he has been attracted to elective office.

Grossman's serious involvement in politics began in 1977 when, as a 31-year-old inheritor of a prosperous family business, he experienced a "Jewish epiphany" that led him to a new devotion to Jewish life and to participation in a young leadership program of the Jewish Federation of Boston.

As he became more deeply involved in Jewish life in Massachusetts, Grossman began raising money for Jewish causes, and eventually came to the attention of then-Governor Michael Dukakis, a co-chairman of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Dukakis eventually asked him to host a fundraising event for the museum. That established a bond between Grossman and a rising politician; when Dukakis ran for president in 1987, Grossman became one of the co-chairs of his finance committee.

That national access and Grossman's fundraising ability would eventually lead him to develop relationships with such national figures as Bill Clinton and Ron Brown, later the national chairman. Grossman would play an important role in their crucial early efforts to win money and political support from the Jewish community. It would help him win election as chairman of the Massachusetts Democratic Party, which needed his help in getting out of a financial crisis. And it would help earn him the presidency of the politically powerful American-Israel Public Affairs Committee.

All of these positions, in turn, offered him further access to key national political leaders such as Senator Ted Kennedy, Clinton, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, and Al Gore. That access proved crucial when Grossman successfully sought the chairmanship of the national Democratic party after the 1996 election.

 

 In addition to political smarts and fundraising ability, Grossman said his interest in politics can be traced back to the Torah. In particular, he returns us to the prophetic promise of Isaiah (58:10) as the core of his political beliefs:

Then shall your light rise in the darkness,

And your gloom shall be like noonday;

The Lord will guide you always;

You shall be like a watered garden,

Like a spring whose waters do not fail.

Even more than Torah, however, Grossman traces his interest in politics to a long family tradition-- he calls himself a "genetic Democrat." It is a family tradition that mirrors the overall movement of Jews in American politics, from ghetto wardheeler to reform advocate to national power broker.

His grandfather, Max, the second-youngest of 13 immigrant children, was the first to become involved in politics. As a 13 year-old shoeshine boy in the early years of the 20th century,  he was recruited into a political club in East Boston and worked on the mayoral reelection campaign of Honey Fitzgerald, John F. Kennedy's grandfather.

Max Grossman worked for decades in Boston's political clubs, eventually becoming a key fundraiser and advocate in the Jewish community for legendary Boston Mayor Michael Curley. When Curley asked him to name a patronage position as a reward, Grossman responded that he wanted to become penal commissioner, hardly a typical response, but he had been convinced by social reformers that changes could be made in the prison system . He later surprised a newly-elected Massachusetts Governor by making and being granted the same request for a statewide position.

One of Max's sons, Jerome Grossman, was a radical social reformer, in an evolution characteristic of the Jewish community as  a whole. Author of a book titled Relentless Liberal, Grossman was an originator of the Vietnam Moratorium effort in the late 1960s, and a key political organizer for the presidential campaigns of Eugene McCarthy in 1968 and George McGovern in 1972 . He was also the campaign manager for the campaigns of Father Robert Drinan, a four-term, strongly liberal Massachusetts congressman.

For most of his career, Steve Grossman, Jerome's son, has personified the court Jew, the embodiment of Torah, the behind-the-scenes adviser who helps politicians, like the Kennedys and Clinton carry out their agenda. But  like Joseph Lieberman, Steve Grossman now hopes to take the next step in the evolution of Jewish politics. The former behind-the-scenes organizer is considering running for governor of Massachusetts in 2002. His election which would make him the first Jewish governor of the Bay State.

Conclusion

Any account of Jewish politics inevitably returns us to the great Biblical narratives. The experience of Jews in America recalls the histories of Joseph and Moses. Joseph grew up in an isolated world of his brethren. Expelled to a foreign land, he became an eminent court Jew, an intellectual, a reformer, a political insider and then a prominent leader, even as he consistently disguised his Hebraic ancestry. It was left to later representatives of the community, Moses and Aaron, to proclaim their heritage openly and to achieve independent power. Jewish politicians have been able both to assimilate within America and to maintain their ethnic identity in their pluralistic nation. Have Jews now found the political Promised Land?


Bibliography

Walton Bean, 1967. Boss Ruef's San Francisco. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. Definitive scholarly work on the first big-city Jewish boss and politics at the turn of the 20th century.

William H. Chafe, 1998. Never Stop Running. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Insightful biography of Allard Lowenstein, political activist who played an  important role in the Vietnam War protests and the effort to deny Lyndon Johnson renomination as President in 1968.

Steven P. Erie, 1988. Rainbow's End. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. Outstanding analysis of the urban machine, concentrating on the Irish, but with important insights into Jewish political life.

Samuel G. Freedman, 1996. The Inheritance. New York: Simon & Schuster. Premier journalist's account of the decline of New Deal loyalties, including extensive insights into Baltimore politics.

Lawrence H. Fuchs,  1956. The Political Behavior of American Jews. Glencoe, IL: The Free Press. Classic history and analysis of Jewish political activity and political values.

Nathan Glazer and Daniel P. Moynihan, 1970. Beyond the Melting Pot, 2nd ed. Cambridge: M.I.T. Press. Classic study of ethnic politics in New York City, focusing not only on Jews, but also Blacks, Irish, Italians, and Puerto Ricans. .

Arthur W. Murphy, "Jack Pollack," 1996. www.politicomcreative.com/archives/pollack. Political consultant's description of Jack Pollack of Baltimore, including extensive personal interviews.

Norman Podhoretz, 2000. My Love Affair with America. Podhoretz's tale of his rise from poverty in New York, his disillusionment with the Left, and his eventual alliance with Republican conservatives. 

Milton Rakove, 1975. Don't Make No Waves…Don't Back No Losers. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Revealing description of Mayor Richard Daley and the Chicago Democratic organization, the last of the great urban machines.

Gerald Sorin, 1985. The Prophetic Minority. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. Learned and readable study of Jewish immigrant radicals in the formative period of 1880-1920.

James Q. Wilson, 1962. The Amateur Democrat. The first thorough study of modern urban reform politics, including Jewish participation, covering New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

 

 

Return to top of page        Return to home page