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BEHIND THE HEADLINES Jewish Democratic activists grapple with Clinton’s infidelity

WASHINGTON, Sept. 1 (JTA) – When Rabbi Eugene Levy launched a campaign on the eve of the 1991 High Holidays to rally national support for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign, few of the rabbis he courted knew much about the governor from Arkansas. Now, as Clinton battles for his very political survival, the president needs help more than ever from backers like Levy, the rabbi at Reform Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, Ark. But like many Democrats loyal to the president, Levy said he is grappling with how to respond to Clinton’s troubles in the wake of the president’s admission that he misled the American people about his affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. “I’m really struggling with the disappointment and the sadness of what’s happened,” said Levy. Levy said he does not have an answer for many of his congregants who ask, “How can you tell us that we have to live our life with morality and support somebody who flaunts that publicly?” While he still counts himself a strong Clinton supporter, the rabbi is not sure that he wants to go out on a limb for the president. “Forgiveness comes with being sorry and I’m not sure that he really is. He may be sorry that he got caught,” said Levy, who is considering another High Holy Days message in support of Clinton. As the investigation of the president moves from the grand jury room to Capitol Hill, Clinton’s battle will shift from the legal realm to the political. With this in mind, the president’s supporters say that he must shore up support from the Democratic party’s base – women, blacks, Latinos and Jews – if he is to weather the storm from prosecutor Kenneth Starr’s report. So far, the Jewish community seems to be hedging its bets. For every statement of support there seems to be a critical statement. After Clinton’s quasi-apology, many of the most prominent and influential Jewish Democrats privately seethed. Many went as far as arguing privately that the president should resign for the good of the party. But that anger has slowly evolved into a resolve to help the party by helping the president. And for those supporters, that means helping Clinton put the Lewinsky matter to rest. Following Clinton’s grand jury testimony last month, Jack Rosen was among the first to answer the call to support the president. A former chairman of the Democratic party’s finance committee who now serves as the president of the American Jewish Congress, Rosen issued a highly unusual statement on the group’s letterhead. “For too long, the media, the Congress and the American people as a whole have been caught up in the president’s troubles,” Rosen said in the statement that was widely interpreted as partisan. “It is time to set aside our preoccupation with foolish things and for the Congress together with the president to deal with those matters that count.” National Jewish Democratic Council leaders also came forward to support the president. “We fully accept the president’s apology. Now it is up to the rest of us to put this ultimately private affair behind us, for once and for all, and get on with the important business of the nation,” said Monte Friedkin, NJDC national chair. But then the fax machines fell silent and many Jewish Democratic leaders outside the Washington Beltway refused to comment on Clinton’s troubles. As some have slowly begun to speak up for the president, others have called for his resignation. Letty Cottin Pogrebin, author and founding editor of Ms. Magazine, told The New York Times that Clinton should resign. “He has lost his political usefulness,” Pogrebin said. Leonard Fein, a pro-Clinton Jewish columnist, wrote that “this president’s credibility has been so very badly damaged that his last and most lasting gift to the nation would be his resignation.” But according to one of the top Jewish Democrats, these statements run counter to the American Jewish community at large. “The president has stood both with the American Jewish community on a vast majority of issues, and he has achieved much on what the American Jewish community considers important policy,” said Steve Grossman, national chairman of the Democratic National Committee. “I see no indication that there is any diminution of support from the party and its principal leader,” Grossman said in a telephone interview this week. In addition, Grossman, who has been spearheading an aggressive $18 million “Unity ’98” fund-raising campaign, said that on the money side of the equation, “I have seen no diminution of the support that he has had from our major supporters, most notably from the Jewish community.” In fact, some in the Jewish community not usually involved in politics have stepped forward in recent days to urge forgiveness for Clinton. Rabbi Arthur Schneier, the senior rabbi at New York’s Park East Synagogue and a Clinton confidant who traveled at the president’s behest earlier this year to China, joined an interfaith group of religious leaders in an appeal for healing. “It is now time for forgiveness and healing. Governments err and presidents make mistakes; we are all sinners,” the statement said. “It is a time to reclaim the nation’s finer character. We believe that health and dignity can grow anew to serve us.” The statement, which makes it clear that the group believes that the public does not need to know the details of the president’s transgressions, goes on to say, “Our religious heritage has taught us to name unacceptable behavior, private or public, as unacceptable. It is the route toward healing. The president confessed: ‘It was wrong.’ What more must we know.” Many Jewish Democrats believe that messages such as this will resonate in the community as Jews flock to High Holidays services. When asked how he would respond to Rabbi Levy’s congregants in Little Rock who have expressed doubt about the president, Grossman said, “While what the president did was clearly wrong – they know it, I know it and he knows it – it is just as important in judging people, even the president, that they reflect on the scriptures.” Quoting Ecclesiastes, Grossman said, “There is not a righteous man upon earth that does good who does not sin.”

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