This time last year, just as Monica Lewinsky was becoming a household name, a joke was making the rounds about how President Clinton’s relationship with the former White House intern had cast an entirely new light on his long-running love affair with the Jewish community.
While Lewinsky’s Jewish background may have been incidental, it wasn’t the last time Jews and Jewish issues would surface in the unfolding drama.
Indeed, as Monicagate has morphed from a sex scandal to a national fixation to a constitutional crisis to an impeachment trial now nearing its end game, Jews have been there at every major turn — whether as Clinton’s confidants, steadfast defenders, repairers of the breach or other bit players.
It all began with Walter Kaye, a prominent Jewish insurance executive and Democratic donor who recommended Lewinsky for a White House internship in 1995. Kaye, an old friend of Lewinsky’s mother, later said he regretted the move.
The week the story broke, in January 1998, Clinton was playing host to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat. In a photo opportunity with Arafat, the Palestinian leader appeared utterly stupefied as reporters hit Clinton with a barrage of questions about the nature of his relationship.
Clinton denied the affair, acting on the advice of his political adviser, Dick Morris, a Jew to whom Clinton has turned for guidance at some of the most trying moments of his political career.
Morris, who took his own flogging in the media for a sex scandal involving a prostitute, advised Clinton to acknowledge nothing, citing a poll that found the public would forgive him for adultery, but not perjury or obstruction of justice.
“Well, we just have to win then,” Clinton said, and with that, went on to deliver his finger-wagging denial of sexual relations with “that woman.”
About the same time, Lewinsky retained the legal services of a longtime family friend, William Ginsburg, a medical malpractice lawyer from Los Angeles who is Jewish.
A media gadfly with a penchant for putting his foot in his mouth, Ginsburg remarked that neither he nor his client wanted to see Clinton forced from office because he is “very positive toward Israel and the Jews, and Monica and I are Jews.” He also mused that Monica might move to Israel when all was said and done.
In Los Angeles, meanwhile, reporters descended on Sinai Temple, a Conservative synagogue where Lewinsky had attended religious school.
By then, Lewinsky’s Jewishness had become “Topic A” in Jewish circles.
Some Jews, citing the temporary halt to U.S. pressure on Israel on peace process related issues, invoked the story of Purim. They called Lewinsky a modern-day Queen Esther, referring to the Jewish woman in biblical times who brought herself to the king to save her people from destruction.
Arab and Palestinian propagandists had a different theory, suggesting that the whole episode was part of a Zionist plot to scuttle peace efforts.
The official newspaper of the Palestinian Authority said the scandal involving Lewinsky, “a Jew of Polish background,” was created because there was a need for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby, and “Jewish pressure groups who blackmail American presidents” to send a clear message to Clinton that he cannot rebuff Israel’s prime minister — “and so the stained dress was pulled out of the AIPAC warehouse.”
Following Clinton’s admission to the grand jury of an inappropriate relationship and his subsequent televised address, some Democrats in Congress seemed uncertain of how to respond.
That is, until Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), the only Orthodox Jew in Congress, denounced Clinton’s behavior in an eloquent address on the Senate floor.
He stopped short of calling for Clinton’s resignation or impeachment, but coming from one of Clinton’s closest supporters, the speech opened the floodgates and left Clinton reeling from a new wave of outrage.
Lieberman also attracted attention when he attended the impeachment trial on Shabbat. He walked to the Capitol and did not write during the proceedings, but the senator said there have been several occasions during his career when he has had to work on Shabbat.
Amid calls for Clinton to show more contrition, the president offered his most extensive confessional before more than 100 clergy members gathered at the White House in September for a national prayer breakfast.
Searching for the right words of atonement, Clinton turned to the Yom Kippur liturgy. He opened up Gates of Repentance, the Reform movement’s High Holiday prayer book, and read a passage about the challenges of penitence and changing one’s ways.
That same day, the U.S. House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to make public the Starr report in all its unseemly glory.
Careful readers of the report noted that among the gifts Lewinsky gave to Clinton was a book titled “Oy Vey! The Things They Say! A Book of Jewish Wit.”
Yitzhak Rabin’s name popped up in the report as part of a timeline — the affair began only weeks after the former prime minister was assassinated — as did the name of Clinton’s former liaison to the Jewish community, Jay Footlik.
According to a deposition Footlik gave to the Office of the Independent Counsel, Lewinsky, while she was an intern, asked Footlik to take her over to the West Wing of the White House so she could give Clinton a Christmas present. Several days letter he brought her over to a staff party, at which time she gave the president her gift — a tie.
As the House Judiciary Committee launched its impeachment inquiry in the fall, Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), another Jew, emerged as Clinton’s staunchest defender in Congress.
Wexler, together with the black lawmakers and the other five Jews on the committee — Reps. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), Howard Berman (D-Ca.), Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), Steven Rothman (D-N.J.) and then-Rep. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) — played a key role in trying to paint the proceedings as a partisan witch hunt.
In October, as speculation mounted about whether Clinton could continue to carry out his duties and command credibility, he summoned Netanyahu and Arafat to the Wye plantation in Maryland. During a marathon negotiating session, he staked everything on forging an agreement to break a stalemate in the Middle East peace process.
The summit culminated in an interim accord and a White House signing ceremony that appeared to lay to rest questions about Clinton’s effectiveness.
In December, just days before he was impeached, Clinton again turned to Israel, this time traveling to the Jewish state for a three-day visit. Some were baffled when he didn’t cut the trip short and fly home to fight for his political survival, instead choosing to climb Masada and visit Bethlehem.
There have been plenty of other Jewish side notes:
The pastor at Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr’s church, for example, was born and raised Jewish and now serves on the national board of the missionary group Jews for Jesus. And Starr’s wife, Alice, was also born Jewish, but reportedly is very active in the church.
And remember that “vast right-wing conspiracy” Hillary Clinton talked about? The New York Times reported this week that there is indeed a small cabal of lawyers in their mid-30s who “share a deep antipathy toward the president” and worked to keep the Paula Jones case alive. It turns out some of them are Jews.
Now, as the Senate looks to wrap up the impeachment trial, there’s still no telling what the future has in store, particularly with 11 Jewish senators — a record number — thrown into the mix. Any one of them could yet step up to play a decisive role.
Stranger things have happened.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.