WASHINGTON, Jan. 3 (JTA) As President-elect George W. Bush unveiled his Cabinet over the last few weeks, the buzzword has been diversity.
A Republican Party with a reputation for appointing mostly white males welcomed several members of ethnic minorities to the administration’s highest offices. Jews, however, were left out of the mix.
The omission has left several Jewish leaders concerned about their relationship with the new White House, but most dismiss the notion that Jews must have a representative in the Cabinet.
“The Jewish community has graduated beyond the point where, at every election, we have to hold a stopwatch and count how many people cross the finish line,” said Jason Isaacson, director of government and international affairs at the American Jewish Committee.
Jews make up 10 percent of the Senate, and there are 27 Jews in the 435-member House of Representatives. Two Jews sit on the Supreme Court.
With a few notable exceptions, almost all the Jewish political officials are Democrats. That’s not surprising, as American Jews are predominantly Democratic and voted overwhelmingly for Vice President Al Gore in November.
Bush, on the other hand, made unprecedented overtures to Arab American voters, especially in states like Michigan where they are an important constituency. Nonetheless, some Jewish leaders expected a seat at Bush’s Cabinet table. Five Jews served in President Clinton’s Cabinet. And while no Jews served in the Cabinets of Reagan or Bush pere, there were four in President Carter’s Cabinet and several in the Ford, Nixon, Johnson and Kennedy administrations.
Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, said the absence of a Jew in the Cabinet does not bode well for the community’s influence with the Bush White House.
“Either their circle of friends doesn’t include Jews or the Jews just didn’t get picked,” Forman said. “I think it is the former.”
Marshall Breger, who served as President Reagan’s liaison to the Jewish community, said the Republican Party does not believe ethnic or other minority groups hold entitlements to a Cabinet seat.
“That is not the rhetoric in the Republican world,” Breger said. “You don’t have interest groups demanding Cabinet offices like trophies.”
But the absence of Jews is made more striking by the evident pains Bush took to diversify his Cabinet. Among his selections were two African Americans, Gen. Colin Powell and Rod Paige; an Arab American, former Sen. Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.); and several women. The only Jew to receive serious consideration was Paul Wolfowitz, considered for defense secretary before Bush selected Donald Rumsfeld. Wolfowitz had served as undersecretary of defense in the administration of the elder Bush and was foreign policy adviser for the Republican campaign last year.
Linda Chavez, Bush’s selection for labor secretary, is married to Christopher Gersten, a former executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, and their children are being raised Jewish.
Ari Fleischer, who was named White House press secretary last week, said Wednesday that any criticism of the Bush White House’s composition is premature because several important positions remain vacant.
Fleischer will be one of several prominent Jewish faces in the White House, even if they will not hold Cabinet rank. Former Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith, who served as Bush’s domestic policy adviser during the campaign, is expected to receive a White House job.
In addition, Joshua Bolten will be Bush’s deputy chief of staff for policy.
Several Jewish leaders cited Fleischer’s appointment as a significant one, as he will be the administration’s mouthpiece and will have the president’s ear.
“There are enough people in the administration and in the office of the president to ensure that Jewish concerns are going to be closely articulated,” said Breger, a professor of law at Catholic University.
He said it is too early to claim that Jews have been left out of the loop because sub-Cabinet positions, such as undersecretaries and assistant secretaries, have not been filled. Breger also said organizations like the RJC have access to all levels of the incoming administration.
“People are looking for a chance to claim that they have been dissed,” he said. “We haven’t seen any signs of it.”
While acknowledging disappointment among the Jewish community, Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said the issue is not that important.
“We, as a community, once we broke that initial ceiling, have never been in favor of quotas,” Foxman said.
But while it may not be a make-or-break issue for the community’s relationship with the Bush camp, several Jewish leaders said they were saddened to see no Jew named to the Cabinet. Ironically, this comes just after Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), Gore’s running mate, became the first Jew chosen as a major party’s vice presidential candidate, seemingly heralding a new level of acceptance for Jews in American political life. “It’s a little distressing that” Bush “sought to diversify the Cabinet and people on the extremes of American life, and no Jew was chosen,” said Phil Baum, executive director of the American Jewish Congress.
But Baum said he is more concerned with the policy positions the Cabinet nominees take than with their religious affiliation.
Other Jewish leaders echoed those remarks, saying they question the policies being initiated by the new White House and the domestic policy agenda of several nominees, especially the attorney general-designate, former Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.).
On the other hand, Jewish leaders have been impressed by the pro-Israel positions of several of the Cabinet selections.
“The irony of it all is, this is a guy who set up a Cabinet that is closer to what America is, and he isn’t getting credit for it,” Foxman said. “The only ones who are asking ‘Where are we?’ are the Jews.”