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From Changed Names to Orthodoxy, Book Traces Jews’ Rise in U.S. Politics

October 26, 2001
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A woman who was the trusted adviser to the governor of New York in the 1920s.

The ambassador to Turkey in 1889.

The attorney general in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal.

Belle Moskowitz, Solomon Hirsch and Edward Levi were all Jews involved in U.S. political life in different periods. Previously confined to the footnotes of political science course guides or familiar only to political junkies, these figures and others are part of a new book charting Jews’ impact on American political life.

The collection of essays, “Jews in American Politics,” is not simply a “locate the landsman” exercise but an attempt to address a number of issues — such as Jewish political behavior, Jewish advocacy and the relationship between politics and Jewish identity — along with important demographic information and over 400 biographical profiles.

The story of Oscar Straus, the first Jew chosen for a Cabinet position, illustrates the trajectory of Jewish political involvement in the 20th century. When Straus was appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, he told how Roosevelt had said that Strauss had character, judgment and ability, but his appointment also would serve to show Russia that the United States “thinks of Jews.”

At a public dinner several years later, however, Roosevelt claimed that Strauss was chosen on merit and ability alone. The next speaker, the prominent Jewish Republican Jacob Schiff, did not hear Roosevelt’s remarks and told the audience how, years before, Roosevelt had sought his advice on a suitable Jew to appoint to his Cabinet.

Some of the old challenges Jews faced in politics have not entirely disappeared. While it is possible today to balance one’s Judaism with a political life — and it is much more legitimate for a candidate today to have a strong religious identity — having it all remains a conundrum.

Observant Jews such as Lieberman, Jack Lew — the former director of the Office of Management and Budget — and the former deputy treasury secretary, Stuart Eizenstat, are the models for today’s young Jews, Forman said.

Lieberman said his experience in the 2000 presidential campaign only deepened his feelings about public service.

“It has also convinced me as never before that American Jews have an important and special role to play in the civic life of this great country,” he wrote in the book’s introduction.

But American Jews still face a choice between ghettoizing or assimilating, says Ira Forman, co-editor of the book along with L. Sandy Maisel.

The challenge is to create a different paradigm, said Forman, who also is the executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council.

Jews’ future in American politics depends on “where as a community we are going to go,” Forman believes, either toward continued distinctiveness or greater assimilation.

Forman hopes the book will inspire young Jews to get involved in American politics, much the way Lieberman believes involvement in public life is a Jewish responsibility.

The book’s last chapter, entitled “Hosts, Not Visitors,” sets forth an optimistic view of the Jewish future in American politics.

“As part of the host community, Jews can be expected to play an important role in every aspect of human life — in sports, in entertainment, in letters, and in politics,” writes David Shribman, Washington bureau chief for the Boston Globe.

But Shribman acknowledges that the future is unpredictable. If further assimilation produces a decline in Jewish identity, he writes, “the question of Jewish prospects in American politics could become one of survival, not merely of success.”

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