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Op-ed: As Scandal Rocks the President, We Wonder; is This Jewish News?

January 27, 1998
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

Okay, we all know by now that she’s Jewish. But does that make Monica Lewinsky’s alleged affair with the president a Jewish story?

It goes to the heart of the age-old question: What makes news Jewish? This case is a particularly tough one.

The news purist in me wants to run away as fast I can, seriously questioning whether we need to feed into the media frenzy that has already made this one of the most critical stories of the decade.

But the news hound in me doesn’t want to be left out of a story of this magnitude, nor do I want to shirk my responsibility of trying to find an angle for the Jewish press.

Besides, we’re not just talking sex scandal here. We’re talking a potential threat to the Clinton presidency.

So just what is the story for us? In this fast-breaking affair where facts are scarce, JTA has already established that Lewinsky is indeed Jewish, that she grew up in a posh part of Los Angeles, and that her family belonged to a Conservative synagogue, Temple Sinai, in West Los Angeles, where she attended religious school.

Is that enough? Is she a strongly identified Jew? Would it matter if she had spent a semester in Israel? Or if she had consulted with her rabbi on what to do?

Should we profile Monica’s prominent parents — her physician father, Dr. Bernard Lewinsky, and her mother, the reporter and author Marcia Lewis — whom special counsel Kenneth Starr has threatened to drag into the investigation?

Many weekly Jewish newspapers depend on JTA to provide national and international news. Several of our client editors are anxious to know: “Are you doing a story?”

“What’s the story?” I ask, seeking as much input as possible.

“Is it a shanda for the Jewish community?” suggests one editor.

Is WHAT a shanda, I wonder. That an ambitious young Jewish woman possibly had an affair with the president, a married man? That she possibly dreamt she had an affair with the president? That she possibly lied about whether she did or didn’t have an affair? That whatever happens, her life will never be the same? That her testimony could single-handedly bring down the president of the United States?

I seek further input: Should JTA’s religious affairs writer revisit the rabbinic view of adultery and whether Judaism makes a distinction between old- fashioned adultery and adultery that involves the possible abuse of power in which the most important man in the world pays attention to a young, starry- eyed intern?

The Israeli press has been quick to jump on the story; but they don’t have much to go on either, except for the fact that she is Jewish. Then again, scandal is what often drives the intensely competitive Israeli press.

But maybe Ma’ariv had it right when it flashed a banner headline last week declaring that the fate of the Middle East peace process was now in the hands of a 24-year-old former White House intern.

Indeed, that is one clear story that makes sense: Will Clinton’s recently found determination to personally save the dying peace process be crippled before it even gets off the ground because of his preoccupation with the sex scandal? Or will he reinvigorate his efforts in an attempt to focus on substantive policy issues?

You only had to witness Yasser Arafat’s utter bewilderment during his brief press opportunity with the president last week to realize that the future of Middle East peace was on the mind of neither the president nor the media.

Some anti-Semitic Arab circles have also provided a Jewish angle for us, concocting the notion that it was no coincidence that the scandal broke right in the middle of Clinton’s meetings with Benjamin Netanyahu and Arafat.

“The Zionist lobby and world Zionism creates disasters for anyone who may cause it problems,” Hamas’ spiritual leader, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, declared, sinisterly suggesting that the Lewinsky affair was part of a plot to take the pressure off Israel.

And then there’s the Iraqi piece of the puzzle. Is war against a defiant Iraq more or less likely given the pressures on the president? Some, including Saddam, cynically suggest that the president could take his cue directly from the new movie “Wag the Dog,” going to war to divert attention from his own troubles. Would Saddam, figuring the world wasn’t paying much attention, then decide to dust off those old Scuds and retrain them on Israel?

Yes, there does seem to be something there. But not just because the crisis centers around a Jewish woman named Lewinsky.

This story, however reported, is not going to go away. And we Jews, just like the rest of the country — and the world — are going to continue to follow it with a mixture of utter amazement, perverse fascination and profound dismay.

Stay tuned for how your Jewish paper plays the story.

Lisa Hostein is the editor of JTA, the global news service of the Jewish people.

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