Martha Cohen

Fighting for What’s Right

“Didn’t you notice a powerful and obnoxious odor of mendacity in this room? There ain’t nothin’ more powerful than the odor of mendacity. You can smell it. It smells like death.”

— Burl Ives as Big Daddy in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof

Just about two weeks ago, we broke the fast of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year. It’s a time when we hope that we have been given a clean slate. Immediately after that came the horror of Las Vegas, and the following day, October 2, Tom Petty died.

This is not a good way to begin the new year.

For me, Tom Petty’s sudden death was a painful loss. “Don’t Do Me Like That,” “American Girl,” and “Free Fallin’” are just a few of the many songs he and the Heartbreakers made famous. As an artist, his songs are legend, not only for their entertainment value but for their ingenious lines. Who could forget lyrics like “A rebel without a clue” from “Into The Great Wide Open,” or “You can stand me up at the gates of hell, But I won’t back down” from “I Won’t Back Down.”

Another stanza from the song was,

“Well I know what’s right
I got just one life
In a world that keeps on pushin’ me around
But I’ll stand my ground.”

And for Tom Petty, this wasn’t just a lyric. He lived it and he fought for us, his fans, even when it affected his bank account and risked his career. For those who don’t know what I am referring to, in the early 1980s, Tom Petty stood up to his record company and said NO. No, you will not use my new album, “Hard Promises,” to raise the price of all albums.

This was not an easy fight. He even threatened to change the title of the album to “The $8.98 Album” since the record company’s plan was to ride Petty’s popularity to raise the price to $9.98. That was a tremendous increase at the time.

Tom won the fight and we all enjoyed $8.98 albums for a long time. That was due to his moral core, to his doing what he knew was right. And to his humility. This wasn’t about him, it was about his fans. As he said in an interview, “MCA has done a great job selling our records, but they couldn’t see the reality of what it’s like on the street. They couldn’t see that raising the album’s price wouldn’t be fair.”

We respected him because he was a man of character, who would fight for what he felt was right. We can’t afford to lose people like that in this world.

And then we ended the week with the New York Times’ revelations about Harvey Weinstein, co-founder of the powerhouse company Miramax, reborn as the Weinstein Company years ago after its deal with Disney went south, leaving Miramax legally as part of Disney.

The Weinstein Company is a formidable player in the world of entertainment. It is not surprising that those women whom Harvey Weinstein allegedly sexually harassed were afraid of what would happen to their careers — some in their nascent stage — if they did not acquiesce to his advances.

As the article tells us, “In public, he presents himself as a liberal lion, a champion of women and a winner of not just artistic but humanitarian awards.” And that’s not all. He cast a tremendous shadow as a contributor to many campaigns and the Democratic National Committee over decades, donating his personal funds and even more importantly, acting as a conduit to the multimillionaire arena of the entertainment world. Being supported by Weinstein brought with it the ultimate celebrity cool factor, and his fundraisers and introductions reaped significant benefits to any politician he supported. In the case of President Obama, that reportedly totaled almost $700,000 in 2012.

Unlike Tom Petty, Weinstein’s letter in response to the allegations makes clear that he doesn’t care about anyone but Harvey. Rather than taking full responsibility for his inappropriate conduct, he tries to convince us that this is the way men were taught to act in business if they were growing up in the 1960s and 70s.

Really, Harvey? If you were born in the early 50s, this is how you were taught to behave? You must believe we are all morons to think this explanation will fly. Then you attack Trump and the NRA, setting a retirement party for them in the same place you had your bar mitzvah. NO, Harvey. Don’t bring Judaism into your sleazy, narcissistic mess.

A bar mitzvah is a time when every young Jewish person begins to take on the responsibilities of adulthood, which include mutual respect, inner reflection, kindness, and personal accountability. It is abundantly clear from your actions and this letter that you have none of these qualities and are trying to co-opt the Jewish and liberal communities to support you at this very difficult time.

However, Harvey, the bar mitzvah actually is an interesting metaphor for a political candidate’s relationship with the Jewish community. In 2016, in our state of New Jersey, anti-Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions legislation was signed into law, prohibiting public worker pension funds from investing in companies that engage in BDS. The bill was written carefully to assure that there was no infringement on any First Amendment rights. There was full consensus from the governor, the lieutenant governor, and the entire New Jersey legislature but for three votes, all from the assembly. One of those votes belongs to Shelia Oliver, the former assembly speaker and the person that New Jersey gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy has chosen to be his lieutenant governor.

And so it is perhaps time to ask ourselves how we measure whether a candidate understands our concerns and will, as Tom Petty did, “walk the walk” and not just manufacture a façade, as Harvey Weinstein did. It’s nice that Phil Murphy has taken numerous trips to Israel, but do trips alone constitute a real relationship with our community? Or are the trips almost like the bar mitzvah party, a beautiful celebration that is in no way indicative of that young man or woman filling a future seat in the synagogue that has just joyously accepted them?

Considering that the BDS movement is discriminatory, demonizing, and isolates only Israel, Oliver’s decision to vote against this bill has sent our community a direct, unambiguous message. And there is no doubt that the deliberate, ugly misinformation of this unrelenting movement has resulted in the targeting of our children and families in our local communities and in countless colleges across our country. Given this, how can we not question Phil Murphy’s selection of Sheila Oliver as not only his running mate but as the person he considers best to become governor if he is unable to finish his term, if elected.

This was enough of an issue for one current gubernatorial candidate in Illinois that he no longer has his pro-BDS lieutenant governor on the ticket.

In “Cat On A Hot Tin Roof,” Burl Ives says, “Boy, I’ve lived with mendacity, now why can’t you live with it?  “You’ve got to live with it, there’s nothing to live with but mendacity, is there?”

No, it doesn’t have to be this way unless we allow it. Now is not the time to be silent. It is the time for clarity. We cannot live in the mendacious world of Harvey Weinstein but must demand that those that want to represent us have the character and humility of a Tom Petty. The BDS vote was a moment of absolute clarity. Let’s not allow words to obfuscate the message.

About the Author
Martha Cohen is an award winning producer and creative executive. She is a Berrie Fellow and currently sits on the JFNNJ JCRC and StandWithUs East Coast Boards. She chaired the JFNNJ Partnership2Gether when the Young Leadership program was developed and executed; and, continues to be closely involved. Martha and her husband David live in Fort Lee with their son, Harry.