Help Civic Activism Triumph Over Political Cynicism

I vividly recall my favorite scene in the blockbuster film “Thirteen Days,” which told the story of the Kennedy administration’s insider perspective of the 1963 Cuban missile crisis.

No, I’m not referring to the famous episode where the character playing Adlai Stevenson courageously stands up to the Russian representative Valerian Zorin at the United Nations, but rather to the seemingly much less remarkable scene around Robert Kennedy’s breakfast table in the movie’s opening moments.

Kennedy is surrounded by his wife and children at this daily family gathering. While most of the children are in elementary or middle school, still they are actively engaged in a substantive, age-appropriate discussion about world events. Kennedy challenges his children, sampling their ability to name government officials or the powers they represent accurately. It is a family learning exercise, and one that ensures that the next generation develops a foundation in basic civics.

While Friday evening dinner conversation at my home largely is focused on the challenges of that particular week’s Torah portion, Shabbat lunch takes on an entirely different character. Surrounded by my home library and an overflowing basket of newspapers, I actively engage my children, stepchildren, and the friends who routinely straggle home from shul with us in conversations that challenge their knowledge of the world around them. From BDS to the efforts being made to improving the local ice arena, the children are challenged to construct their own individual opinions and taught the connection between such issues and the social responsibilities that ultimately they will inherit.

While the children at my table are only between 7 and 13, this election cycle has indelibly affected their growing awareness of government and politics — and not in a good way. As the children watch pieces of the debates, see the sensationalist media headlines, or simply eavesdrop onto the adult conversations at our shul Kiddush, the imprint being made in their psyche will contribute negatively to my parental goal for them — a healthy dose of civic engagement and comprehension.

Just last week, my wife’s 13-year-old son innocently said that he heard that Hillary Clinton is a criminal, while his friend across the table countered that Mr. Trump beats up girls. This is not the kind of conversation that they should be having!

As I attempt to steer the children toward discussing the fundamental basis for each of the major parties’ platforms, given their ages, they obviously find the bruising name calling and finger pointing more exciting. Two years ago, I encouraged my now 9-year-old son to watch half an hour of the State of the Union address. Fortuitously for me the time slot my son happened choose was the environmental segment. That did lead him to question me about our need for clean water every time I attempted to turn on the faucet — but he was interested in learning about substantive matters as well. At the second presidential debate this fall, the moderator’s opening question was if the candidates thought that their own first performances would encourage parents to ask their children to watch again that night. The need for such a question makes the candidates’ responses almost unnecessary.

Before I was blessed by my appointment as director of the East Coast for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, for more than 15 years I served in many levels of government, and increasingly would be asked by friends and neighbors, in an almost derogatory way, if I were still involved with “politicians.” As I attempted to engage my peers come election time, what they said far too often was to ask me why I bother, given that all politicians are either graft seekers or simply outright corrupt.

My peers’ perception of government officials did not start recently, but was fermented through many years of the political ambivalence whose foundations originate at table conversations with our children, like we ourselves experienced, unless we can move them strategically away from the historical levels of cynicism this particular election cycle is producing.

In the fight for our communal agenda, we need a supportive government. From building an eruv and expanding our physical institutions, to protecting everything from accurate kashrut display manipulation to the yeshiva tuition crisis to fighting against anti-Semites on campus and in our communities as BDS advances, we need a supportive government. We have to make sure that the idea of disengaging from politics as a result of our national disgust with the presidential political display we see now does not infect the next generation.

Now more than ever, we have to show our children the positive side of politics and government, so that they will play an active role after we have exited the stage. As the Simon Wiesenthal Center advocates for additional municipalities to introduce anti-BDS resolutions, I take my 13-year-old stepson with me and have him testify.

I take him because he has to see the positive side of political activism.

Throughout our communities there are ways to expose our next generation to the substance of politics, government, and civic affairs. The opportunities range from local public meetings on a municipality’s recreational activities, to candidate nights for local council and school board officials, to missions to Washington such as those sponsored by NORPAC.

Perhaps, sadly, we have to censor how much our children see of presidential politics during this election cycle, but to make this cycle into an excuse to keep our children away from such activities altogether — to leave such lasting thoughts in their impressionable young minds — would be a travesty of incalculable proportions.

I will continue to remember that early scene in “Thirteen Days” fondly, and to impress upon my children and stepchildren the need to be actively engaged in the process for the benefit of our people. As someone who has seen the effects of that activity firsthand — and who has seen potential consequences of ambivalence as well — I hope you will join me in finding ways to encourage your children to do the same.

Michael Cohen of Englewood is the eastern regional director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. He represents his city’s second ward on Englewood’s City Council, and he belongs to Congregation Ahavath Torah there.

About the Author
Michael Cohen currently serves as Eastern Director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Mr. Cohen additionally serves on the Englewood, NJ City Council where he was recently elected to his third term. Mr. Cohen has previously held senior staff positions on Capitol Hill and in NYC and NYS governments for over 15 years. Mr. Cohen has also served as Director of Political and Strategic Affairs for a top NY lobbying firm.