Burt Siegel

Why Politics Matter So Much

I was raised in a politically active family in northern New Jersey. My father was a Democratic committeeman. As a young child I loved going to visit neighbors with him as he urged them to come out to vote for Democratic candidates. Since I’m sure there is a statute of limitations on voter fraud, I will admit that my first political activity was reading the obituaries in the local newspapers and writing down the names and addresses of the recently deceased, information that in those days was contained in obituaries. It was only sometime later that I realized that the purpose of the compilation of these names was to assure that they would be recorded as voting. For this contribution to the electoral process I was paid ten cents per name. One year, the name of an elected official who had died too late for the party to replace remained on the ballot and of course “won” overwhelmingly. Local wags noted that since dead people in our town were such loyal voters it was time that they had “one of their” own representing them.

My father always taught me that there was a profound difference between the beliefs of the Republican and Democratic parties. I grew up with an awareness that the policies of the former favored the wealthy and the latter “people like us.” The recent stories regarding how the top executives of struggling companies received bloated compensation while lower level employees were being laid off or dismissed only served to confirm my father’s assertion. You might wonder what partisan politics had to do with this. One local company who is now compensating their CEO to the tune of over 5 million annually, just granted him a hefty raise at least particularly funded by over 4 million dollars in pandemic relief funds. You might recall that while Democratic legislators argued that these funds should largely be used to save small businesses the Republicans made sure that large national corporations such as those in the construction industry and manufacturers benefited more than the service industry which laid off many of their already low-income employees.

My dad’s beliefs were clearly left of center and my mother attended a Workmen’s Circle after school program. Several of her good friends were Black women and while the term racist wasn’t used then my sister and I both internalized the belief that Democrats were more supportive of racial equality than were Republicans. In the early 50’s we didn’t know of course about the racism of the southern wing of the Democratic party, AKA; the Dixiecrats.

I was probably in high school before I knew a Jewish Republican. I was shocked when during high holiday services in 1952 I saw several men in our synagogue wearing Eisenhower buttons. I asked my father why Mr. Levy and Mr. Moskowitz (these are not their real names; I’m using pseudonyms to protect their identities) could do this and he explained that they had served under Eisenhower in the war and they greatly admired him. At nine this made no sense to me but my dad assured me that it was likely that they remained Democrats and that voting for Eisenhower was an anomaly. He also used the occasion to inform me that Richard Nixon, the GOP candidate for Vice President, was an anti-Semite, as demonstrated by remarks he made when running against Helen Gahagan Douglas, the wife of Jewish film star Melvin Douglas. Tapes of Nixon’s later conversations reveal a very real streak of dislike of Jews and his believing that many of us were likely to be communists and disloyal to the US. Yet, he was a strong supporter of Israel and was close to numerous Israeli leaders. Something that current Jewish supporters of Trump should bear in mind when they naively claim that he couldn’t possibly be anti-Semitic because he has given Bibi Netanyahu a green light for just about anything he desires.

As American Jews, most of us care deeply about the ongoing security of the State of Israel and her people. While perhaps the old fundraising UJA slogan “We are one” might be a bit of hyperbole, all surveys still indicate overwhelming support for Israel among Jewish Americans. However, the Israeli government’s plan to annex major parts, if not all, of the West Bank or as Netanyahu calls it (“extension of sovereignty”) is likely to significantly diminish such support, especially among younger Jews. Not surprisingly AIPAC has said that a move such as this on Israel’s part should not weaken the United States close relationship with Israel. And it is worth noting that AIPAC has assured US lawmakers that they will not suffer any consequences if they oppose such an undertaking by Israel. While it is somewhat reassuring that AIPAC will not go to war on Democrats who have expressed their opposition to annexation they cannot guarantee that there will not be a backlash by a number of angry Jewish voters.

As much as I think bringing in this territory under the sovereignty of Israel is a serious error, I am greatly pleased that Joe Biden, our candidate for President, has made it clear that he believes the suggestion of punishing Israel for this action is ‘outrageous.” and simply wrong.

At the same time, we cannot ignore the fact that some portion of the far-left wing of the Democratic party feels that any indication that our party is too supportive of Israel must be opposed. There is little that could be more injurious to the prospects of a crucial victory for our candidates than an ugly fight at the meetings of the party’s platform committee over Israel. It is far from a secret that planks contained in the platforms drafted at political conventions are largely symbolic but the news coverage of the likely internecine fighting within the Democratic party can only help Trump. One can hardly imagine how disgusting and dishonest the Republican outreach to the Jewish community will be. I fully expect their ads will feature Representatives Ocasio Cortez and Ilhan Omar and even George Soros who is in the odd situation of being seen as a villain by both anti-Semites and rightwing Jews.

But in the months ahead we all need to keep focused on the fact that an increase in the Jewish vote in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Detroit and Milwaukee can make all of the difference not only in the election of our President but the control of the House and Senate as well. We need to ask ourselves if we wish to be governed by the likes of Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell and Steve Scalise or by Joe Biden, Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer. After you answer that question, I hope you will be motivated to help elect your favorite Democratic candidates and DJOP.

About the Author
Burt Siegel is the former head of the JCRC of Greater Philadelphia where he served for 15 years. He is currently Vice Chair of Democratic Jewish Outreach PA.
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