Jewish leaders must remember the burden of history

As I watched the Democratic National Convention in Chicago and soaked up the wisdom of the pundits, it was impossible not to reflect upon Aug. 29, 1968.

It was my 21st birthday. I was living in Ithaca, N.Y., having graduated from Cornell that June, and was preparing to begin army basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. Like Dan Quayle, I had avoided the draft — and the Viet Cong — by joining an Army Reserve unit.

Although politics was the farthest thing from my mind, as I tried to get in shape and thought of how I could possibly stomach creamed chipped beef on toast, I found myself glued to the TV set, as did most of the country. It was high drama.

Chicago was out of control: The violence that erupted at the Democratic Convention was the measure of a nation literally being torn apart. Our nation was fighting a war on two fronts: one in the jungles half a world away, the other on our streets.

It is impossible to forget how Mayor Richard Daly barked out lessons in bully tactics and brute force, and hurled anti-Semitic vulgarities at Senator Abe Ribicoff, who had decried the police conduct. For years to come the Democrats would pay dearly for the damage done by that grotesque spectacle.

The political landscape has changed, both for America in general and the American Jewish community in particular. This year's political conventions are the most striking examples.

The Republican gathering in San Diego was masterfully orchestrated. But it was pabulum. The Democrats' extravaganza was high on energy but low on drama. It also bore no resemblance to the fiasco of 28 years ago, or to the carnival that was the 1972 convention. This year, both parties got what they wanted from their infomercials.

Assessing the dramatic changes in American society since 1968, I cannot help but think of the maturation of Jewish political activity and influence that we have witnessed — on both sides of the political aisle.

Nothing could underscore this more than the strong Jewish presence in Chicago, a reflection of the unprecedentedly close ties our community has with this administration. That Clinton has six Jewish Cabinet-level appointees, and elevated two Jewish judges to the Supreme Court, is nothing short of extraordinary. Add to that many Jewish advisers in senior positions. It's a pretty safe bet that the 1996 Jewish vote will go overwhelmingly for Clinton.

I am not a political partisan. Registered to neither party, as director of the Office of Special Investigations in the Justice Department I served under two Republican and two Democratic presidents. During my tenure at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, my politics were only "pro-Israel."

But the facts cannot be denied: Clinton has consistently demonstrated his closeness to and respect for the Jewish community. The conventional wisdom within the pro-Israel community has been that no other president has been as supportive. Tellingly, I have heard that very refrain, albeit grudgingly, from many staunch Republicans.

Jewish support for the Democrats has also been fueled by concerns over the influence that the religious right, as exemplified by the hold the Christian Coalition and Pat Buchanan have on the Republican Party.

As for Buchanan, suffice it to say that his brand of isolationism and xenophobia are anathema to the Jewish people and would pose a grave danger to Israel. Credit Abe Rosenthal of the New York Times and Edgar Bronfman of the World Jewish Congress for taking him on long before it was fashionable. Christian Coalition and religious-right leaders, as exposed in an eye-opening report by Abe Foxman's Anti-Defamation League, have a history of rhetoric and policies that send the troubling message of religious intolerance.

Back to Chicago. These are certainly heady times for Jewish Democratic leaders as they work for the re-election of an administration in which they have great faith and trust.

But times have a strange habit of changing. Jewish Democratic activists must remember their moral and political responsibility to use their influence wisely and to ensure that Jews never be taken for granted. Such is a burden imposed by our painful past and our duty to remember. We are, after all, a people of both memory and history.

As a baby boomer growing up in a middle-class Jewish neighborhood in Queens, I never doubted that Franklin D. Roosevelt deserved sainthood. Our elders spoke of him with reverence. For many legitimate reasons he was a hero of the Jewish people.

But history has cast a dark shadow on FDR. The cold facts are that in the late 1930s and early 1940s — when vast numbers of European Jews could have been saved from the Nazi onslaught — the Roosevelt administration abrogated its moral responsibility. Fully aware of the mass destruction of an entire people, and without paying a political price, Roosevelt did nothing to rescue Jews.

It was not as though Jews had no access to Roosevelt. On the contrary, he had some very close Jewish friends and advisors, virtually all of whom failed to push FDR into timely and effective action (the courageous Henry Morgenthau was a notable exception).

Jews in positions of leadership and responsibility, including key members of Congress such as Emanuel Cellar, Sol Bloom and Sam Dickstein, failed our people miserably and allowed FDR and the Democrats to take Jewish support for granted. That lesson of history should make an indelible impression on anyone who purports to represent our people.

Republican Jewish activists, who are in a position to ensure that we are not ignored by the GOP despite Jewish voting patterns, must use their influence to insist that Dole reject Buchanan's rabid isolationism and xenophobia. It remains to be seen if that happens.

Influential Jewish Democrats must never repeat the tragic mistakes of their predecessors. Our political strength must be neither marginalized nor taken for granted, even if that requires disagreeing with friends. Such is the essence of leadership.

It requires, for example, ensuring that Louis Farrakhan's brand of ugly racism and anti-Semitism have no place within the Democratic Party.

The point is simple: Jewish leaders worthy of that title, regardless of party affiliation, should not forget that their political influence and access flow not from who they are or how bright or wealthy they may be, but rather from whom they represent.