Israeli Consul General Yaacov Sella (left) and Mayor Dianne Feinstein hang an Israeli flag from City Hall in 1986 to mark 38 years of Israeli independence. (Photo/Tom Wachs)
Israeli Consul General Yaacov Sella (left) and Mayor Dianne Feinstein hang an Israeli flag from City Hall in 1986 to mark 38 years of Israeli independence. (Photo/Tom Wachs)

Dianne Feinstein was tenacious and contradictory — just like American Jews

This story was originally published in the Forward. Click here to get the Forward’s free email newsletters delivered to your inbox.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who died yesterday at age 90, will be remembered for many things: Her rise to power following the assassinations of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, the gay rights pioneer; her 30 years of service in the Senate, where she was the architect of the 1994 federal assault weapons ban and the 2014 report on torture in the Bush administration; and her shattering of numerous glass ceilings on what women, and Jews, could achieve in our country.

Feinstein had lately been in the news for choosing to remain in the Senate despite significant health challenges and long absences. Now, however, this unfortunate coda to her career can be set aside, and we can appreciate instead her remarkable half-century of public service.

Throughout those decades, Feinstein embodied many contradictions — or, we might say, defied expectations.

Having previously lost two elections for San Francisco mayor, she rose to prominence in 1978 after the assassinations of Moscone and Milk, announcing the deaths at a historic short press conference and embodying her city’s shock, grief and resolve. 

She went on to serve as mayor for over a decade, but always acknowledged that that tragic night in 1978 was the real birth of her political career. Her indelible association with Milk also helped her lead the city through the worst of the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, at a time when many politicians (closeted gay Democrats and homophobic Republicans alike) refused to even talk about it.

Feinstein’s Judaism also defined easy categorization. She was born to two ethnically Jewish parents, but her mother was raised Russian Orthodox, and Feinstein attended Catholic school as a child. She ultimately chose Jewish affiliation at age 20, formally converting at a Reform Temple. Throughout her public life, she was a proud supporter of Israel, and faced antisemitism as well as sexism from her political opponents.

She became a kind of Jewish feminist icon: DiFi. “Toughness doesn’t have to come in a pinstripe suit,” she once remarked.

Yet Feinstein was a centrist, not a left-winger. She unsuccessfully ran for governor on a law-and-order platform (including support for the death penalty), and in later years, enraged progressives by soft-pedaling the Donald Trump presidency and the absurdly illegitimate appointment of Justice Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, which would eventually lead to the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

Ironically, Feinstein’s gentle treatment of Barrett in 2020 came in partial response to an unfortunately worded remark she had made to her in 2017, when Barrett was up for (and appointed to) an appellate judgeship. 

“The dogma lives loudly within you,” said Feinstein, who was subsequently pilloried for what was, in fact, a completely appropriate question about how Barrett’s faith might impact her judicial decision making — something which Barrett herself had written and spoken about.

To some, Feinstein’s remark marked a low point in her career. But in retrospect, it was a prophetic utterance that has been borne out by history.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein walks to the Senate Chambers at the U.S. Capitol Building, Feb. 13, 2023. (Photo/JTA-Anna Moneymaker-Getty Images)
Sen. Dianne Feinstein walks to the Senate Chambers at the U.S. Capitol Building, Feb. 13, 2023. (Photo/JTA-Anna Moneymaker-Getty Images)

Most of the time, however, Feinstein was noted not for confrontation, but for working across the aisle. She was a pioneer on gun control, but was “tough on crime” and voted in favor of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. She worked to expand access to health care, but opposed the ‘single payer’ option that progressives favored. She co-authored the Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA torture, but was generally sympathetic to the American intelligence community.

Some of this was a matter of temperament, some perhaps a response to the far-left violence San Francisco experienced in the 1970s, from the Patty Hearst kidnapping to the Jim Jones cult’s mass suicide (and murder of California Rep. Leo Ryan, who had flown down to Guyana to investigate allegations against them). Feinstein’s own house was once targeted by a far-left terrorist organization, but their bomb did not go off.

For her part, Feinstein described herself as a pragmatist.

One wonders, now, if Feinstein was among the last of her kind. When Feinstein was at the apex of her power in the Senate, most American Jews were pro-Israel, pro-choice and pro-Democrat. They were socially liberal but often more conservative on criminal justice issues; they were Democrats and patriotic. In many ways, Feinstein’s combination of views reflected the general center of the American Jewish community.

Now, we seem more fragmented. What was once the consensus position of liberal Zionism has been out of power in Israel and Washington for most of the last two decades. Younger, progressive Jews have no interest in a centrist like Feinstein, or in the staunch support of Israel she showed throughout her career. Meanwhile, politically conservative Jews have no interest in Feinstein’s liberalism, whether they are the neo-conservative remnants of the old guard or the MAGA populists who now rule the Republican party.

There are, to be sure, still many American Jewish leaders in the Feinstein mold — Sen. Richard Blumenthal comes to mind. But Feinstein’s particular mode of pragmatism, however infuriating it was for progressives, also seems like a throwback to a less polarized era.

Of course, let’s not get nostalgic. Feinstein faced down outrageous sexism in that bygone era that, fortunately, is entirely unacceptable today; in 1978, she posed in a bathing suit after losing a bet to a San Francisco developer. She fought AIDS while President Reagan’s administration joked about it. Say what you will about Feinstein’s pragmatism — she stared down the bigotries of her age, and won.

That, more than anything else, is what I choose to remember about her.

This article was originally published on the Forward.

Rabbi Jay Michaelson
Rabbi Jay Michaelson

Rabbi Jay Michaelson is a contributing columnist for the Forward and for Rolling Stone. He is the author of 10 books, and won the 2023 New York Society for Professional Journalists award for opinion writing.