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The Tenacity of Jewish Liberalism

The Editorial Board
January 1, 2009

An Editorial
More than three quarters of Jewish voters chose Barack Obama on Election Day. That is one of many achievements wrought by our Community Organizer-in-Chief even before his inauguration. 

No other minority group but African-Americans heeded Obama’s call for change in such resounding numbers. The tenacity of American Jewish liberalism was once again affirmed, and our neoconservative courtiers — who mounted what Jeremy Ben-Ami, executive director of the progressive peace lobby J Street, has called a “two-year, multi-million dollar campaign of baseless smears and fear” — were once again rejected.
For our magazine and its parent organization, The Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring, this display of Jewish liberalism is tremendously heartening. Throughout the conservative onslaught of the past three decades, we have argued repeatedly that Jewish identification with the have-nots is more consistent with our people’s history, tradition, self-interest, and prospects for continuity, than the currying of favor with the powers-that-be — especially when those powers resemble nothing more than Pharaoh, the imperial oppressor of Biblical Egypt.
Apparently, a large majority of our people agree with us.
But now the population of have-nots is increasing — and, as happens in many serious economic crises, the voices of anti-Semitism and racial and ethnic prejudice may soon be getting louder. All the ingredients for backlash politics are on the table: the anti-immigration passions that have been cultivated by Republican politicians and conservative media over the past three years; the spread of unemployment, foreclosures and economic suffering (Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity have already been shouting on radio and television that the financial crisis should be laid at the feet of the subprime mortgagees — code language for “Black homeowners” — and the Community Reinvestment Act — code for “liberal urban policies”); the perception of the unpopular war in Iraq as being fought on Israel’s behalf; the progress of gay and lesbian Americans towards gaining their civil rights, despite Election Day setbacks in California, Florida, and Arizona; the increase in the numbers and influence of the Latino community in America — and, of course, the presence of a Black family in the White House. (Obama received only 43 percent of the white vote, after all, despite the very obvious failure of conservative Republican policies and his own careful campaign as a “post-racial” and moderate candidate.)
It is also possible, however, for the liberalism of the Jewish community to become normative for the American majority over the next four years. The key is for the new president to remain our Community Organizer-in-Chief and help mobilize working America (the so-called “middle class”) to demand that the current crisis of American capitalism become an opportunity for social democratic reforms. If we pressure Obama make sure that it is Main Street as well as Wall Street that gets its potholes fixed, that it is the union hall as well as the board room that gets refurbished, that it is the working majority rather than the elite minority that gets some government support, we may be able to save our country from the intensive-care unit in which the Bush-Cheney administration has landed us, set ourselves on the road to recovery, and create a revolution in expectations of the kind evoked by the New Deal in the 1930s.
Many on the left have been complaining about Obama’s cabinet and other appointments as being too centrist and “old school.” For now, we prefer to reserve judgment, and to allow ourselves to take bask awhile in his ground-breaking victory, his obvious intelligence and decency, and our sheer relief at seeing the end of the Bush-Cheney years of political horror. We fundamentally agree with the assessment of Mark Schmitt, executive editor of the American Prospect, that while some actions need to be immediate — “such as economic stimulus, closing Guantanamo, and a plan to get out of Iraq” — the building of a “new political era” requires “the long view, gambling on patience, and carefully putting into place the pieces that win lasting majorities for progressive policies, just as [Obama] won a majority of delegates and a majority of votes in the election. . . . No president has ever spoken as clearly and openly about coalition-building as Obama” — so let us take him at his word, even as we stand prepared to mobilize to keep him oriented towards the “change” that was his campaign promise.