Goodbye, or 'those 24 years sure went by quickly'
06/16/2011 - 07:40
James Besser

Okay, my secret is out: I'm retiring after 24 years on this beat for the Jewish Week (please hold your applause and your decaying vegetables). It seems like the right time to reflect on the changes I've seen in the Jewish world and Jewish politics during that period.

Many of the activists I met way back in the day are still toiling in Washington, and some of the issues that preoccupied them more than two decades ago are still in play, while others are long forgotten. How many remember the Lautenberg Amendment? In 1987, it was on the lips of most Jewish leaders.

Jewish politics has changed, but not necessarily in the ways many commentators think.

President Reagan, who was in office when I started covering Washington, got 39 percent of the Jewish vote in 1980, 31 percent in 1984 -- figures today's Jewish Republicans still dream about with longing in their hearts.  (And Richard Nixon pulled in 35 percent in 1972).

Every four years we hear reports that Jewish voters are on the verge of a volcanic shift away from the Democrats. It may still happen sometime in the indefinite future, but it was actually easier to believe back in the late 1980s, before two Bush presidencies and before the rise of an evangelical Christian political movement and a Tea Party insurgency that scare away many Jewish voters.

There were fewer Jews in Congress back then, but much stronger Republican representation in the Jewish delegation.

Remember Sen. Rudy Boschwitz, Sen. Chic Hecht, Sen. Arlen Specter, Rep Steven Schiff, Rep. John Miller, Rep. Bill Gradison, Rep. Ken Kramer and Rep. Ben Gilman? All were Jewish Republicans in Congress in the late 1980s; for the last few years there's been only one of their GOP successors walking the halls of Congress: Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), although as House Majority Leader, he's the highest ranking Jew in Congress ever.

Are Jews becoming more Republican? I don't see data to support it, although there are election-to-election fluctuations. I do see growing dissatisfaction with the Democrats, but so far that seems offset by the impact on Jewish voters of the demise of the moderate wing of the GOP and the rise of the religious right and social conservatives as pillars of the Republican base.

It's the conventional wisdom these days that our politics – nationally and Jewishly – have become much more polarized and much nastier.

Some of that is based on a romanticized notion of a past erroneously recalled as a time of political amity. You want to see nasty? Take a look at the political campaigns in the last decades of the 19th Century and the first half of the 20th – including the anti-Semitic attacks on Franklin D. Roosevelt.

However, there has been a revolution in how that nastiness is disseminated; it's part of what passes for news on cable TV and the warp and weft of the Internet, with all those listservs, email lists and unfiltered bloggers spewing out “news.”

And that plays into another longstanding national trait, or perhaps simply a human trait: the compulsion to reduce complexity to simplistic formulations. Americans have never been good at nuance; as issues become more complex, we seem even more eager to use the crutch of ideology and identity politics to make sense of a frighteningly complex world. We want our views on issues wrapped up in tidy ideological packages and that's especially true of issues surrounding war and peace in the Middle East.

Israel is either always right or always wrong, the primary cause of continued conflict or a completely innocent victim of those committed to its destruction.

When I started writing for the Jewish Week, there was no J Street and no Israel Policy Forum. Yasser Arafat was then what Hamas is today; talking to the PLO was the line most Jewish groups insisted could never be crossed, no matter what.

Little did they know.

Delegitimization wasn't a term in popular use, but the issue was still there in the form of the United Nations resolution declaring Zionism to be a form of racism, not rescinded until 1991.

There was a ZOA and an Americans for Safe Israel, but in general activism on the right was less visible and much less a part of the overall Jewish discussion; these were fringe groups with almost no influence.

That has changed dramatically, but in ways that defy simplistic analysis.

I see few signs the Jewish community as a whole has moved to the right on Israel-related issues since then, but there's little doubt the Jewish organizational world has, echoing dramatic shifts in the Israeli electorate (who'd have thought the Labor Party would be almost an asterisk in Israeli politics only two decades after Yitzhak Rabin?) and in the wake of two intifadahs, a disastrous pullout from Gaza and failed peace negotiations.

The rightward shift of the pro-Israel leadership has been abetted by the drift away from involvement by centrist American Jews and a ferocious campaign of delegitimization by the pro-Israel right against those that see ending the occupation of the West Bank as an imperative.

I remember the vitriolic and ultimately unsuccessful 1993 campaign to keep Americans for Peace Now out of the Presidents Conference, but the shunning of J Street and the hyperbole about an organization with great promise but – so far - limited accomplishments has been on an entirely different plane.

To me that suggests a much narrower base for pro-Israel activism in the future.

Jewish groups, feeling that Israel is losing support around the world, are increasingly susceptible to those partisan forces that want to use support for Israel as a partisan wedge issue (“We're the only ones who really stand with Israel, the other guys are dangerous.”)

I hear less and less talk about the importance of building and nurturing a broad coalition that includes Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives; I hear more efforts to tar one party as “bad” on Israel.

I also see the dramatic rise of a Christian Zionist movement that may prove a mixed blessing for an embattled Israel.

I get it why Jews welcome the support of groups like John Hagee's Christians United for Israel, but I also see danger in associating the pro-Israel cause with some of the most controversial forces in a polarized American society and with leaders who seem to support only one faction in a diverse Israeli polity. The real test will come if Israel changes direction and elects a strongly left-leaning government. Where will CUFI and the others be then? Will they back policies that conflict with their Biblical perspectives? I don't have the answer, but I have my doubts.

Progressive domestic activism was a huge part of Jewish organizational life in Washington in the 1980s, with the American Jewish Congress – remember them? - a vital hub. So was the Council of Jewish Federations Washington Action Office, with Mark Talisman at the helm.

Immigration and refugee issues were at the top of the agenda because there were still a lot of Jewish immigrants and refugees, with the hope of many more to come; Illegal immigration wasn't a hot issue, keeping the doors open for Soviet Jews and others was. The commitment to civil rights, nurtured by memories of generations of discrimination against Jews, was still at the forefront of Jewish politics.

The first column I wrote started with a report on American Jewish Congress efforts on behalf of District of Columbia statehood.

Domestic activism has diminished and become less uniformly liberal, the result of a number of factors – starting with fact that getting into the pro-Israel game is far and away the best way for Jewish organizations to raise money. Israel advocacy is the glamor game that opens wallets; social justice activism may reflect consensus positions within the Jewish community, but it's increasingly difficult to raise money on issues like civil rights and economic justice.

The progressive focus has also dimmed because of the dependence of so many major organizations on big donors who tend to be more conservative than the broader community. That dependence is understandable, particularly given declining affiliation - someone has to pay those salaries and for those nice Washington offices -  but there's little doubt it has changed the character of activism and blunted the once-dominant progressive focus.

And with Jewish service providers across the country more and more dependent on government funding, domestic activism has become much more dollar focused, leaving fewer resources for broad social justice activism.

Groups like the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the National Council of Jewish Women and many local Jewish community relations councils have remained true to the progressive domestic focus, but elsewhere it has largely faded as a communal priority.

One of the most visible changes of the past 24 years was the rise of a strong Orthodox political presence, with first Agudath Israel and then the Orthodox Union opening offices here in the 1990s and hiring skilled and effective political activists to make their case to Congress and executive agencies.

When I started in Washington, there was no real church-state debate in the Jewish world. Strict separation was an article of faith, but that changed with the arrival of these groups, which effectively pressed for equality in government funding for their schools and other institutions.

Their argument was bolstered by the realities of Jewish day school education which have affected more than just the Orthodox minority.

The Orthodox political ascendance also affected pro-Israel activism as issues like Jerusalem's future came into play.

At my first AIPAC policy conferences, there were few kippot in sight; today Orthodox Jews are much more central in Jewish politics, both on the pro-Israel side and on the domestic front; this year AIPAC served what was billed as the largest kosher dinner ever.

New York remains the epicenter of Jewish life in America, but Washington is now at least its equal in community activism, a change driven by the increasing centrality of the Israel issue and the incessant need to protect government funding for Jewish human service programs and, when possible, to get more.

In 1987 the biggest thing in organized Jewish life was the Soviet Jewry movement. Within weeks of starting on this beat I was covering the daily vigil in front of the Soviet embassy in Washington and talking to leaders who were planning a mass rally on Washington's Mall.

Synagogues almost all displayed big “Free Soviet Jews” banners; at a time when Jews were becoming more divided by the issue of Israel in the wake of the first Lebanon war, fighting for the rights of Refuseniks was a priority that provided a brief moment of unity.

I've talked to Jewish leaders in recent years who seem a little wistful about the lack of any issue today that can bring together a fragmented Jewish community the way the Soviet Jewry movement did.

Religious intolerance in the Jewish community has always been part of our communal existence beneath thin veneers of unity, but it's more out front now, and it seems to me it's more part of the political debate.

Increasingly, the fight over the best route to peace in the Middle East has an overtly religious dimension, and is intimately bound up in the endless “who is a Jew” fight – our version of the Hundred Years Wars, although the time frame of that label is undoubtedly an understatement.

Overall, the Jewish community is more powerful than ever, but I see that power in jeopardy as it becomes harder to work in coalition with other groups because of disagreements over Israel and because of the narrowing of the official Jewish agenda to include just Israel.

The pro-Israel cause in Washington benefited hugely from the myriad connections created through coalition efforts on a wide range of domestic issues: civil rights, immigration, health care, education...the list is pretty much endless.

That coalition focus is diminishing even as Jews shrink a proportion of the U.S. population. That bodes ill for Jewish political power in the future.

The good news is that new generations of Jewish activists are taking a fresh look at what it means to be Jewishly involved and what it means to support Israel – in many cases aided by the same amazing technologies that have polluted our politics and made urban legends truly global.

The bad news is a Jewish grassroots drifting away from affiliation and involvement, a communal leadership that is less and less in touch with the community as a whole and a growing inward, defensive posture that may undermine the coalition-building focus that was a major pillar in the great infrastructure of Jewish and pro-Israel clout.

I would be remiss if I omitted a personal note about the Jewish Week's top staff.

I've worked with editor and publisher Gary Rosenblatt for all of those 24 years; he was the one who suggested I start a Washington column when he was at the Baltimore Jewish Times, a column that was quickly picked up by this newspaper.

Gary is the consummate professional: a thoughtful Jewish leader and a journalist of rock-solid integrity and fairness.

Rob Goldblum is a demanding managing editor who often galled me by being right. One job of a ME is to develop stories and shape them, and Rob does that with amazing skill.

And Rich Waloff, the Jewish Week's co-publisher, was a pleasure to work with as we developed and improved the current Jewish Week Web site. I have no doubt that Rich will help guide the Jewish Week to the next step in this brave new world of Web journalism.

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I appreciated your sober and empathetic coverage of both the Jewish issues and the Jewish activism on universal concerns which inspired my passions over the years. Your reactions to my releases and tips helped me refine many stories when I worked in D.C. Jewish journalism and the Washington Jewish world will be poorer for your absence.

Warm best wishes,
Gene Burger

Too bad you had to wait 24 years for people to say all those nice things about you in print, Jim.
As one of those people Neil Rubin mentioned who always took your call, I never once had reason to call you back and say, "I didn't say that" or even "I didn't mean that." After a while, I read your columns to find out what I meant.
We didn't start out in the same place politically - although I suspect neither of us was as far to the relative ends of the spectrum as we thought we were supposed to be - but I never found a better journalist with whom to discuss issues. You asked the best questions and always dug deeper - not the norm in Washington where everyone thinks they know everything.
I'll miss talking to you and the Jewish communal world will miss a journalist of broad knowledge and great integrity.
Enjoy retirement.

What a run you've had, Jim Bessor. You could always be counted on getting the real story right at times when accuracy was vital. No fast and loose shoot from the hip journalism for Bessor.
You and your old fashioned crafted stories made a difference when it really counted in the days when words mattered on the Hill and around the country.
To say you came at the right time to begin to make a difference in a new time for the Jewish Community and became the go-to scribe to inform, to check and double check, attributes which are too often rare commodities of the trade now.
Yet its hard to grip you would pack it in now except to know how hard you worked to get it right making it logical this time surely would come.
It can only be hoped that in the pantheon of Jewish journalism, and a devotion to truth, not to be twisted or turned for other reasons, Bessor coverage could remain the goal for many young ones who still aspire to make a difference in the midst of the storms which still arise suddenly and words and truth telling can still make a difference in outcomes.
Hope you will be importuned to teach your craft to those who aspire to guide those who still want to make a Bessor difference.
Yet I have a feeling your passion for wine tasting and exploring that side of life will be high on your agenda, weighing in often will still be on your agenda in a Bessor retirement. We all need to continue to hear your unobstructed voice, Jim.
Mark Talisman

Jim: Way back in the early 1990s I was one of your editors from the Atlanta Jewish Times and then your principal editor in Baltimore by the late 1990s. I was in awe that I had to edit your work as you were and remain for me the epitome of accuracy and integrity. Besides that, you are an amazingly enjoyable person.

I have told people for the past 20 years that "Jim Besser is the type of guy whose call everyone takes because they know he's not out to burn them, that he has his own opinions for sure (oh yes,) but that he gives you a chance to say what you want and accurately conveys that."

Not having Jim Besser on the beat means that I will have to work that much harder to know what's really going on. Not having a friend to call and catch up on the latest and share ideas makes me sad -- but I'm overjoyed that you and your wife will have more time together.

Besides, I know that you can know pick the projects that speak to you. Stay in good health, enjoy and catch up on those books and dances that you love.

Thank you my friend.

Best of luck in your retirement. I've enjoyed reading your columns for many years, and enjoyed working with you at the BJT.

A recent Jewish Republican senator, left out of the list of Jews in Congress, is Norm Coleman of Minnesota.

A classy end to a really classy career. Enjoy your retirement.

Jim-you will be missed by not just your readers, our board of directors, but by those staff members you mention, along with others from The Jewish Week. Your professionalism was unparalleled and the hours you worked doing the job you loved and the ease at which you described complex world issues is your special set of skills. Be well in your post JW life. We will all miss you and your words.

Double that "amen," from one who has both read you and worked with you. These days it takes quite a bit of courage to have just a little integrity. With all the confusion out there, especially recently with the vitriol we've all witnessed on the Israel Advocacy beat, you have never failed to clear away the smoke. Best of luck in all your pursuits, Jim!

I would try to say something else from the heart, but I really cannot improve on Rabbi Moline's eloquent words. Jim, seriously, the entire realm of Jewish journalism is diminished -- even as the music world is rejoicing at your retirement from journalism! Enjoy your time doing the other things you love. After decades of tireless, careful work, you've really, really earned it.