Monday, May 06, 2002

Chassidim and Politics

As I detrained at Washington’s Union Station to walk to the rally for Israel, I met George Klein and Representative Jerry Nadler. I asked George to introduce me to “my Congressman,” a request that evoked surprise. I live in Borough Park and Mr. Nadler’s base is the Upper West Side. How could two such disparate areas be carved into a single district?

They have been linked for a decade, as the Congressman immediately told George or ever since the last redistricting a decade ago. Shortly, it will be decided to what and to whom Borough Park will be attached for the next ten years. Those who make the decision will calculate where the neighborhood’s body count of about 100,000 – most of them religious Jews – can best serve political expediency. If history is a guide, it’s a good bet that the place where I live will not be linked to a nearby area, such as Flatbush, with which it has affinity. The Chassidim and other Borough Parkers are there to be exploited.

I do not intend any criticism of Mr. Nadler who is widely regarded as hardworking and honorable when I say that my neighborhood is without congressional representation, not because his views or votes are out of sync but because we are not part of his mindset. He spends no time to speak of here, nor is he intellectually or emotionally involved in this part of his district. He could as well represent Beverly-Fairfax in Los Angeles.

While we do not know as yet what shenanigans will attend this year’s redistricting – New York is to lose another two seats – the lines for the State Senate have been drawn. Borough Park is being split into two districts, the apparent aim being to ensure that it does not elect one of its own. The original plan was to divide the neighborhood into five. Governor Pataki’s intervention changed that and we must be grateful that only a bi-section will be our fate.

Wherever Chassidim live in significant numbers, the pattern has been similar. Nearly fifty years ago, Williamsburg was literally cut in half to make way for the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, a project that could easily been diverted to avoid such an outcome. As the Chassidic population has grown, they are increasingly removed from the elected officials who presumably represent them.

What is striking about this is that from appearances alone, Chassidim are politically active and get attention. Candidates for office make ritualistic photo-op visits to Grand Rabbis where they are invariably greeted by squealing Chassidim who act as if Franz Josef himself has arrived. At political fundraisers and at headquarters on election night, Chassidim are always visible, as they comfortably mix with people of a radically different outlook, including with women who are, let us say, not dressed according to Orthodox Jewish tradition. How can people who seem to be intensely involved in the political process get the short end of the stick?

The answer is that Chassidim do not look at elections in terms of party affiliation or even ideology. They trust candidates equally, which is to say that they distrust them equally. What they most want out of political activity are benefits that can be translated into grants to their institutions, housing for their poor and like matters. If this means support for a super-liberal candidate with a feminist, pro-gay rights and permissive agenda, so be it. It follows that a candidate’s ethnicity isn’t of much consequence.

This approach is an extreme articulation of interest group politics. To the extent that the aim is to secure benefits, even advantage, for the group, this is a legitimate form of political participation. While we may wish that it were otherwise, interest groups are not obligated to consider what is best for all of society. They are obligated to look out for themselves and so long as their political transactions are kosher, they can be faulted for the choices they make but not for their right to choose as they see fit.

The problem is that, as with other ethnic groups that focus on grantsmanship, this approach is vulnerable to exploitation by povertycrats and others who are interested in self-promotion and enrichment and who shrewdly leverage campaign contributions that are made at once in their own name and on behalf of the group to gain access, including at the top. What usually emerges are relationships that cannot pass the smell test of people whose olfactory capacity is totally impaired.

Why politicians flock like lemmings to low-lives who offer contributions, not infrequently in cash, is a question that cannot be answered by simply saying that they are fools. While many are, there are those who are quite bright and they are among the worst offenders in their servility to donors who may have larceny in mind. Likely, politicians are caught in a process that they do not know how to escape. Their predicament is made worse by their reliance on enforcers who usually are close buddies and whose job it is to put the squeeze on potential contributors.

As Chassidim have pressed candidates and officeholders for grants and benefits, they have been confronted by counter-pressures for contributions. This is an open invitation to gain entry and influence, ostensibly in the name of the group but really for personal aggrandizement. This has happened with sordid results in the Koch and Guiliani administrations as these Mayors warmly embraced sleazes and signaled to their staffs and commissioners that they should be given preferential treatment. Much the same has happened during Governor Pataki’s tenure.

The Chassidim are still in a relatively early state of communal development. They have legitimate needs that merit attention from the political world. What they must learn, else there will be grief, is that as in all else they must act with restraint.