Friday, June 20, 2008

The Meaning of Obama

This column is about race, not about politics. The impending nomination of Barack Obama is a seminal moment in U.S. history and its significance will not be much affected by the outcome of November’s election. That a Black candidate has progressed so far is a measure of how far this country has progressed in race relations, how far we have moved away from the sins of racism and slavery, its more ignoble antecedent.

There is more progress to be made, but we are surely past the halfway point in achieving the promise of equality which is one of the blessings of liberty. Social pathologies are tenacious. They have roots and even reason and their total eradication is a utopian fantasy. Discrimination persists in all pluralistic societies – and nowadays all societies are pluralistic – because ethnic diversity ensures that it persists. Where ethnic diversity is manifested through physical features such as race, there is a heightened prospect that pockets of bigotry will endure. They are shrinking and this is an indication of how much has been achieved.

It is necessary, I think, to distinguish between what may be termed positive and negative discrimination. The former arises out of the understandable desire of group members to favor their own, whether in employment or housing or some other key social indicator. The negative variety is manifested in hate language and actions aimed at hurting others. Admittedly, the two are often linked but they operate on a different moral, if not also legal, level.

It is deeply painful to write that one of the pockets of enduring racism is the community that I am part of, a community that contributes inordinately to what is good and noble in Jewish life and yet has lost its way on an issue that should be fundamental to religious Jews. I imagine that I will be pilloried for writing about this, the least of the charges being that I have aired dirty linen in public. Unfortunately, Barack Obama’s emergence has, it seems, been a catalyst for additional racism and that is why I write now. Emphatically, what is not at issue is criticism of his views on the Middle East or any other policy matter.

Over the years, I have taken certain Orthodox Jews to task for their negative attitudes toward all non-Jews, emphasizing that when we denigrate others we denigrate rather than elevate ourselves. Racism partakes of the same characteristic and it too needs to be condemned. It should not be necessary to point out that the language used at times about Gentiles and Blacks is a desecration of G-D’s name and a defense of such language expands the desecration.

My co-religionists who seem unperturbed by this religious consideration should ponder how we can condemn language that is hostile toward Jews when some of us use hostile language when speaking about race. They ought to reflect on our thriving in this land of freedom and opportunity. Do we believe that this blessing, bestowed to hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors, is reserved to Jews alone?

On the larger canvas of American life, overwhelmingly what remains to be done on the racial front is less of a challenge to whites than it is to Blacks. I do not refer to anti-white sentiments among Blacks, although there is an excess of that, but rather to the internal racism of Blacks toward Blacks that is on display without end in the cesspool that is popular entertainment. The fetid message emitted is that Blacks are an inferior people.

In the aggregate, the primary thrust of music, television and movies marketed to Blacks is that they are a people who are engulfed by promiscuity, obscenity and various forms of animalistic behavior. To ensure that this base profile is maintained, Black youth in particular are bombarded with admittedly seductive messages that extol what most of us would find disgusting. The point was made last week in a New York Sun column by John McWhorter, a Black writer whose book, “All About the Beat: Why Hiphop Can’t Save Black America” has just been published. McWhorter quotes a popular Black rapper whose lyrics include the gem that high school is a “four-year sentence” with teachers “tellin’ white man lies.”

Unless the trash of internal Black racism is challenged – and the challenge must come primarily from Blacks – there is, in McWhorter’s words, “little hope for our future.” Whites, and I specifically include Jews because of the role that some play in the entertainment industry, have the additional responsibility of challenging the white dominated exploitation of Blacks that is one of the major stories of contemporary entertainment. It is not sufficient to preach about tolerance and equality and to contribute to liberal and noble causes. It is no defense of the Ku Klux Klan and its despicable ilk to note that these days popular culture degrades and harms Black Americans far more than the white-sheeters.

There is also the vexing question of Black leadership. Any people led by Al Sharpton, the greatly talented and equally cynical civil wrongs leader, are in deep trouble. Can we ever count the ways that this charlatan has sinned? He has trafficked throughout his career in bigotry and hypocrisy and he is a stain on the political leaders and media types who enthusiastically embrace him. Blacks are the primary victims of his phoniness.

It may be too much to expect that Barack Obama’s startling success will cut Sharpton down to size, although I sense that the Illinois Senator has not given him a role, nor has he paid much attention to Jesse Jackson who by now is a caricature of a caricature of Jesse Jackson. However he fares in November, it is to be hoped that Obama’s extraordinary story will mark a salutary turning point in the saga of Black America.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Looking Back

I went the other day to a memorial service for Barry Gottehrer, a name not known to many. As a young man and after a spectacular start as a journalist at the old Herald Tribune, still admired as perhaps the greatest newspaper New York has seen, Barry joined the Lindsay administration in the mid-1960s and was a key staffer for five or six years, giving of his heart and soul and abundant skills as he reached out to young Blacks and others headed toward a life of social decay and crime. I served at City Hall during Mayor Lindsay’s second term and that is why I was at the memorial, along with an impressive group of now mostly near-elderly people who were in city government during that period.

I do not recall Barry and I speaking or communicating in the more than thirty-five years since our paths last crossed. Nor have I had more than flimsy contact with ex-Lindsayites, partly because their reunions invariably took place on Friday evenings when I couldn’t come. In any case, my life and work went in a different direction.

About two months before Barry died of pancreatic cancer, Jay Kriegel and Sid Davidoff – the Lindsay people I was closest to – told me of his illness and suggested a visit, a request that struck me as odd in view of the lack of contact for a third of a century. I soon learned that Barry had written a book a long time ago about his City Hall experience (“The Mayor’s Man,” 1975) and that near its conclusion he included two letters that had more meaning for him than the farewell dinner in his honor attended by 1,000. One was from a police officer, the other from me.

The letter foretold the expectation that the relationship with colleagues would end when Lindsay’s term ended. “Friendship at City Hall is an illusive matter,” I wrote, and “people can work closely for years and laugh and drink together and somehow – even if they do not know it – they are not friends. After the experience is over, they will not see each other too often. This is true even when colleagues have a strong liking for one another.”

Rereading the letter now and going to the memorial service have opened a window in my mind for memory and reflection.

History hasn’t treated John V. Lindsay kindly and that’s to be regretted. Hopefully, there will be a reassessment. He was honest and honorable, a good and decent man. The people I worked with were dedicated and talented and not tainted by the sleaze that collects around political power. In the years since their governmental service they have in the aggregate made notable contributions to American life. However, the whole was less than the parts and their reach was far short of the ambition. There were failures, some glaring, and they have induced neglect of the achievements.

Why do some administrations fail and others succeed? The ready and easy answer is the choices that are made and skill in governing. That’s part of the story, but there is more, such things as timing and fate, as when an administration enters when the economy is healthy or in a downturn or whether in a period of civil calm or unrest. Lindsay took office when the Black Revolution was in full force and other ethnics, specifically including Jews, were moving beyond the melting pot and becoming far more assertive. It is to Lindsay’s credit that for all of the tension and thanks to staffers like Barry Gottehrer, New York was spared the calamitous rioting that afflicted much of urban America.

The failures arose from the inability to understand the white side of the ethnic coin, to appreciate that ethnic consciousness and demands would attach to groups that weren’t labeled as minority. Even as the process of Jewish assimilation accelerated, there was the perhaps paradoxical expansion of Jewish emotionalism and militancy, impelled by a confluence of factors including a new awakening to the horrors of the Holocaust, the struggle for Soviet Jewry, enhanced pride in Israel, the legitimating of ethnicity resulting from the Great Society and the Black Revolution and the feeling among inner city Jews that they were being forced out by policies that favored Blacks.

There were serious skirmishes before I joined Lindsay’s staff in 1970 and they left scars. I touched on these issues in the weekly “In the City” column that I wrote for the Jewish Press while at City Hall, a rather unique arrangement that was occasionally challenged by colleagues who felt that such writing was inappropriate. Lindsay sided with me, but although I had other responsibilities, in a dialectical fashion this writing fortified the perception both in and out of government that I was the house Jew, a term not meant as a compliment.

For all of the ethnic and other stress, there were singular achievements, the funding of projects and initiatives that to this day have made an important difference for New York Jewry. Working with my extraordinary friend Jack D. Weiler, a great Jewish leader now mostly forgotten, the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty was established, as were the Jewish Community Relations Council and neighborhood Jewish organizations. There was much more. Yet, the watershed event was the Forest Hills housing controversy. I clashed with the Mayor and colleagues, first to no avail and then the project was halved in scope, something that Mario Cuomo has wrongly taken credit for.

The people I worked with were mainly Jews from a different background and perspective. They were good people who did much good. As for Mayor Lindsay, he suffered terribly in his last years from serious illness and pain and there was also financial hardship. Perhaps others in his administration will write about their experiences, so that the record will be more complete.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Say It Ain’t So Michael

A wonderful friend who was close to Sir Isaiah Berlin is fond of quoting this principle about philanthropy that was formulated by the great British-Jewish philosopher: In the effort to do good through philanthropy, it is necessary to avoid doing bad.

As American Jewry continues to hemorrhage in commitment and numbers, we have become adept in stratagems claiming that the statistics are actually rosy and we are in good communal health and in developing projects that although far removed from – and even alien to – our heritage will allegedly draw alienated Jews closer. We are awash in Judaism lite, as well as in numbers games showing that intermarriage adds and does not subtract. We flit from one desperate and overly hyped initiative to another, hoping and claiming that American Jews will pay attention and grow in commitment.

Charter schools are one of our current flavors. In fact, we always have at least several because we are a diverse people blessed with a heightened philanthropic instinct and saddled with tons of organizations and projects seeking support. “Jewish” charter schools are being promoted, not because there is an iota of evidence that they can make a meaningful difference, but because public funds are available and this is an easier route to take than promoting and strengthening day schools.

There are significant and well-meaning philanthropists who look at the fifteen years of incontrovertible research showing that day schools are more effective than any other approach to Jewish continuity and then embrace approaches that are far less effective and perhaps totally ineffective. Many of our key philanthropic players in private foundations or federations put their money and bets on what is destined to fail and though they continually lose, as gamblers are wont to, they indulge in self-deception and once more choose the wrong path.

A weak case can be made for Hebrew language charter schools in locations where day school opportunities are limited. Suffolk County, where the Solomon Schechter School is about to close, is one such place. The county has not been hospitable to day schools and this isn’t going to change, so why not try a charter school? In Sheepshead Bay, however, smack in Brooklyn with an abundance of day schools, a charter school is Jewishly irresponsible.

According to the lead article last week in this newspaper, that’s what Michael Steinhardt and his family, along with his Foundation for Jewish Life, are planning. They want to open a charter that is “not for Jews only” which will be entirely bereft of Jewish identity. How this will contribute to Jewish life is not an open question. It is a mirage. Worse yet, if opened, the school will detract from Jewish life because it will attract parents who otherwise would enroll their children in a day school. For some marginally Jewish families, the choice between a tuition-charging school and a free charter is a no-brainer.

Michael Steinhardt is a gambler who knows that the odds are long against this initiative succeeding Jewishly. He is also resourceful and resilient, willing to support far out ideas that have small chance of success. He happily acknowledges this proclivity, arguing regarding day schools that they are mainly for the Orthodox and since only a very small percentage of non-Orthodox children are enrolled in them, alternate Jewish educational means must be utilized to reach out to these families. This argument isn’t watertight, but it has validity. But why charters when the Florida experience and the Arabic school in Brooklyn demonstrate how difficult it is to achieve even modest goals? The evidence from Florida shows conclusively that charters can hurt day schools.

There is a large school in Brooklyn located not far from where the Sheepshead Bay charter may open that is identified by New York educational officials as Jewish. It is called the Big Apple School or Bambi and enrolls about 1,500 students, nearly all of them Russian and I have been told, all of them Jewish. When I visited several years ago along with Jason Cury and Joel Beritz, the outstanding officials of the Gruss Foundation who have done so much for day schools, there was no more than a tiny indication that this is a Jewish institution, although its roots were clearly Jewish, as it was established by an Orthodox rabbi who understood that to attract Russians it was necessary to have a strong academic curriculum together with an effective Jewish component.

Unfortunately, he died soon thereafter and control of the school passed to a Russian educator with no commitment to a Judaic curriculum. When Jason Cury and Joel Beritz offered to provide significant funding for a Judaic component, they were rebuffed. Bambi students graduate after the 8th grade, very few continue in a Jewish school and overwhelmingly they are lost.

The record is apt to be worse for Mr. Steinhardt’s charter, what with its anticipated large non-Jewish enrollment and the planned curriculum. At most, the contribution to Jewish life will be negligible. If he wants to direct some of his giving to a secular cause, as he does in his important involvement in New York University and critical cultural projects, it’s his money that is being spent and what he does is his business. But when a product is marketed as Jewish, somewhat akin to the “Jewish style” cuisine once served by some non-kosher establishments, that’s our business, especially since the non-kosher charter will result in Jewish harm. Mr. Steinhardt and his family have every right to be charter school advocates. They do not have the right to open a school that has a strong prospect of drawing children and their families away from Judaism.

Say it ain’t so, Michael.