Friday, October 30, 2009

The Panderers Breakfast

Back in the 1980s, there was Michael Milken’s Predators Ball, an event that came to symbolize junk bond excess. Mr. Milken was then and later a man of significant charitable deeds who stepped over boundaries and was treated harshly as a consequence.

The sights are lower in Borough Park where I live and yet, here too, there is excess, including the pandering to public officials who, in fact, do little that is good for the neighborhood and, at least occasionally, cause some harm. It is now election time and that means having the Panderers Breakfast sponsored by the local Jewish Community Council.

There are good people involved in the council’s work and I am certain that many who were at the breakfast deserve praise. The list of notables was headed by Mayor Bloomberg and Rudy Giuliani, both shown in newspaper photos wearing full-size yarmulkes, with the current incumbent at City Hall looking more uncomfortable than his predecessor. I am not sure whether it was the skull cap or the man sitting next to him.

There was ample reason for the Mayor to be ill at ease. He has an admirable record in dealing with racial and ethnic relations, something that certainly cannot be said about Mr. Giuliani. A person who played a key role at the event told me the next day that in his speech, the man who is expected to run for governor next year came close to entering what for him is the familiar territory of racism. Is it too much to ask or hope that Mr. Giuliani take his trash talk elsewhere? By using an Orthodox Jewish forum to deliver his toxic message, he is associating the Orthodox with racism and once more befouling racial and ethnic relations.

Congressman Jerrold Nadler was at the breakfast because astounding as it may seem, Manhattan’s ultra-liberal West Side is linked in one congressional district with Borough Park. This is another Albany map-making atrocity. I would protest more strongly were it not for a New York Times editorial the other day that pointed to even more grotesque districts.

Mr. Nadler’s election is assured and he wasn’t there as a candidate. He was one of the honorees, for distinguished public service or some other clichĂ©-ridden pseudo-tribute. The services he has provided to Borough Park are, at most, trivial and a mystery. He certainly was not recognized for his position on gay marriage or social issues generally. I fault not Mr. Nadler for taking positions he sincerely believes in. The hypocrisy is in the council honoring a man whose views on important public issues are entirely antithetical to what the council espouses. What was on display was extreme sycophancy.

Although there is little evidence to support the notion, it could be that the congressman was being honored for his assistance in securing federal grants. If that is the case, it is he who was pandering and, to boot, being two-faced.

I recently discussed the debate regarding faith-based initiatives, the question being whether religious groups can seek only their own when filling top positions at programs that receive governmental support. As a practical matter, it is not possible to deny funding to such groups without causing severe harm to programs and activities that are crucial to many millions of needy Americans. As an example, should Catholic social service agencies be barred from selecting only Catholics to run their programs, the harm to society would be enormous. Unfortunately, many in the Jewish community see it otherwise, another illustration of hypocrisy as Federations are selective and yet exempt from the scrutiny of our purists.

In this debate, Jerrold Nadler is an extremist. Earlier this month he was one of only five congressmen who sent a tough letter to Attorney General Eric Holder asking “that positive steps be taken to ensure that all programs receiving federal dollars are barred from discriminating with these funds,” with discrimination meaning that they cannot prefer their own in hiring. Otherwise, they asserted, religious liberty and civil rights will be endangered.

The folks at the Borough Park Council are certainly unaware of this letter, not that it would make a difference because there is a tendency among the Orthodox to pander to public officials. Smart as he is, Mr. Nadler understands that the letter he signed and other positions he takes are meant for one crowd and not for his putative constituents in Borough Park. In short, there is a nifty pas de deux of pandering and hypocrisy.

What is most at work on the Orthodox side goes beyond the ordinary pandering that is a familiar aspect of political life. The Orthodox who gravitate toward political involvement relish in being in what they regard as exalted company, meaning office holders and seekers, irrespective of the views of those whose company they seek. There is in this a groupie mentality, a form of behavior that is below conventional pandering. The reward is emotional, which helps to explain why it scarcely matters what the politicians stand for.

This would not matter much if what government does did not matter. Governmental actions are important. Over the extended period since the Holocaust, politicians have known how to play the Orthodox, at least those who are identified as fervent. All that is needed are visits to their Rebbis and Rabbis, the yarmulke on the head, meaningless talk and then it isn’t relevant whether those who are paying tribute are being harmed by the positions being taken by the venerated public officials.