Jewish Democrats are celebrating this week and with good reason. Their party is about to take back power in Washington and end the presidency of the man they all love to hate: President Donald Trump. But adding a certain frisson of pride to their touchdown dances is the number of Cabinet members, and other officials and personalities, within the new First and Second families who are Jewish.
It’s an impressive tally. Social media is awash with posts with lists of the Jewish cabinet secretaries and undersecretaries, as well as the Jewish connections of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. When placed in the broad sweep of the nation’s history, it’s an important statement about the acceptance and the accomplishments of American Jewry. A century ago or even for several decades afterward, such a number would have been inconceivable.
But it’s 2021, not 1921. Having Jews in positions of great influence is no longer such a big deal; in fact, it’s quite commonplace.
Nine Jews are in the new Senate (including the new Majority Leader) and 25 in the House of Representatives, making up more than 6 percent of the total Congress. That’s more than triple the percentage of Jews in the general population. There are also two Jews out of the nine justices on the U.S. Supreme Court. Seen in that light, a Jewish secretary of state, treasury secretary, homeland security secretary, attorney general and director of national intelligence—to name a few high-level positions—are merely a reflection of the preponderance of Jews who have risen to the top of just about every sector of American society.
Nor is it a great break from the previous administration, though that is something that many of those sharing those posts on Facebook about the Jews and Biden don’t like to talk about. The list of Jews in important positions in Trump’s administration was also impressive. But since the overwhelming majority of Jews despised Trump, there was a great deal more demonizing than kvelling going on about them on Jewish social media the last four years.
In a country that is not only living through one of the most hyper-partisan and divisive moments in its history—and where for most people, politics has replaced the role that religion used to play in their lives—that’s to be expected.
If you thought Trump was a Nazi—a piece of deeply misleading hyperbole that became conventional wisdom among many Jews—you weren’t going to care if the secretary of the treasury or a number of other important officials was a Jew, or about the fact that the president had a daughter who converted to Judaism and had Jewish grandchildren. Since politics has become a cultural tribal war, Jews on the other team are to be deemed traitors or worse; only your side’s Jews are something about which to express pride.
But there are still two important points to be gleaned from the discussion about counting Jews in any administration.
There was once a reason to care about counting Jews in presidential cabinets. In times when Jews were a marginalized minority shunned by society, the ability of a Jewish politician or adviser to rise to prominence was not only a source of communal pride, but an inspiration to young people to believe that they, too, could aspire to high office.
That was especially true in the early 20th century as anti-Semitism became even more prevalent. At such times, Jews needed role models wherever they could be found. In that same spirit, Jewish sports heroes were particularly important. They symbolized not just acceptance, but the sort of strength that was an answer to the harmful stereotypes employed by anti-Semites. In that context, someone like Hank Greenberg was more than just a baseball slugger; he was a much-needed example of Jewish strength.
But while some Jewish baseball fans still take note of players who identify as Jews, in an era when, despite the persistence of anti-Semitism, American Jews are not the weak minority they were in Greenberg’s time, it doesn’t really matter.
The same applies to those counting Jews in any administration, but with one caveat. Having someone who can be considered Jewish in positions of influence is especially unimportant if their policies and actions don’t contribute to the security of the Jewish community or of Israel.
One of the most disgraceful chapters in American Jewish history involves the behavior of those Jews—like Rabbi Stephen Wise and others like Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter—who had the ear of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, yet failed to use their influence to advocate for the rescue of European Jewry during the Holocaust. By contrast, Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. is remembered with honor because he did speak up for rescue when it mattered and helped save many lives.
Many Jewish officials have played important roles in formulating U.S. foreign policy throughout the last three decades. But for the most part—and without casting aspersions on their integrity or intentions—their presence in the corridors of power did little to influence events to the benefit of the alliance between the only Jewish state on the planet and the United States. Indeed, many Jewish diplomats seemed to specialize in pressuring Israel and in seeking to undermine its efforts to resist policies that the majority of its people believed to be dangerous to their security.
Similarly, the role of some Jews like Wendy Sherman and Ben Rhodes in crafting a disastrous nuclear deal with Iran that endangered Israel and the entire Middle East, and enriched and empowered a genocidal terrorist state, is not something about which their co-religionists should regard with pride, even if those who did so were merely mistaken rather than ill-intentioned.
Thanks to Trump’s deeply irresponsible behavior that culminated in the U.S. Capitol riot, his administration’s record is viewed by many solely through the prism of the way it is leaving power. But it bears remembering that the key people in his Middle East policy team, including his senior adviser/son-in-law Jared Kushner and U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, as well as others, were not just people who count in the tally of Jews in office. They actually used their power to support Israel against its enemies and to successfully work to bring about historic acts, such as the moving of the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and normalization agreements with Arab and Muslim countries, the importance of which will long outlive the petty political arguments into which most of us pour so much energy.
What ought to matter to the Jewish community is not the number of Jews or people with Jewish relatives there are in any administration, but whether they act in a manner that makes both the United States and the Jewish people more secure. The verdict of history on those who served Trump should be far more laudatory than most American Jews are currently likely to give them. It remains to be seen whether those employed by Biden will deserve as much praise.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.