For 24 years, James Besser has been watching Jewish politics from up close. As the unofficial dean of the Washington Jewish media corps, the veteran reporter of the New York Jewish Week, who retired June 22, has been uniquely positioned to observe how the world of Jewish politics has changed and how, in many senses, it remained the same.
Among other things, Besser saw young legislators, such as New York’s Chuck Schumer, evolve into heavyweight politicians. He observed vibrant Jewish organizations crumble and then fall. He has followed closely every poll and survey analyzing Jewish views on politics. Moreover, Besser, in his writing, was the first to identify the growing gap between Jewish organizational leadership and the average American Jew, a gap that now shapes the community’s approach to political issues.
Besser, who is 62, began his career with the Baltimore Jewish Times in 1987. Coming from what he described as a “totally noninvolved family,” he knew little about Judaism or Jewish politics. In fact, when Gary RosenblatT, who at the time was the editor of the Baltimore paper, suggested the young reporter go to the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in order to get acquainted with key players of Jewish politics, Besser had to admit that he did not know what AIPAC was.
Since then, however, his weekly column from Washington, which moved to The New York Jewish Week in 1993, has become a must-read for all involved in Jewish politics.
With his retirement, Besser said, he plans to first take some time off to “decompress and detoxify.” He will still follow Jewish politics, but not on a weekly deadline, and he will have some more time for his real hobby — playing the concertina – a small squeeze box used in medieval England. Besser is a musician on two bands that accompany dance troupes that perform the Morris dances, an English form of folk dancing dating back to the 15th century. And he recently joined the Frog Hammer, a rock band that plays ceilidh dance music, a genre that Besser views as “English klezmer music.”
The Forward’s Nathan Guttman caught up with Besser days after he published his farewell column in the Jewish Week.
Nathan Guttman: What changes have you seen in American Jewish political trends in the past two and a half decades?
Jim Besser: The fundamentals are the same in the sense that the Jewish community remains heavily liberal and suspicious of elements in the Republican Party and therefore resistant to change. I do see greater skepticism about the Democrats, but that has not translated to gain for Republicans, primarily because of the fear of the religious right and Tea Party. If not for those factors, I’d suspect there’d be somewhat more of a shift of Jewish voters, but those concerns, I think, really offset any natural shift that would come with greater affluence and greater assimilation.
So, in terms of where American Jews are politically, I don’t see huge differences. The difference is in the organizational world. It has become far more focused on Israel as the dominant issue. In that sense, I see a wider gap between the leadership and the Jewish mainstream. The polls all show their top concerns are economic and social, and [that] they are more worried about health care and the economy than they are about Israel policy. But the Jewish groups are more and more focused on Israel, so I see a disconnect in that sense.
Do you believe in the theory that Jews are becoming increasingly Republican?
Well, I don’t see it. In fact, this argument was easier to make in the ’80s when Ronald Reagan polled 39% of the Jewish vote in 1980 and 31% in 1984. Richard Nixon polled 35%, and, you know, [the Republicans] haven’t come close to those numbers in a long time. We don’t see much change in Jewish voting patterns. We do see fluctuations from elections to elections, but the peak of Jewish Republican support came in the early ’80s and has declined since. So, I don’t buy the spin. It seems to me likely that [in AT?]some point in the future, there will be some kind of a shift toward the Republican side, but that’s not likely to happen as long as the Christian right and the Tea Party remain such a predominant factor in Republican politics, because those are forces that just scare mainstream Jewish voters.
Looking at how the Jewish community viewed presidents throughout the years, where would you put President Obama on the spectrum of relations with the Jewish community?
I continue to believe that Obama’s biggest Jewish problem in the next elections, if he has a Jewish problem, will be because of the economy, not because of Israel. Jewish voters demonstrated over and over again that the economy and related issues are the most important issues in making their choice politically, and the economic signs right now are not very good. And so, a middle-of-the-road Republican nominee could do very well, relatively, with Jewish voters if trends continue, and that will be because of economic concerns, not because of Israel.
I don’t see the Israel issue, at this stage, playing a really big role in how the Jewish community votes in 2012.
Is there anything Obama should have done differently in dealing with the Jewish community?
I think there is a real sense that his Middle East policy has been confused and not really effective. I’m baffled by what his Middle East policy really is. I don’t see it as anti-Israel, I just see it as confused and unfocused. I think he has been slow to understand the particular concerns of the Jewish community, the particular sensitivities, especially of the activist Jewish community. But I think there is also a sense at the White House that this is not one of his biggest political problems. He is still going to get a large majority of the Jewish vote. Maybe it won’t be 78%, maybe it will be 70% — but in the end, that isn’t likely to be a decisive factor.
You mentioned the gap between Jewish leadership and the Jewish rank-and-file. How was that gap created? Was the leadership more connected 20 or 30 years ago?
First of all, 20 or 30 years ago there was a much broader focus of the organized Jewish world: There was AIPAC, which was always focused on Israel, but there were all these other organizations that were focused on a whole wide range of issues which were heavily domestic, and for a variety of reasons that domestic focus has diminished hugely. The example I refer to a lot is the American Jewish Congress. In 1987 their Washington office was one of the major hubs of liberal activism in Washington, and it was certainly the hub of Jewish American activism. It was involved in a wide range of issues, and it was a very important player. At one point, because its leadership decided to focus much more of its resources on Israel, it got lost in the shuffle. It became just another Jewish organization focused on Israel. And they did it because that’s where the leadership was, and they also did it because there was a sense that it’s easier to raise money on the issue of Israel. But in the process, it became just one more of a large number of Jewish organizations that are focused on the same issue. And I think that’s been a big part of the gap.
The other part of the gap is that for every Jewish organization, fundraising has become much more difficult, so they naturally become more reliant on very small groups of very rich people, and those people tend to be more conservative and more Israel focused, and they stamp their imprints on these organizations. So we see much less variety in Jewish organizations and we see much less domestic focus.
Do you share the feeling that the era of big Jewish leaders has passed?
I don’t know if I’d go that far. We have significant Jewish leadership, but it is just doing different things and it’s not necessarily the issues that concern the average American Jew that much. The number of Jewish organizations really focused on domestic issues has diminished considerably, and even organizations that focus on domestic issues are focusing more of their resources on Israel.
So I think there is that gap, you know. You look at the American Jewish Committee poll year after year, the most important issues are the domestic issues; but you look at where Jewish activists’ money is going and where resources are applied, and you see that a whole lot of it goes to the Israel issue.
Who are the heroes of the organized Jewish community nowadays?
I admire the work of the Religious Action Center. The Religious Action Center and the National Council of Jewish Women remain truest to the traditional mode of Jewish activism and are probably more connected to where the average Jewish voter is than most. The JCPA (Jewish Council for Public Affairs) also does a reasonably good job.
The Orthodox groups have been extremely effective in advocating their positions, which are not the positions of the Jewish majority but of a substantial and committed minority. I see the Jewish left being in somewhat the same predicament that the Israeli left is. The problem that the Jewish left faces is that they may reflect the views of a majority of American Jews, but they don’t reflect the views of a majority of those who are activists. So while AIPAC can mobilize every member of its base when there is an issue, J Street’s base and Americans for Peace Now’s base is much more defuse and much less involved, and the people who naturally agree with their positions are not as involved, so they operate in a huge disadvantage.
Any Jewish politicians that you’ll miss?
In Congress, Chuck Schumer has become enormously important since I started covering him. I’ve always really liked Ben Cardin. I think Ben Cardin is one of the smartest people in Congress. Very straightforward and practical, and lacks the pomposity of so many members of Congress. Howard Berman is very smart. I shouldn’t mention Jan Schakowsky because my daughter works for her, but she is a very effective legislator. But there’s also — let’s face it, there’s some dead wood in the Jewish delegation in Congress. I’m not going to name names, but I think we all know who they are.
How worried are you about the future of the Jewish press?
It is a very difficult environment for every newspaper in the country, and in niche newspapers, like the Jewish newspapers, you have some advantage because we have a committed readership. But there are disadvantages, too. It is hard to bring in advertising, so it’s a very challenging time, and I greatly fear that those Jewish newspapers that don’t adapt to this new environment are not going to survive. That’s very different from the way it was 24 years ago, when I started — then many of the Jewish newspapers were very successful — some were very successful economically, and some weren’t profitable, but their survival wasn’t in jeopardy. So all of us must adjust, or else I don’t know how much longer we will survive. Adaptation is critical at this point.
Contact Nathan Guttman at email@example.com
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, was the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.