Jews in the Political Universe

Ruth Messinger, 6/17/2005

Although I primarily define myself as a woman, a Jew, a New York City elected official and a Democrat, a big piece of my adult identity came because I spent two years in western Oklahoma in a town of 12,000 people in which we were the second Jewish family. It is a significant part of my background and experience as a Jew that explains my professional training in social work and my subsequent decision to enter politics. It is also from my religious and ethical life experience that I derive my concern with the problems of race and class and my conviction that we do have to be larger than ourselves, that we have to work in coalition and that we have to build broad alliances for progress and social change.

I want to outline for you the philosophy that I am beginning to shape. 1 am interested in the continuum between charity, service and justice. I think that as individuals and through all of our various religious and philanthropic affiliations we ought to be giving to those who have less, and we ought to be organizing to be of service in our own community and in the many broader communities. And I think that there is a lot to do right now in the short run, to restructure government so that it provides more charity and better service. But I think it is even more important to keep the broader perspective in mind. My interest is in building a polity and a society that expands economic, democratic and social justice, that addresses and resolves inequity, that not only works to help the poor but to eliminate poverty.

Just by the way of one example, the problem of homelessness. Homelessness is a virulent urban disease, spreading every day to younger populations, to women and children. Clearly it cannot be ignored. But the problem of homelessness is inadequately addressed by pity or handouts '' the opening of temporary shelters by government, synagogues or churches. As important as that kind of effort is, it is not enough. The problem has to be addressed by people and by government in ways that go after not the problem, but the causes of the problem. In every city in this country we need substantial government action against displacement and for permanent affordable housing and employment. And we will only get that if we are prepared to take some underlying, root actions on our tax structure, on the flow of money and on what we are going to decide to do with the wealth of this society.

That is an example of what I'm thinking about and what I exhort all of you to work in more. I'm doing it in the political arena, and I hope that more of you will get into that arena. Let me say a couple of things about the political universe.

Clearly, from almost every perspective, the 1984 election was a disaster. Throughout the U.S. there were only three political constituencies which stuck with the Democratic party with all its warts and went right to the polls and said they believed in something better: Blacks, Hispanics and Jews. In our case, it seems to me that the vote was particularly significant because our vote had been promised to the Republicans. The conservative Jews had pushed us and the national press toward their definition of our self-interest, and I believe they lost. They don't know what we want, they don't speak for us, and they need to continue to be challenged. We got a mandate in 1984 to speak out loudly against those American Jews who cozy up to an administration that entertains known anti-Semites; that visits Nazi cemeteries and that tries to promote an American church state.

As terrible as things are for substantial numbers of our poorest and largely minority families, the fact is that tilings are not so great for the rest of us. There are only a very small number of people who benefit from luxury construction, special tax breaks and a system of government that by and large awards only those people who fund campaigns.

The majority of Jews and the majority of people in most American cities are not getting their fair share of services, and too many of them are opting for that very limited notion of government that doesn't do anything for them, and even less for poor people. Too many people who could be participants from a progressive perspective are passively supporting divisions by race and class and are supporting officials who do not speak to their long range needs.

There are several steps I am urging you to take on as urban and rural community activists. First, not to be blind to what goes on around you or to all of our responsibility for letting some of those things happen. Second, to push ourselves away from moral inertia. Third, to do what many of your New Jewish Agenda chapters are doing, to educate in our communities about the importance of doing more. Finally, to form, nurture and strengthen coalitions with labor, minorities and poor communities. We ought to be doing it for economic consequences of neglect. We have to be doing it because we have an ethical mandate to pursue justice and we have to be doing it for the most practical political reason because we are not going to win unless there are more of us.

What we want to be about has to be done with others, so that we are not for ourselves alone, so that we are not alone, and so that the numbers begin to be there to choose candidates and to force issues and to win elections. The coalitions we need are the hard ones to build. They have to go across race and class boundaries. They take time because trust must be developed. In my judgement, they can be built, and they will move us toward urban, rural and national societies that are more ethical, more equitable and more communal.
Sunday is my oldest child's twenty-first birthday, so I trust you will allow me a story. Two years ago when Daniel was in college, he spent the summer as a tenant organizer in Brooklyn. Every time I saw him he was wearing the same slacks and t-shirt. The shirt was one that I had given him which saluted the celebration of Jewish peoplehood week in New York. I suggested very tentatively he might be carrying his poverty act too far, and he should feel free to come and borrow another t-shirt. He looked at me with what turned out to be appropriate disdain and said," I don't know about you, but I think its important if you're helping Black tenants organize against Jewish landlords to be sure they know you're Jewish." He's right, it is important and that's precisely what we should be about.

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