Capitol Hill History
The 110th United States Congress, which was sworn in last week, comes into office not only with the energy of having a new majority party but also by setting some new records.
The election of Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California as the first woman to be Speaker of the House is rightly considered a watershed moment for both American politics and the advance of women's rights. Also notable is the fact that this Congress will have a record-breaking 43 Jewish members with 13 Senators and 30 members of the House of Representatives.
But while Pelosi's election has been justly celebrated as a breakthrough for American women, perhaps the most remarkable thing about her rise, as well as the large number of Jewish lawmakers, is that there is no real controversy attached to either story. The real story about both of these achievements is that neither Pelosi's gender nor the religious affiliation or background of any of the 43 Jews on Capitol Hill was a bar to to their rise to high office.
That is not to say that either sexism or anti-Semitism is extinct in America. But it does mean that a critical mass of public opinion has moved so far beyond old prejudices that neither of these milestones have engendered any real fuss among the vast majority of Americans.
We might note that among those who were sworn in last week were several Jews who chose to take their oath of office by placing their hands upon a Hebrew bible, as well as one Muslim — Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) — who swore upon a Koran.
The unwillingness of some to swear upon a Christian bible became the subject of a controversy when Dennis Prager, a Jewish pundit, and Rep. Virgil Goode (R-Va.) criticized Ellison's use of the Koran. But the lack of general support for that position shows that most of us judge our leaders on the basis of their stands on the issues and not their faith or their race.
Despite the many serious problems our country faces, it speaks volumes about the nature of our society that the racial, religious and gender prejudices of the past no longer dictate the votes of most Americans. And that is something for which we all should be truly grateful.
School for Scandal
One year ago this week, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was struck down by a stroke that effectively ended his five years as Israel's leader. A lot has happened since then.
Elections brought in a new team led by Sharon's deputy Ehud Olmert, who took his place at the head of the new Kadima party. Labor leader Amir Peretz soon joined Olmert's cabinet as defense minister. And the two were severely tested this past summer by both Palestinian and Lebanese terrorists.
But beyond the questions about the inconclusive result of the war with Hezbollah, Israel is now beset with a series of scandals, both political and personal, involving President Moshe Katzav, as well as Olmert and other major figures in the government. All this has brought the government's popularity to a new low with speculation rising about whether it can long survive. We trust that Israel's political and judicial systems will properly sort that question out and reinforce the rule of law in the future.
We don't know what the outcome will be of the investigations, but we do know that whatever happens, American Jewry's position must be clear. Both the current occupant of the prime minister's chair and those who wish to replace him should know that the vast majority of American Jews will always back the results of Israeli democracy. Despite the current uncertainty, our backing for that system — the only one in the Middle East — is not in question.