The issue of the moment for American Jews, as the new year begins, is clear: There are no Jews in George Bush's Cabinet. The small fact that Bill Clinton is risking Israeli security to enhance his own reputation seems of far less importance to most Jews.

No major Jewish group has issued a statement about the lack of Jews in the Bush Cabinet, of course, but it is a powerful undercurrent in private discussions within the Jewish community. (The last Cabinet to have no Jews was Reagan's.) People were watching as the Cabinet selections unfolded, and now we know. Of course, no one ever "deconstructs" the insistence that there be a Jew in the Cabinet, or the sense that there is a deep meaning if there is none, so let us do so.

Can it be that Jews have a "right" to a Cabinet seat? Why would that be? If it's because we all want what Bill Clinton once famously called "a Cabinet that looks like America," George W. Bush has complied. He has men and women, blacks and whites, Anglos and Hispanics, Westerners and Easterners. By most measurements, he has the most diverse Cabinet ever assembled. He just has no Jews. So, are we in the Jewish community saying "mere" diversity isn't enough; you have to have a Jew too?

Again, on what grounds? If it isn't diversity, is it because the Cabinet must represent all minority groups? But we Jews are only 2%, maybe 3, of the population. If by that standard, Jews deserve a Cabinet seat, so do Muslims and Buddhists and Hindus, I guess. So that one won't fly. Is it politics? Well, Jews once again voted 80/20 for the Democrats. Maybe Al Gore would have owed us a Cabinet seat out of sheer gratitude. George W. Bush doesn't.

It may be that the Jewish community has internalized the common phrases we use about the "Judeo-Christian ethic" or the old Will Herberg analysis of America as a nation divided into "Protestant-Catholic-Jew." But we do not constitute half of America, or a third of it, and we have no entitlement to a Cabinet seat. Indeed, it will be a healthy thing if this message finally gets through to American Jews: Our declining numbers will likely mean declining political influence. This is precisely why we should now be looking for reliable allies on matters we care about, such as Israel's security. Which in turn is why some American Jews, including me, argue repeatedly for alliances with American evangelicals, the Christian group that most strongly supports Israel.

Instead, American Jews seem to prefer griping--in this case, about the Bush Cabinet. I had hoped all of this "bean counting" would have ended with the Lieberman candidacy. Surely at a moment when a Jew has been on a major party ticket and has helped that ticket, proving just how integrated into American life Jews are, that bean counting can be given a rest. Surely the Lieberman candidacy proves that Jewish fears about anti-Semitism in America, the kind of insecurity that prompts bean counting, should now diminish. But instead, the year begins with complaints about the absence of Jews in the new Cabinet.

Talk about fiddling while Rome burns! While Jews gripe about the Bush Cabinet, they are nearly silent as Bill Clinton undermines Israel's security.

William Safire said it best in The New York Times: "It's downright dangerous for this president to saddle his successor with a lopsided proposal that voters in Israel are bound to reject." When the proposal is, inevitably, rejected by Israel's voters, "Thanks to Clinton-Barak, Israel will then be labeled intransigent and isolated. In his zeal to be remembered as a peacemaker," Safire concluded, "at whatever cost to the security of Israel and the sanctity of its religious identity--Clinton is raising unfillable Arab hopes and passing on to his successor the increased risk of a Mideast war.... These two lame ducks [Barak and Clinton] are doing Israel irreparable damage."

Safire is absolutely right, yet I can see the synagogues and Jewish federations lining up right now to give Bill Clinton man-of-the-year awards, humanitarian awards, gold-plated invitations to major conventions, and fat speaking fees. It is a scandal. Instead of griping about the Bush Cabinet, Jews should be up in arms about the Clinton ploy to enhance his reputation at the expense of Israeli security. With the sense of priorities we are showing today, and with the failure of communal leadership evident here, we are starting 2001 as badly as we possibly can.

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