This Saturday could be the first real test of the political viability of a group that has been referred to as the “Moderate Majority.” That is, of course, what Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert of Comedy Central hope for at the “Rally to Restore Sanity,” which will take place on the National Mall in Washington, DC. According to Stewart, the Rally is designed to showcase the views of 70-80 percent of the population who agree on most fundamental issues but are overshadowed (and out-yelled) by the more vocal minority of extremists to their left and right.
The fact that Jon Stewart is Jewish, of course, does not make the rally — what Stewart hopes will be a “Million Moderate March” — a Jewish event (not least of all because it is on Shabbat).
And yet, there is something that makes the rally feel like an essentially American-Jewish undertaking. Take, for example, the fact that Stewart — who once said he shortened his name from Jon Stewart Leibowitz because it “sounded too Hollywood” — is finally admitting that he may well have something important to say about politics after all. For years, Stewart would brush off calls to engage seriously in the political fray by reminding people that his program, The Daily Show, was broadcast on Comedy Central, a channel devoted to 24/7 silliness.
Like the American-Jewish community of the 1960s, which finally found its political voice after years of bending over backward to assimilate and “Americanize,” Stewart’s suppressed serious side may finally be coming to the fore of his consciousness.
Dispelling skepticism about whether the rally would even come off, Stewart has not only made clear his intent to hold the rally — plugging it and the charity for which all money will go every night on The Daily Show — he has also gotten several big names to support the cause. President Obama has referenced the rally; Arianna Huffington, editor of the Huffington Post, has offered to bus potential attendees to Washington; and Oprah Winfrey, who made a video appearance on The Daily Show, promised to send that day’s entire live audience to the rally.
It is also be worth noting that Stewart is not the first American Jew to seek to mobilize the Moderate Majority. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has for a long time called for a “radical” centrist movement, both in America and in the Middle East, where he maintains (in the face of heavy right-wing criticism) that there are a majority of Arabs who would support a two-state solution with Israel with reasonable conditions.
So what can the Jewish community as a whole learn from these individual American Jews who speak of “moderatism” as though it could actually be a viable political movement?
The answer is clear. Just as the Kadima party in Israel — at least in its initial stages — was able to unite three-quarters of Israelis who believed that they had to evacuate Gaza but take a no-holds-barred attitude to terrorism and Arab aggression, so, too, can a centrist party emerge in American politics.
And it can be good for the Jews, if we play our moral cards right.
Jews cannot act indignantly about the failure of the Obama administration to give Israel — a minority in the community of nations, if there ever was one — the support it needs if we ourselves are not willing to stand up for the interests of the besieged minorities in our midst.
As just one example, the American-Jewish community must reach out to the gay community and make it clear that the majority of American Jews — like the Moderate Majority of which we are part and parcel — does not share, support, or even condone homophobia. Indeed, we must speak out and state clearly, without any qualification, that we give no quarter to people like Rabbi Yehuda Levin, the fringe ultra-Orthodox rabbi whose on-again, off-again endorsement of Republican Carl Paladino in the New York gubernatorial race made him a poster boy for intolerance and bigotry.
What’s more, moderate Orthodox Jews need not abandon the principles they believe are biblically mandated — including the prohibition of homosexual acts — in order to empathize with the victims of homophobia. “I have countless gay friends whose greatest fear, like that of so many straight people, is to end up alone,” wrote Rabbi Shmuley Boteach in The Wall Street Journal. “Should we just throw the book at these people?”
On issues such as immigration, abortion, health care, and the other major debates of our time, we need to be tolerant of reasonable views, and intolerant — yes, intolerant — of radical extremism in all its forms.
Only when the American-Jewish community learns to speak out in a unified voice — the voice of the Moderate Majority in our community — can we truly fulfill the biblical commandment: “Tzedek, tzedek tirdof” (“Justice, justice shall you pursue”).