My Dinner With Newt

This past winter, Newt Gingrich addressed an audience of 450 prominent Jews who had paid $1000 apiece to attend a benefit dinner for the Jewish Theological Seminar in New York. The Speaker of the House was introduced by Mayer Mitchell (Chairperson of the Board of AIPAC) as “one of Israel’s best friends in Congress….a dedicated friend of the Jewish Community.” Over 300 Jews, many of them Seminary students, showed their disagreement with this assessment by standing outside in the biting cold to protest JTS’s reception of Gingrich.

At the sidewalk rally, sponsored by Jews For Racial and Economic Justice and an ad hoc committee of JTS students, protesters carried placards reading “Newt isn’t kosher, so why is JTS having him for dinner?” and they chanted “Newt says cutback, we say fight back!”

Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger, whose mother worked in the Seminary’s public relations office for 50 years, spoke at the rally, asserting that Gingrich’s positions were antithetical to “Jewish values of justice, progress and service.” Author E.M. Broner, who was also scheduled to speak but decided to cancel due to the bitter weather, told reporters afterward, “The tragedy is the turning to the right of Jewish organizations. The Jewish Theological Seminary has implicitly accepted Gingrich’s values by inviting him.”

Meanwhile, inside the Pierre Hotel, Gingrich expounded on the importance of three core values: private charity, individual liberty, and military strength. “Giving money in a way that destroys others is not charity,” Gingrich said, reminding his audience of welfare recipients’ penchant for “spending their money on cocaine.” He recommended private donations to non-profit organizations “such as Carnegie Hall.” Stressing the need for a stronger military in anticipation of the “pre-terrorist era” in which we live he said, “It’s not enough just to visit the Holocaust Museum and ask, ‘how could they have been so blind?'”

Gingrich’s speech was disrupted when two members of the audience suddenly stood up and shouted, “Who are you to say what the age of consent is? Why are you cutting Aid to Families with Dependent Children?” The two people were forcibly removed from the dinner.

Jael Meadow, who works at the Seminary, said that even though she’s a “liberal Democrat,” she enjoyed Gingrich’s speech. “He came across sounding much smarter than I expected. I really came out determined to increase my charitable giving,” she said

Ranette Stormont of Brooklyn thought that the speech “conveyed a positive message of community and charity, in which his political message was out of place.” Her friend Tamara Krizek added, “there was a contradiction between his ideals of a bigger and stronger military and his advocating a smaller government.”

Because many of their students were angered by Gingrich’s scheduled appearance, Seminary officials arranged for several students to meet with the Speaker face to face before the dinner. Rabbi David Seidenberg, Co-President of the Graduate Student Organization said, “We tried mainly to address issues that we thought impacted on Jewish values, like the relationship between social justice and the Republican welfare agenda. The Republicans address real problems in America, but in a way that makes progress impossible.”

Robin Damsky, a JTS graduate student who attended this meeting, felt that the kind of welfare policies advocated by Gingrich and other right-wing congress people used a form of triage to exclude some people from meaningful roles in society. Speaking as a single mother who had benefited from welfare programs, Damsky said, “Leaving anybody out of community is completely un-Jewish. Everybody has a purpose.”

As a reporter at the event, I found it particularly disturbing that no one that evening, inside or out, chose to frame their concerns in terms of women’s issues. A great deal of the controversy centered around Republican welfare policies, which are particularly baleful to women, but even this discussion did not focus on welfare as a women’s issue.

Women are increasingly enrolling in the Seminary’s graduate and undergraduate programs, yet there was no women’s group protesting against a platform which takes careful and deliberate aim at the gains, like affirmative action and legal abortion, that the women’s movement has made in the past 25 years.