When I saw Sam Stone in Chicago recently he asked me how my mother was, and when I told him…
Every Jewish business institution, someone has said, is merely the lengthened shadow of a woman—and why not, considering for how many generations Jews, at least those of East European origin, have lived under a matriarchal society. Sydney H. Kasper here illustrates this general truth with the particular example of his parents’ bakery in Chicago.
When I saw Sam Stone in Chicago recently he asked me how my mother was, and when I told him she had died several months ago he stared at me for a moment and then said softly, “She was the sharpest businesswoman I ever met.”
Sam should know. I suppose that Ma gave him as hard a time as she did any salesman. In the days when our bakery was zooming along the heights of its greatest prosperity, it seemed as though every bakery commodity salesman in Chicago visited our store regularly. Most Jewish bakeries were risky enterprises; the proprietor was invariably a bread baker who had either ambition or an ambitious wife, who had scrimped together a few dollars so he could “go in for myself.” He labored eighteen hours a day, baking and selling, and with no business knowledge other than baking, went broke after a few months or a year, and then returned to working for some other baker. As soon as he accumulated a little capital he would begin casting around for another bakery and the cycle would recommence.
It seemed to me in those days that every Jewish baker in Chicago had employed and been employed by every other Jewish baker in the city. When we had the big bakery on 71st Street five of the six bakers had been my father’s employes at one time or another. Of the sixth, a young Polish boy, Ma would say, “Your Pa learned him out.”
Ma, who had been through the cycle several times, including one memorable bankruptcy in a small town (“in I’way State”), was in no mood to trifle with the opportunities presented by our lucky streak when we finally opened a real money-making bakery. Salesmen soon discovered that, although she had had only an elementary education in her native Poland, she had a most facile mind for gathering, winnowing, and retaining facts with amazing rapidity and selectivity.
When a spice salesman would quote her a price of three and a half cents for cinnamon, she would say, “But the wholesale market is only three cents.” Naturally, he would reply that the half-cent difference was his company’s profit, whereupon she would exclaim, “Profit—profit! You got a nerve to try to make a profit on me. That’s the trouble with you big companies, you suck the blood of little business people like me. For who am I working—for your company? I’m just a poor woman trying to raise three little children”—referring to my brother, thirty, my sister, twenty-three, and me, seventeen—“and my poor husband slaves night and day”—Father was probably relaxing at that moment in our new La Salle V-8—“and for what? So your company can make big profits from us. How much do you think we can get for a cinnamon coffee cake today? Do you think we charge gold for our cakes?”—Actually, of course, we were charging thirty cents for a cinnamon coffee cake when other bakers in the city were struggling to get twenty.—“Go back and tell your boss that we’re not working for him, and if he wants to sell us cinnamon for three cents, all right, but if he wants to profiteer on poor working people we don’t want to do business with him. Go!”—and this was always accompanied with a dramatic opening of the door.
Bewildered by this torrential flow of imprecations, threats, and irrelevancies, but always cognizant of our excellent credit rating, the salesman would invariably settle for three and a quarter.
Sam Stone received especially rough treatment. Sam was short, round, young, eager. Sam’s mother had established a sturdy, steadily expanding egg noodle business, and Sam, desperate for distribution in a highly competitive market, knew that our bakery could be a high turnover outlet.
But Mother knew it, too. When Sam first approached her with his noodle proposition her reply was a blunt, cold, “No.”
“Why not?” Sam asked, crackling the cellophane package in his fingers. “Stone’s Noodle is the best on the market. You get a lot of traffic in here, and I’ll bet you could sell fifty dozen a week without any trouble.”
“Why not?” Ma repeated. “Ask the boss,” and she pointed to the shop, separated from the store by a partition, where my father could be found any time of the day between 4 A.M. and 2 P.M. “You want I should get into a fight with my husband? He doesn’t want me to take in noodles. He says this is a bakery, not a delicatessen. He says in the hell with noodles, ice cream, and candy. We don’t bother the delicatessens and we don’t want they should fight with us.”
“But look at all. the money you’ll make,” pleaded Sam. “No fuss, no wrapping, no selling even; we’ll put in a stand and the customers can help themselves. After all, what difference does it make how you make an honest profit?” This last he addressed to me; we had gone to high school together, but if Sam expected any sympathy from me he was wrong. I shrugged my shoulders. In business matters Ma was never wrong; I usually was.
“Listen to him!” Ma turned to me, and then back to Sam. “A profit!” she sneered. “How much can we make on a bag of noodles? And for this I have to give you space and a salesgirl and rent and light and heat and maybe we make a penny a bag.”
“A penny a bag!” Sam shouted. “We sell them to you for $1.92 a dozen and you sell ’em for twenty cents a bag and you call that a penny a bag profit!”
Ma laughed, but with no mirth.
“All right, so it’s four cents a bag. This you call a profit?”
Sam’s red face grew purple.
“That’s 25 per cent—how many businesses do you know that make 25 per cent on an item?”
“I don’t know what per cent is,” said Ma imperturbably. “Talk to my boy here about per cents, he went to college. All I know is four cents a bag is not enough. If I want to take a chance to make my husband mad and take in noodles I can handle Rogoff’s—he’ll give me eight cents a bag.”
“Rogoff’s!” Sam almost screamed. “Some noodle. How can you stand there and compare Rogoff’s Noodle with Stone’s Noodle? Rogoff’s Noodle is junk, dirt, fooey!”
“Don’t holler,” said Ma. “By me a noodle is a noodle. Stone, Shmone, Rogoff, Shmogoff, they’re all alike.” She herself never served any but Stone’s.
“All right, all right,” said Sam, “how much do you want off—twenty-four cents a dozen?”
“Ha!” Then, after waiting for the shaft to sink in, “Sixty cents.”
Sam staggered, his eyes rolling.
“Sixty cents! I can’t do it, I won’t—sixty cents! That’s what our cost is. How can you expect us to stay in business if we give everybody sixty cents off?”
“Don’t give it to everybody,” snapped Ma. “Give it to me because I’ll sell lots of noodles—maybe one hundred dozen a week.”
Sam finally gave in.
“All right, all right, sixty cents,” he said, mopping his forehead, and taking out his order pad. “How many do you want?”
“Twenty dozen medium and twenty dozen fine”—Sam was busily writing—”and eight dozen free.”
Plop went the order pad on the floor.
“Free? Free! What is this, a holdup?”
“Listen to me, young man,” said Ma sternly, “don’t call me a robber, a Capone. I’m an honest woman trying to make a living for her family, my three children, and I have to send my youngest boy to college and you call me a robber. Rogoff’s always gives me one dozen free for every two dozen I order. I’m not asking you for any favors.”
“But, how can you compare Rogoff’s—” and then Sam shrugged his shoulders helplessly. “All right, four free dozen.” But he didn’t mark his order pad until Ma said, “Six.” Six it was.
“Now,” said Sam breezily, “You’ll need a stand for the noodles. I’ll tell you what I’ll do—I’ll let you have our special ten-dollar display stand for five dollars.”
“Free,” said Ma.
“Wait a minute!” pleaded Sam. “Do you realize we have to pay for these stands? We have them made especially for us. We don’t turn them out like noodles, you know.”
“Free. Or take your noodles back.”
So we “took in” noodles. After the noodle stand had been installed and Sam was gone I said, “You gave Sam quite a beating.”
Ma smoothed a tiny wrinkle in her apron carefully and said, “In private you don’t need a mouth. I don’t want my neighbors should know what I am doing and I don’t want to know what they are doing. But in business you got to have a mouth what to talk. If you don’t the salesmen will give you sweet talk and rob you when you’re not looking. I got a mouth—but the trouble with you and your brother and your sister and your father is—you ain’t got a mouth what to talk.”
It was true; no one but Ma had a mouth what to talk. We cringed inwardly at her methods, but accepted the fruits.
I remember the time the bakery on 51st Street was going under. Ma and Pa had sold our house on the West Side and bought the store on the South Side. Pa was going to try for the fourth or fifth time to “be for himself.”
Unfortunately the neighborhood they had selected was in transition, and within two years it changed from totally white to almost totally Negro. My father couldn’t bake the sweet-potato pies, soft white bread, and three-for-a-nickel sweet rolls the Negroes demanded, nor would the Negroes buy the caraway seed rye bread, egg twists, bagels, and streusel coffee cakes that had attracted our Jewish trade. A specialty business has to have a specialty clientele. One year after the transition was completed our fate was clear.
Pa and Ma discussed our gloomy prospects endlessly. Pa was all for selling out, with the sure knowledge that the purchase price would just about pay our debts, and going back to work for some other baker. Ma demurred.
“I don’t want to go back to living in private,” she said. “I want to be in business. Besides, what do you get working for someone else? You slave twelve, fourteen hours a day and the boss takes all the money.”
“So here I work twelve, fourteen hours a day, too, and what do I get?” said Pa wearily. “At least when you work for someone else you work, you get your pay regular, and you go home with a quiet mind, and he has the headaches.”
“Listen to me,” pleaded Ma. “It’s the worst thing—it’s a sin a person should let himself get discouraged. You want to be like Mr. Wolf—you know, his wife she always comes in for a yesterday’s rye bread it shouldn’t be cracked on the side? He went broke, too, and instead of starting up again he began selling for someone else. So what is with him? He can’t keep up the apartment building anymore. His wife cries plenty to me. Is that good?”
She paused for a moment while Pa shook his discouraged head. Then she began to speak eagerly but slowly, to be sure that her message registered.
“Look—every day the boy takes me for a ride on 71st Street, in South Shore. Every day I look at stores and I talk with people. Last week I saw a store that just fits us. It’s just next door to Kusnitsky’s butcher shop. Remember Kusnitsky, he used to have the best butcher shop on 51st Street, so when the neighborhood changed he moved out? So yesterday I had a long talk with Kusnitsky. He tells me there are plenty Jewish people in South Shore, and not a single Jewish bakery in the whole neighborhood!”
Pa lifted his head for a moment, then his eyes dulled again.
“What makes you think we could make a living there?”
“What makes me think—Kusnitsky says he was never so good off like he is now. There are lots of Jewish people, they pay the highest prices for kosher meat, and he has to have two helpers now. I’m telling you, Harry, we could make such a good living there, we could be independent—we could laugh from the world!”
Pa was still unconvinced.
“A new store costs money; you need ovens, flour, sugar, machinery, everything; we’ll be lucky to pay our bills from selling this store—where will you get the money?”
“I’ll get it somewhere,” said Ma. “We got lots of friends, relatives. . . . I might as well tell you, I already signed the lease on the store. Now I have to get the money.”
So Ma and I started our expedition to get the money to outfit and open the new store. Our first stop that rainy November night was the home of Joe Levy, my father’s cousin, who was also in the bakery business.
“Rosie, what brings you out on a night like this?” was Joe’s first question as he opened the door. His second was, “Where’s Harry?”
“Joe,” said Ma, “one thing you must promise me—promise me before God you won’t tell Harry that I was here. He’ll kill me if he finds out I came to see you about this business.”
Ma described the evil days that had befallen our bakery, then described the new store she had rented.
“Now, Joe,” she said, “I want you should loan me one thousand dollars.”
“A thousand dollars!” exclaimed Joe. “Do you know how much money that is?”
“I don’t care how much money it is, you got to loan it to me. Joe, we’ll pay it back in a hurry—you’ll see—I know we can do good business in South Shore.”
“Rosie,” Joe looked perturbed, “don’t you know that tonight is Friday night—shabbos ? How do you come to dare to talk about money on shabbos?”
“That just goes to show how bad off we are.” Shabbos meant as little to Ma as she knew it meant to Joe. “Do you think I would dare to ask for money on shabbos if I was good off or if I wanted it for a fur coat? No, I’m asking you because we need it so bad. Joe, think—it’s for your own cousin, you were boys together in the old country, he trained you in to be a baker, his mother is your mother’s sister. You’ve got to do it.”
“I can’t—no—business has been very bad lately. All my money is tied up in buildings, I can’t lay my hands on cash.”
“Then borrow it.”
“Borrow it!” Now Joe was honestly aghast. “Do you mean to sit there and tell me to borrow money for you—and no collateral? Even if I wanted to borrow it, where would I get it?”
“That’s your business. I need it and you’re the last one I came to. Joe, no one else will loan us the money—the banks, the suppliers, the lenders—no one will loan us. We’re broke and Harry has no place to go, just to go back slaving for someone else. Joe, in God’s name, I beg you, give us the money.”
“For the last time, Rosie, no.”
“All right then,” Ma shoved her hands firmly into her muff, “then I’ll just sit here until you give me the money.” Joe turned to the window and began to study the wet streets. Suddenly her resolve melted and she began to cry softly.
“Go ahead, go ahead, throw me out—I’ll tell everybody how Joe Levy wouldn’t lend his own cousin, his flesh and blood, a stinking one thousand dollars and his wife comes in all this rain and mud and gets down on her knees and begs like a beggar and all the time her husband don’t know where she is from nothing, he’ll kill her if he finds out, and on shabbos yet, in the synagogue they tell you shabbos is the holiest day—”
“All right, enough! Don’t cry so much for me,” said Joe irritably, “so I’ll loan you five hundred dollars.”
“What good is six hundred, what are we buying, poppy seed only? Seven-fifty.”
“You got to know how to cry,” said Ma as we got into the car. “That’s a hundred and fifty more than I expected to get from Joe. Now let’s see who we will beg from next. Maybe Bornstein the miser, he’ll charge me a good 20 per cent, but if we do business we can pay him back first Maybe Gollos, I’ll tell him we’ll buy his flour only, nobody else’s.”
By the end of the following week, Ma had collected her little pile, and we proceeded to liquidate the 51st Street store and open the 71st Street store. When Pa asked Ma where the money was coming from she would only reply, “We got—we got—don’t ask.” Bowed down with his many troubles, plus the problem of beginning his baking operations in the new store (we started with three bags of flour borrowed from another cousin in Gary), Pa asked no further.
Business was good. So good, in fact, that within six months all of our debts had been discharged and Ma could laugh from the world. But she never did. Instead, the very success of the business stimulated her to greater and greater efforts. Now that she had a bakery she could be proud of, she hounded the salesgirls constantly: “Wash the showcases—clean the crumbs from the counter—wear a hairnet—don’t keep your hands in your pockets—the bagels you shouldn’t mix with the poppy seed rolls—take off the dirty apron.” She bore down on the male help, too: “Scrub the floors—put ammonia in the water, the windows should shine—wax the linoleum—wash your hands—why is the bread so soft like a sponge?”
Salesmen were met, joined in conflict, and vanquished determinedly, for as business expanded our credit rating increased in proportion and Ma’s terms stiffened accordingly. I often thought that Ma went far beyond necessity’s call.
One rainy afternoon, when trade was slow, and Ma and I took stock of our goods—”Look at all the lovely challehs and rolls and rye bread, we’ll be stuck with plenty”—I said, “Ma, why do you have to fight so much with everybody? It’s like a habit—you haggle with Shapiro when you buy my socks and shirts from him, you fight with Di Santos over the cleaning bills, you argue with Klein over fruit for the store. They have to make a living, too, you know.”
Ma rearranged the rye bread on the racks. She patted the last one into place, squeezed it a little to hear the crust crackle, and said, “Son, you’ll never be a businessman. You’re too soft. Why do you think I work so hard in this business? Why do you think Pa and I get up five o’clock in the morning and stay in the store until eleven at night? Don’t you think we like to go out sometimes, too?
“But do we ask for good times, for vacations, for card games? No. We work hard because we want our children should come to something. We want you should have a nice home so you won’t be ashamed from us to bring your friends home with you. That takes money. And money you don’t get by sleeping late in bed and being soft to people. When we had the bakery in I’way State and Pa ran everything he was soft to everybody and everybody stole from us. Pa worked and worked and worked and got so sick he had to go to the Mayo Brothers. Pa isn’t lazy, but his work was no good and you know why? Because it didn’t have no taste. It went for nothing and we went broke. Our worst enemies should have such troubles like we had in I’way State.
“At least here our work comes to something. Pa always was the best baker on rolls and bread in Chicago, but we never had a chance before. Look how we worked up ourselves. Now we have a good business and a good name. You can walk up and down 71st Street and everybody knows us and will give us credit. From this one little business—it’s like a cow and we all suck from one bag.
“And who made this business—Pa? Ay, ay, ay, a baker you can’t beat him, but without me he would still be just a baker getting played out working for someone else. He would come to nothing, I’m telling you. Who got the money to start the store? Who rented the store when everybody got discouraged and wanted to quit? Who knows how I didn’t sleep at night when I prayed to God we should be able to start up the new store? Who went to cousin Joe for money and who cried for Mr. Bornstein he should lend us money at 20 per cent? Who got Plotkin he should build the ovens and wait six months for his money? Nobody—only me.”
“All right!” I cried. “But that’s over now. Do you still have to argue with everybody, just to save a penny here and a penny there?”
Ma bent her head close to mine.
“I’ll tell you a secret,” she said. “Every good business has to have a mamzer in it—in this business, it’s me.”
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
From the American Scene: The Bakery Store Lady
Must-Reads from Magazine
With the demise of the filibuster for judicial nominations, the Senate has become a more partisan body. Members of the opposition party no longer have to take difficult votes to confirm presidential nominees, and so they no longer have to moderate their rhetoric to avoid the appearance of hypocrisy. Many expected, therefore, that Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings would tempt Democrats to engage in theatrics and hyperbole. Few, however, foresaw just how recklessly the Judiciary Committee’s Democratic members would behave.
The sordid performance to which Americans were privy was not the harmless kind that can be chalked up to presidential ambitions. Right from the start, Democratic committee members took a sledgehammer to the foundations of the institution in which they are privileged to serve.
Sen. Cory Booker made national headlines by declaring himself “Spartacus,” but the actions he undertook deserved closer attention than did the scenery he chewed. Booker insisted that it was his deliberate intention to violate longstanding Senate confidentiality rules supposedly in service to transparency. It turns out, however, that the documents Booker tried to release to the public had already been exempted from confidentiality. Booker was adamant, however, that he had undermined the Senate’s integrity. You see, that, not transparency, was his true objective. It was what he believed his constituents wanted from him.
Booker wasn’t alone. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse appeared to share his colleague’s political instincts. “I want to make it absolutely clear that I do not accept the process,” he said of the committee’s vetting of Kavanaugh’s documents. “Because I do not accept its legitimacy or validity,” Whitehouse added, he did not have to abide by the rules and conventions that governed Senate conduct.
When the committee’s Democratic members were not trying to subvert the Senate’s credibility, they were attempting to impugn Judge Kavanaugh’s character via innuendo or outright fabrications.
Sen. Kamala Harris managed to secure a rare rebuke from the fact-checking institution PolitiFact, which is charitably inclined toward Democratic claims. “Kavanaugh chooses his words very carefully, and this is a dog whistle for going after birth control,” read her comments on Twitter accompanying an 11-second clip in which Kavanaugh characterized certain forms of birth control as “abortion-inducing drugs.” “Make no mistake,” Harris wrote, “this is about punishing women.” But the senator had failed to include mitigating context in that clip, which would have made it clear that Kavanaugh was simply restating the arguments made by the plaintiffs in the case in question.
Later, Harris probed Kavanaugh as to whether he believed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which has never been explicitly ruled unconstitutional, was wrongly upheld by the Supreme Court. Despite calling the decisions of this period “discriminatory,” Kavanaugh declined to elaborate on a case that could theoretically come before the Supreme Court. This, the judge’s detractors insisted, was “alarming” and perhaps evidence of latent racial hostility. In fact, it was an unremarkable example of how Supreme Court nominees tend to avoid offering “forecasts” of how they will decide cases without having heard the arguments—a routine deemed “the Ginsburg Rule” after Ruth Bader, who perfected the practice.
Over a week later, Harris had still not explained what she was getting at. But she doesn’t have to. The vagueness of her claim was designed to allow Kavanaugh’s opponents’ imaginations to run wild, leading them to draw the worst possible conclusions about this likely Supreme Court justice and to conclude that the process by which he was confirmed was a sham.
Harris may not have been alone in appealing to this shameful tactic. On Thursday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein shocked observers when she released a cryptic statement revealing that she had “referred” to “federal investigative authorities” a letter involving Kavanaugh’s conduct. It’s human nature to arrive at the worst imaginable conclusion as to what these unstated claims might be, and that’s precisely what Kavanaugh’s opponents did. It turned out that the 35-year-old accusations involve an anonymous woman who was allegedly cornered in a bedroom by Kavanaugh and a friend during a high-school party. Kavanaugh, the letter alleged, put a hand over her mouth, but the woman removed herself from the situation before anything else occurred. All were minors at the time of this alleged episode, and Kavanaugh denies the allegations.
Some thought it was odd for Feinstein to refer these potentially serious allegations to the FBI this week and in such a public fashion when the allegations contained in a letter were known to Democrats for months. The letter was, after all, obtained by Democratic Rep. Anna Eshoo in July. But it doesn’t seem confusing when considering the facts that the FBI all but dismissed the referral off-hand and reporting on the episode lacks any corroboration to substantiate the claims made by the alleged victim here. It is hard not to conclude that this is an attempt to affix an asterisk to Brett Kavanaugh’s name. Democrats will not only claim that this confirmation process was tainted but may now contend that Kavanaugh cannot be an impartial arbitrator—not with unresolved clouds of suspicion involving sexual assault hanging over his head.
Ultimately, as public polling suggests, the Democratic Party’s effort to tarnish Kavanaugh’s reputation through insinuation and theatrics has had the intended effect. Support for this nominee now falls squarely along party lines. But the collateral damage Senate Democrats have done to America’s governing institutions amid this scorched-earth campaign could have lasting and terrible consequences for the country.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
While the nation’s attention is focused on the Carolina coast, something very odd is happening across the country in Sunspot, New Mexico.
Sunspot is hardly a town at all–the nearest stores are 18 miles away. It’s actually a solar observatory 9,200 feet up in the Sacramento Mountains. It is open to the public and has a visitor’s center, but don’t visit it right now. On September 6th, the FBI moved in and evacuated all personnel using Black Hawk helicopters. Local police were told to stay away. The only explanation being given by the FBI is that an unresolved “security issue” is the cause of the evacuation.
The sun is the only astronomical body capable of doing major damage to planet earth without actually hitting us. A coronal mass ejection aimed at the earth could have a devastating impact on satellites, radio transmission, and the electrical grid, possibly causing massive power outages that could last for weeks, even months. (It would also produce spectacular auroras. During the Carrington Event of 1859, the northern lights were seen as far south as the Caribbean and people in New England could read newspapers by the light.)
So, there are very practical, not just intellectual reasons, to know what the sun is up to. But the National Solar Observatory right now is a ghost town, and no one will say why. Such a story should be catnip for journalists.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
It's not paranoia if they're really out to get you.
Americans awoke Thursday morning to a familiar noise: The president of the United States waxing conspiratorial and declaring himself the victim of a nefarious plot.
“3,000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico,” Donald Trump declared on Twitter. He insisted that the loss of life in the immediate aftermath of 2017’s Hurricane Maria topped out in the low double-digits and ballooned into the thousands well after the fact because of faulty accounting. The president did not claim that this misleading figure was attributable to flaws in the studies conducted in the aftermath of last year’s disaster by institutions like George Washington University or the New England Journal of Medicine but to a deliberate misinformation campaign orchestrated by his political opponents. “This was done by the Democrats in order to make me look as bad as possible,” Trump insisted.
If, for some mysterious reason, Trump wanted to attack the validity of these studies, he might have questioned the assumptions and biases that even their authors admit had an unavoidable effect on their confidence intervals. But Trump’s interest is not in accuracy. His desire is to shield himself from blame and to project his administration’s failings—even those as debatable as the disaster that afflicted Puerto Rico for the better part of a year—onto others. The president’s self-consciousness is so transparent at this point that even his defenders in Congress have begun directly confronting the insecurities that fuel these tweets.
Donald Trump has rarely encountered a conspiracy theory he declined to legitimize, and this tendency did not abate when he won the presidency. From his repeated assertions that Moscow’s intervention in the 2016 election was a “hoax,” to the idea that the FBI shielded Hillary Clinton from due scrutiny, to the baseless notion that “millions and millions” of illegal-immigrant voters deprived him of a popular vote victory, all of this alleged sedition has a common theme: Trump is the injured party.
The oddest thing about all this is that these are the golden days. Trump-era Republicans will look back on this as the halcyon period in which all of Washington’s doors were open to them. The president’s ostensible allies control every chamber of government. The power his adversaries command is of the soft sort—cultural and moral authority—but not the kind of legal power that could prevent Trump and Republicans from realizing their agenda. That could be about to change.
The signs that a backlash to unified Republican rule in Washington was brewing have been obvious almost since the moment Trump took the oath of office. Democrats have consistently overperformed in special and off-year elections, their candidates have outraised the GOP, and a near-record number of Republicans opted to retire rather than face reelection in 2018. The Democratic Party’s performance in the generic ballot test has outpaced the GOP for well over a year, sometimes by double-digits, leading many to speculate that Democrats are well positioned to retake control of the House of Representatives. Now, despite the opposition party’s structural disadvantages, some are even beginning to entertain the prospect of a Democratic takeover in the Senate.
Until this point, the Trump administration has faced no real adversity. Sure, the administration’s executive overreach has been rejected in the courts and occasionally public outcry has forced the White House to abandon ill-considered initiatives, but it’s always been able to rely on the GOP majorities in Congress to shield it from the worst consequences of its actions. That phase of the Trump presidency could be over by January. For the first time, this president could have to contend with at least one truly adversarial chamber of the legislature, and opposition will manifest first in the form of investigations.
How will the White House respond when House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings is tasked with investigating the president’s response to a natural disaster or when he subpoenas the president’s personal records? How will Trump respond when Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler is overseeing the investigation into the FBI’s response to Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, not Bob Goodlatte? Will the Department of Homeland Security’s border policies withstand public scrutiny when it’s Mississippi’s Bennie Thompson, not Texas’s Michael McCaul, doing the scrutinizing? How will Wall Street react to a Washington where financial-services oversight is no longer led by Jeb Hensarling but Maxine Waters? If the Democrats take the House, the legislative phase of the Trump era be over, but the investigative phase will have only just begun.
In many ways, this presidency behaved as though it were operating in a bunker from day one, and not without reason. Trump had every reason to fear that the culture of Washington and even many of the members of his own party were secretly aligned against him, but the key word there is “secret.” The secret is about to be out. The Trump White House hasn’t yet faced a truly adversarial Washington institution with teeth, but it is about to. If you think you’ve seen a bunker mentality in this White House, you haven’t seen anything yet.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
Podcast: Google and Kavanaugh.
Will Google survive the revelations of its political bias, or are those revelations nothing new? We delve into the complexities of the world in which important tech companies think they are above politics until they decide they’re not. Also some stuff on the Supreme Court and on polls. Give a listen.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
Smeared for doing the job.
When then-presidential candidate Donald Trump famously declared his intention to be a “neutral” arbiter of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian territories and put the onus for resolving the conflict on Jerusalem, few observers could have predicted that Trump would run one of the most pro-Israel administrations in American history.
This year, the Trump administration began relocating the U.S. embassy in Israel to the nation’s capital city, fulfilling a promise that began in 1995 with the passage of a law mandating this precise course of action. The administration also declined to blame Israel for defending its Gaza border against a Hamas-led attack. Last week, the administration shuttered the PLO’s offices in Washington.
The Trump administration’s commitment to shedding the contradictions and moral equivalencies that have plagued past administrations has exposed anti-Zionism for what its critics so often alleged it to be.
This week, Department of Education Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights Kenneth Marcus announced his intention to vacate an Obama-era decision that dismissed an alleged act of anti-Semitism at Rutgers University. Marcus’s decision to reopen that particularly deserving case has led the New York Times to publish an article by Erica L. Green full of misconceptions, myths, and dissimulations about the nature of the anti-Israel groups in question and the essential characteristics of anti-Semitism itself.
In reporting on Marcus’s move, Green declared the education activist and opponent of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement a “longtime opponent of Palestinian rights causes,” a designation the paper’s editor felt fine printing without any substantiating evidence. You could be forgiven for thinking that BDS itself constituted a cause of “Palestinian rights” and not an international effort to stigmatize and harm both Israel and its supporters. If you kept reading beyond that second paragraph, your suspicions were confirmed.
Green contended that Marcus’s decision has paved the way for the Education Department to adopt a “hotly contested definition of anti-Semitism” that includes: denying Jews “the right to self-determination,” claiming that the state of Israel is a “racist endeavor,” and applying a double standard to Israel not “expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.” As Jerusalem Post reporter and COMMENTARY contributor Lahav Harkov observed, this allegedly “hotly contested definition” is precisely the same definition used by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. In 2010, the IHRA’s working definition was adopted almost in total by Barack Obama’s State Department.
Green went so far as to say that this not-so-new definition for anti-Semitism has, according to Arab-American activists, declared “the Palestinian cause anti-Semitic.” So that is the Palestinian cause? Denying Jews the right to self-determination, calling the state of Israel itself a racist enterprise, and holding it to nakedly biased double standards? So much for the two-state solution.
Perhaps the biggest tell in the Times piece was its reporters’ inability to distinguish between pro-Palestinian activism and anti-Israeli agitation. The complaint the Education Department is preparing to reinvestigate involves a 2011 incident in which an event hosted by the group Belief Awareness Knowledge and Action (BAKA) allegedly imposed an admissions fee on Jewish and pro-Israel activists after unexpected numbers arrived to protest the event. An internal email confirmed that the group only charged this fee because “150 Zionists” “just showed up,” but the Obama administration dismissed the claim, saying that the organization’s excuse—that it expected heftier university fees following greater-than-expected attendance—was innocuous enough.
Green did not dwell on the group, which allegedly discriminated against Jews and pro-Israeli activists. If she had, she’d have reported that, just a few weeks before this incident, BAKA staged another event on Rutgers’s campus—a fundraiser for the organization USTOGAZA, which provided aid to the campaign of “flotillas” challenging an Israeli blockade of Gaza. USTOGAZA’s links to the Turkey-based organization Insani Yardim Vakfi (IHH), which has long been associated with support for Hamas-led terrorist activities, rendered the money raised in this event legally suspect. Eventually, as Brooke Goldstein wrote for COMMENTARY, even BAKA conceded the point:
After community members demanded that Rutgers, a state-funded university, hold an investigation before handing over any money to USTOGAZA, the school responded by offering to keep the money raised in an escrow account until a suitable recipient could be found. In June 2011, BAKA sent out an e-mail admitting the University had, after “much deliberation” and despite their initial approval, “decided that they are not willing to release the funds to the US to Gaza effort” due to concerns of being found liable for violating the material-support statutes.
Rutgers prudently limited BAKA’s ability to participate in on-campus events after these incidents, but the organization that took their place—Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP)—is no better. The Times quoted officials with the Center for Law and Justice who praised Marcus’s move and cited SJP as a source of particular consternation, but the reporters did not delve into the group’s activities. If they had, they’d find that the organization’s activities—among them declaring that “Zionists are racists,” supporting anti-Zionist individuals despite credible accusations of child abuse, and endorsing Hamas’s governing platform, which labels the entire state of Israel “occupied territory”—fits any cogent definition of anti-Semitism. This is to say nothing of the abuse and harassment that American Jews experience on college campuses that play host to SJP’s regular “Israel apartheid weeks.”
Some might attribute the Times’ neutral portrayal of groups that tacitly support violence and people like Omar Barghouti—an activist who “will never accept a Jewish state in Palestine” and has explicitly endorsed “armed resistance” against Jews, who he insists are “not a people”—to ignorance, as though that would neutralize the harm this dispatch might cause. But the Times piece has emboldened those who see Israel’s Jewish character as a threat both to its political culture and our own. That worrying sentiment was succinctly expressed by New York Magazine’s Eric Levitz: “You don’t have to be a staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause to question Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.”
The benefit of the doubt only extends so far. Even the charitably inclined should have discovered its limits by now.