After serving in the state Legislature during the Carter and Reagan years, leading the Milwaukee Jewish Council for Community Relations through much of the 1990s, and then teaching as a professor at University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee, Mordecai Lee has formed some opinions about 2020.
For one thing, he’d like to see a return to civility in politics.
“Everything that’s been happening nowadays has just been so awful,” he said. “When I was in the state Legislature, the word compromise was a word that I would use.”
Compromise, he said, has sadly become something avoided.
Lee, 72, shared this and other thoughts in an interview. He is a professor emeritus who refuses to truly retire. He said he still goes to his office on campus every day, so long as it’s allowed under UWM pandemic rules, to work on his next book or do research.
Lee noted a political shift during his lifetime, regarding Israel. The American left has become increasingly aligned with the Israeli left, and the American right with the Israeli right. Maybe this was inevitable, he said.
“We as an ethnic group, we need relationships with both sides of the aisle. We want there to be Jewish activists who supported whoever won the election, whether Democrat or Republican, so that they have a channel of communication, an open door,” he said. “So, I think it’s a good thing that there are Jewish Republicans as well as Jewish Democrats.”
The Electoral College
“I think that abolishing the Electoral College is a good idea in principle,” he said. “It would reduce Jewish influence. But it seems to me that that kind of self-interest does not serve us well in the long run.”
He feels Jewish American opposition to abolishing the Electoral College is a bad idea.
“To say it’s against our best interest to abolish the Electoral College … it ultimately becomes a weak argument because it says, ‘I don’t support democracy’.”
“The Charlottesville demonstration blew me away,” he said.
He had never heard the phrase, “Jews will not replace us,” which was chanted in Charlottesville, Virginia at a “Unite the Right” rally in 2017. He considered it “very serious,” he said.
Though Lee has no issue with the local Jewish Community Relations Council, he said organized Judaism in general should be careful to avoid overreacting to relatively minor antisemitism. In Lee’s view, hundreds of people chanting “Jews will not replace us” is far more troubling than, for example, a swastika at a cemetery that could have been painted by a couple of teenagers acting out. The latter example is terrible, insulting and authorities should be called, but it’s not on the same level, in his view.
2020 is like 1968
“This year reminds me of 1968,” he said, setting the scene. “Lyndon Johnson is presumed to be running for reelection. The protests against the Vietnam War are getting bigger and bigger. Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy declare that they’re going to run. There’s urban unrest and protests, especially after Martin Luther King Jr. is killed and Robert Kennedy then is killed.”
It had a random, chaotic, kind of 2020 feel.
“At Shabbos dinner or at a Sunday brunch of a family get together, people were screaming at each other,” he said. “All that reminds me of what’s going on today.”
He doesn’t think it’s going to be easy to find a way back to civility, but it’s a worthy goal.
“We should make friends with people from the other party,” he said. “That in and of itself would be a step forward.”
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The next book
Mordecai Lee has published 10 books, half of them on Frankin Delano Roosevelt. He’s working on a book about Roosevelt’s influential budget director, Harold D. Smith, to be published late next year by SUNY Press.