When the Senate was a goyisch old boys’ club

As I head into the home stretch of Clarence Thomas, I’m poring over the more than three-thousand-page transcript of Thomas’s Senate Confirmation hearings in 1991.

One of the eeriest revelations from that reading is not how much the Senate in 1991 was an old boys’ club; that we already knew from Anita Hill. Nor is it how much the Senate in 1991 was a white old boys’ club; that we already knew from Thomas. No, what really comes out from the hearings is how much the Senate of 1991 was a goyisch, even WASP-y, old boys’ club.

Some of the most uncomfortable moments of the hearings, for me as a Jew, is to see the subtle, almost invisible, ways in which Howard Metzenbaum (Democrat from Ohio), Paul Simon (Democrat from Illinois), and even Arlen Specter (Republican from Pennsylvania) are slighted, condescended to, and generally treated as if they aren’t full members of the Committee. The real action of the Committee lies with the goyische troika of Joe Biden (Democrat from Delaware), Orrin Hatch (Republican from Utah), and Alan Simpson (Republican from Wyoming). They take each other seriously, listen to each other intently, josh and joke with each other, respond to each other, look to and at each other. The Jews? They’re not real men, just annoying gnats, buzzing and biting about affirmative action, women’s rights, executive power, civil rights, and abortion.

The driving force here isn’t politics: despite being the liberal lion of the committee, Teddy Kennedy is treated with deference and respect by Democrats and Republicans alike. And it isn’t partisanship: Howell Heflin, also a Democrat, is given his due by the Republicans. It seems to be Jewishness.

And Jewishness of a particular sort, in which brains (Specter) and money (Metzenbaum) and persistence (Simon) are thrown into a witches’ brew, emitting fumes of a nebbishy, emasculated, Jew-y wimpiness.

The whole thing struck me as an unsettling yet revelatory tableau of what it was like to be a Jewish man of an older generation in this country. For Jews of my generation and younger, I think it’s hard to connect with this postwar moment—whose protagonists are still with us (think Philip Roth)—when Jewish men were just coming into their own in American society and finding their masculine credentials challenged. It’s a moment many would prefer to forget, but it’s there in the literature and history of the moment. It’s also there in those Senate confirmation hearings.

But however much empathy we might wish to show for the struggles of these men, those striving mid-century ethnics struggling to find their place in the sun, we should be mindful that victims can become killers, or short of that, pretty bad dudes. That moment, with all its masculine anxiety and insecurity, helped produce, or at least exacerbated, all sorts of mischief—from operatic, almost lunatic, sexism (again, think Roth, the characters in his book, I mean) to Israeli thuggery (I’ve known more than a few Jewish men who’ve told me how much they identify with the power and machismo of the Israeli state and its soldiers).

But perhaps we can mobilize this empathy in a more productive way. For what these transcripts also made me think of is how women so often feel today in predominantly male settings, where their contributions are not heard, their voices are ignored, their comments somehow diminished in subtle ways—and ways that they often find themselves alone in recognizing. Their male colleagues remain totally clueless, and if any of the sexism were pointed out to those men, they’d be genuinely and sincerely shocked, so focused are they on the other men in the room.

You were once strangers in the land of Egypt: That is the moral core of what Judaism teaches us. To remember that we were strangers, not so that we can remain stuck in our victimhood (with all the thuggery that that memory of victimhood is meant to authorize) but so that we, who have now arrived, remember what it was like to be on the receiving end of power, what it was like to be invisible, so that we don’t treat others the way we once were treated.

Remember what it was like to be a stranger in Egypt, to be the Jew in the room. Understand what it is like to be the woman in the room. On this, the last day of Passover.

Update (4 pm)

Turns out I was wrong about Simon. He wasn’t Jewish. He was Lutheran. Apparently, lots of Jews made the same mistake of thinking he was Jewish.


  1. Louise Bernikow April 7, 2018 at 11:42 am | #

    Thank you for this. Working on Jewish women and the suffrage movement, I’m finding mirrors of what you describe– an entirely Christian atmosphere/world view et al….

  2. Morisettian Ironist April 7, 2018 at 11:50 am | #

    Interesting. I know this is a general impression from a large amount to text but It would be good to see a few quotes.

  3. Barbara Winslow April 7, 2018 at 1:11 pm | #

    Wasn’t, it true that the Republicans told Specter he had to be Hill’s hatchet prosecutor, accuser, tormentor? That is if he ever was to Chair the Judiciary Committee. Fascinating insight. I do not want to relive those hearings, so I trust your insights, Corey.

  4. David Alan Boyd April 7, 2018 at 2:00 pm | #

    It is remarkable how quickly amnesia can set in on the part of those who have suffered oppression, once they are themselves placed in a position of power; how quickly the tables are turned and the oppressed become the oppressor. This reminds me of Yehudi Menuhin’s speech to the Israeli Knesset when he was awarded the Wolf Prize. He said:

    “This wasteful governing by fear, by contempt for the basic dignities of life, this steady asphyxiation of a dependent people, should be the very last means to be adopted by those who themselves know too well the awful significance, the unforgettable suffering of such an existence. It is unworthy of my great people, the Jews, who have striven to abide by a code of moral rectitude for some 5,000 years, who can create and achieve a society for themselves such as we see around us but can yet deny the sharing of its great qualities and benefits to those dwelling amongst them.”

    Oppression is corrosive, in all of its forms.

  5. jonnybutter April 7, 2018 at 3:20 pm | #

    Great sermon (sincerely meant). I don’t even have to watch the video to know exactly what Corey is talking about. I remember that kind of crap very well.

    My wife and I were at a professional dinner (her – intense – profession) with a few of her mostly male colleagues just this week. At one point she was speaking to the guy giving the talk – actually answering a substantive question he asked her, fwiw, Mid sentence he turned away as if she wasn’t talking or wasn’t even there. I was sitting right next to her. We both looked at each other and raised our eyebrows. Identical thought bubbles appeared above our heads: ASSHOLE.

    This kind of crap happens to her and other women – ‘professional’ or not – all the time, and it’s not something you can exactly complain about (which is why they do it precisely that way). it’s subtle but withering. I’m still mad about it and it happened several days ago. Honestly, I’ve been treated that way too, but not relentlessly, like women are.

  6. Ted Grimsrud April 7, 2018 at 6:53 pm | #

    This is an interesting and insightful piece. But I am curious why you would think that Paul Simon was Jewish. He was a Lutheran from my hometown of Eugene, Oregon.

    From Wikipedia: “Simon was born in Eugene, Oregon. He was the son of Martin Simon, a Lutheran minister and missionary to China, and Ruth (née Tolzmann), a Lutheran missionary as well. His family was of German descent. Simon attended Concordia University, a Lutheran school in Portland. He later attended the University of Oregon and Dana College in Blair, Nebraska, but never graduated.”

    • Corey Robin April 7, 2018 at 7:41 pm | #

      Yes, I know. I updated the post several hours ago in acknowledgment of the error.

      • medgeek April 12, 2018 at 4:19 pm | #

        It’s easy to mix up the origins of Paul Simon the senator with Paul Simon the singer/songwriter, both of whom are great men in my humble opinion.

  7. jonnybutter April 7, 2018 at 8:07 pm | #

    I also thought Paul Simon was Jewish, and he was my senator. Maybe everybody thought he was, which would be the same thing in this case. Certainly members of the public probably thought so. On the other hand, maybe Heflin checked and discreetly filled everybody in yay or nay (pronounced ‘jew-eesh’)

  8. Paul Sawyer April 8, 2018 at 2:21 pm | #

    Bravo, Corey. A fascinating reading of an event I thought I knew well. This WASP male – married to a Jewish woman, father of two girls who are dedicated social activists – feels blessed by your Passover message. None of us should forget what it feels like to be a stranger in the land, and what we owe to others, no matter what our position in a hierarchy of privilege and power. Thank you!

  9. Lichanos April 9, 2018 at 8:22 am | #

    So if you thought Simon was a Jew, what does that say about the accuracy of your other observations?? Just sayin’. ???

  10. Roquentin April 10, 2018 at 12:51 pm | #

    It’s interesting to me how certain forms of racism go in and out of fashion like clothes and music. To take a personal example, when I was really young, it wasn’t uncommon to hear “Pollock Jokes.” Now, you don’t even hear that sort of thing among hardcore racists. The targets are different. They’ve moved on to Muslims and Latinos mostly, I guess. Anti-Catholicism was big at one point too, which seems almost inconceivable today.

    I’ll just close by saying that I really like the Twin Cities and I like Minnesota. I like living here, and I mean that, but I was shocked to discover that parts of it had been extremely Anti-Sememtic in the mid 20th century. Edina, which is generally considered to be a ritzy suburb not unlike Park Slope in Brooklyn, and generally liberal as well, explicity barred Jews and anyone non-white from owning property there in the 1950s. (Source: http://www.startribune.com/edina-s-racist-past-is-focus-of-wikipedia-edit-war/290835531/)

    I’ve lived in a lot of places with a lot of different people, but racism is one of those things that’s like turning over a rock that looks clean on the surface but is caked with dirt and bugs on the bottom. It’s pretty much universal. New York was certainly no exception.

    • Lichanos April 11, 2018 at 9:10 am | #

      Good points, but in the USA, it’s a safe bet that blacks are a target. Just history, ya know…

  11. Richard Lachmann May 1, 2018 at 5:50 pm | #

    If 1 of the 3 supposed marginal senators turns out not to be Jewish, it could be other factors. Metzenbaum and Simon were well to the left of all the others on the committee including Kennedy (who in any case got a pass since he was a Kennedy, one of the most senior senators even then, and not especially effective in actually passing liberal programs). It is easy to project our fears and insecurities onto a transcript that can’t get at the tone and facial expressions. My memories (obviously now clouded by 25 yers of distance) was that Spector loved playing the role of prosecutor.

  12. marc May 11, 2018 at 12:52 pm | #

    Honestly, not intending to be personal here but just raise the question — I wonder how much of this is projection on your part. It seems like you are associating what you perceive to be a certain kind of perhaps nebbishy leftism as stereotypically Jewish and somehow not masculine, and finding evidence others perceive it this way. I mean, you project a non-Jew (Simon) as Jewish) because he fits that stereotype, and completely ignore another Jew who was on the Committee at the time (Herb Kohl) who doesn’t really fit the stereotype personally, although he is liberal as well.

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