Recent years have seen an explosion of articles and books about the failure of American Jews to do enough to save some of the 6 million victims of Hitler's genocide. I sometimes think this exercise is excessively accusatory and guilt-ridden. But perhaps not. Let the examination continue. But for me the primary lesson of that period has always been clear. It is that, with all the good intentions and all the anguish felt and expressed by American Jews in the '30s and '40s, the Jewish community had not yet developed the political know- how, the political clout, the political effectiveness that we have today.
It boggles the mind and it pains the heart to ask this simple question: if in the late '30s and early '40s we had developed the lobbying effectiveness and coalitional support that we have today -- the ability to muster 70 or 80 senators, 300 or 400 congressmen, sometimes in a single day or week, to express their collective anguish and their collective demands when Israel is threatened or when Soviet Jewry needs special support; if we had had that kind of community capability, for example, to press Franklin Roosevelt and his White House associates to spare a single plane to bomb the railroad tracks to Auschwitz or to open our doors to more refugees -- yes, it is painful to ask, how many of those 6 million might have been spared?
That number -- 6 million -- keeps repeating itself in my mind over and over again. Not only because among those 6 million were 80 of my own relatives in Poland, but because that also is the combined number today of Israeli Jews and Soviet Jews who demand our vigilant attention every day of our lives. And 6 million is also the number of Jews in our own beloved America -- 6 million fortunate enough to live in this free land, but also fortunate to be in a position to take action on behalf of the other 6 million. . . .
So I feel good about being a part of the Jewish effort to make our people secure in a world still hostile to us. But I feel fortunate also about being able to do it here in the nation's capital. . . .
I choose to remember some glorious days in Washington -- and to express profound thanks for having responsibilities that made it possible to witness and even to be a part of some of them.
How can I ever forget the good fortune I had to obtain a precious pass to the Senate gallery that night in 1954 when Joe McCarthy was finally repudiated and censured by the Senate? Or that afternoon in 1963, stretched out tirn the grass at the Lincoln Memorial and jumping to my feet when it was clear that Martin Luther King had started what was bound to be a historic speech about a dream, in his words, for "all of God's children."
Or that morning in 1971, when the prime minister of Israel, looking like everybody's grandmother right off the ship, stood next to the president of the United States on the South Lawn of the White House -- surrounded by hundreds of American and Israel flags -- and then, with Hatikvah being played, played by the U.S. Marine band. Yes, the Marine band. There I was, a man in his fifties, trying unsuccessfully to hold back tears.
And seven years later there was another White House meeting, this time on the North Lawn. Again, an American president and an Israeli prime minister. But this time joined by an Egyptian president, signing the historic Camp David peace treaty.
And how can I not mention one more memorable White House gathering, this time in the East Room. At a Yom Hashoa ceremony, with the president and Cabinet members and senators and congressmen present, to hear a cantor from Atlanta singing the Yiddish words of H. Leivik. Yiddish in the White House!
To remember such events is to feel reassured that there is no conflict between our great love for this blessed land of ours and our deep feelings for Israel and for our Jewishness -- that not only are such feelings compatible, they are mutually reinforcing.
But, finally, there is one moment I consider perhaps the finest of all -- and there is nothing explicitly Jewish about it. Nothing Jewish? In some ways, it's the most Jewish of all.
It was way back in 1949, the year before I came to work and live here. I was an economist with the Amalgamated Clothing Workers. We were supporting an increase in the federal minimum wage to 75 cents an hour. Yes, 75 cents. We decided that in addition to so-called expert witnesses, we should bring to the Senate hearing what is known as a "victim" witness, someone for whom the 75 cents would have direct meaning.
We located a woman aged about 30, a shirtmaker from Tennessee. She was to sit next to me, say a few words, and answer questions about her standard of living at the 40 or 50 cents an hour she was then earning. She was nervous, wasn't sure what she'd be able to say. I tried to calm her, kidded her about holding her hand under the witness table.
And then she did her job. I have goose pimples whenever I recall one particular piece of her testimony. I have gone to the transcript for Ora Green's exact words:
"My youngest girl, she's 9 now, goes straight to the piano when we go to a house where they have one. She does want to learn to play the piano so bad. I've thought maybe I could save 50 cents or a dollar a week to buy a second-hand piano for her, no matter how old or battered it was. But try as hard as I can, and save and squeeze, I haven't found a way to do it yet."
By this time, the senators had stopped shuffling papers before them. They had leaned forward and were looking directly at this woman from Tennessee. She went on:
"Maybe I've been foolish to talk to you people about music for one of my children when the main question is getting enough to eat and wear, or blankets to put on the bed, or even a chair to sit on. But down in Tennessee we love music, and factory workers don't live by bread alone any more than anyone else does."
I cherish that memory because it tells us so much. It tells us that in every human being there is indeed a spark of the divine; that even hard-nosed cynical senators can be affected by a cry of anguish; and that with all its limitations, our American democracy makes it possible for such precious moments to occur. And, of course, it tells us how important it is never to stop caring about shirt workers in Tennessee or grape pickers in California or the 40 percent of black youngsters who are unable to find jobs.
If it should indeed be true that in my lifetime I have helped even one Jew or one Haitian or one Pole escape persecution; if indeed I have helped even one ghetto youngster escape from poverty; if indeed I have helped one daughter of a Tennessee shirtmaker get to play on her own piano -- if these things are true, then all that is left for me to say is that I thank God that I was given the opportunities to make some personal contribution, small as it might be, to making life a little bit easier, a little bit sweeter, a little bit more secure, for some fellow human beings.