The kids are all right

It was a lucky coincidence that Freshmen Parents Weekend at my daughter’s college, which was also my college, came right on the heels of the presidential election.

Lucky for me, because the weekend mercifully obliterated my nostalgia for the tumult of my own undergraduate career. Lucky for the country, because what happened there on election night occurred as well on campuses across the country. It turns out the kids are all right after all.

The college in question is Harvard. I was a student there during the ’60s, an era that actually slopped over a bit into the ’70s, and a time I have fondly thought back on as The Revolution.

Both my sophomore and junior years were cut short — classes and exams were canceled — because of student reaction, and administrative overreaction, to the Vietnam War, the invasion of Cambodia and the draft. My classmates, and sometimes I, picketed when Dow Chemical, maker of napalm, came to campus to recruit, and when the U.S. military, user of napalm, also came to campus to recruit. To protest the war, students did things like occupy buildings, which led to the protesters being tear-gassed and billy-clubbed. The killing of four students by national guardsmen at Kent State triggered a student strike. The end of student deferments and the institution of a Selective Service lottery prompted marches and mobilizations. Professors, dazed and confused, took to holding classes outside and turning them into “teach-ins” and “rap sessions.”

It was disorienting, it was scary — and it was wonderful.

Not to my parents, of course, who were clearly uneasy about my lengthening hair, widening bell-bottoms and anti-war mouth, all of which were alarmingly evident at their welcome-home-from-Vietnam party for my older brother.

Nor was it wonderful to the fledgling neoconservatives on campus and their fellow travelers beyond it, who dismissed our protests as drug-addled self-indulgence, promiscuity masquerading as liberation, privileged kids play-acting as proletarians and the consequence of too many permissive parents paying too much heed to Dr. Spock.

Nor was it wonderful to the college’s administrators. A few years after we graduated, the Harvard president with whom we had crossed swords, divinity scholar Nathan Pusey, told a Harvard professor that my cohort, the class of ’71, had surely been Harvard’s “worst class ever.” Worst class ever! What a tribute! When this lament appeared in an article in the Harvard alumni magazine, it so tickled my classmates that from then on the hats and T-shirts at our college reunions have been proudly emblazoned with the acronym WCE.

Since then, and until last week, I had regarded those years as the high-water mark of political engagement by American youth — not just among my classmates, but across the country. The presidential election of 1972, which for the first time included 18-year-olds, saw the highest-ever participation by young voters. The peace movement may not have ended the war, but it marked the beginning of the end. Human relations may not have been forever transformed by our self-conscious consciousness-raising, but it is arguable that without it, neither feminism nor gay rights would have burst onto the American scene with the power that they did.

The downward trajectory of youth political engagement since then has been dispiriting. As the percentage of young people turning out to vote has declined, the mitigating straw I have always grasped at has been the concurrent increase in youth voluntarism — the proliferation of service-oriented local activism that came to be called the “thousand points of light.” But the rise of voluntarism among Gen X, Gen Y and the Millennials, however beneficial to its clients and fulfilling to its practitioners, has always seemed — to me, anyway — an unfortunate step away from the public square, from civic engagement, from actual politics.

Last week, that changed.

Don’t get me wrong: The kids at Harvard still mentor fifth-grade girls in South Boston who need role models to become strong women. They still tutor immigrants preparing for their citizenship examination. They still work the counter at AIDS thrift shops. (I didn’t pick those examples at random; it’s some of what I learned my daughter has been up to in her first eight weeks at college.)

But these kids also do politics. During this past presidential election, they worked phone banks and walked precincts and raised money. They volunteered in campaign field offices and lobbied their bubbies to support their candidate. And they voted. Eighteen- to 29-year olds turned out in record-breaking numbers on Nov. 4 — up to 24 million of them in one estimate, a nearly 25 percent increase over 2004. Their demographic was crucial in electing Obama. And when the networks announced his win, the lawns of Harvard Yard and the streets of Cambridge spontaneously filled with thousands of whooping and cheering young citizens.

It didn’t happen just at Harvard; as I learned anecdotally, eruptions of student excitement occurred on campuses from coast to coast. And not just on campuses: As I drove across Los Angeles on election night, I saw clusters of teens and kids in their 20s celebrating on random street corners, high-fiving drivers at red lights. They may not have marched on the Pentagon to end the war in Iraq, but they have given the nation a new president who has pledged to do just that. For the first time since the springtime of the baby boomers, they have become not just consumers to be marketed to, but a political force to be reckoned with.

And because they have already been deeply engaged in providing services to their neighbors and their communities, because they have seen the scale of social neediness with their own eyes, they know firsthand that neither voluntarism nor the market is going to be enough to meet the horrendous problems of society — poverty, joblessness, bad health, bad schools and despair.

Of course, if you believe that the wrong man was elected president, you will find in my account yet more evidence that elites are antagonistic to the real America. But if you are still stunned, and happily so, by the outcome of the race, you may find hope, as I do, in a new generation’s political engagement. I realized last weekend that I could safely retire my tales of the good old days on the barricades. These kids don’t need encouragement to emulate us. They have come boldly into their own, and it is a deep pleasure for at least this one alter-kacker to make way for them.

Marty Kaplan holds the Norman Lear chair in Entertainment, Media and Society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. His column appears here weekly. He can be reached at

Obama — who won 78% of Jewish vote — faces global disarray, Mideast challenges

WASHINGTON (JTA) – Barack Obama emerges from a maelstrom into a vacuum.

The U.S. senator from Illinois has survived the longest and roughest election season in memory to assume control of a free world in free fall: A collapsing economy, a resurgent Iran, an obstreperous Russia.

“He’s going to have his hands full with a recession, a housing crisis, Wall Street, domestic legislation, Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran,” said David Makovsky, a senior analyst with the Washington Center for Near East Policy.

No matter who was elected president, they would have to to re-accrue the political capital squandered by President Bush in his last years of office, said Steven Spiegel, a political scientist at UCLA. Obama, however, makes a better case than Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), his Republican rival, Spiegel said.

“What Obama is really offering is the olive branch in one hand and the other is a fist,” he said.

Conservatives and some Republicans tried to use Obama’s exotic background against him, particularly in the Jewish community. But in the end, voters went with the son of a woman from small-town Kansas and a nominally Muslim father from the Kenyan hills–a choice that some observers say will be likelier to repair relations with an international community alienated by a president who once famously said nations either stand with or against the United States.

“Obama can say ‘I’m a different person with a different approach, we’re going to work with you on global warming, family planning, we’re going to be broader in our approach, we’re not looking for fights with Russia, we have a much more nuanced policy,” Spiegel said.

M.J. Rosenberg, the legislative director of the Israel Policy Forum, which strongly favors an increased U.S. role in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiating process, said Obama’s unlikely path to the presidency was a game-changer when it comes to foreign policy.

“He was elected to the Senate four years ago, he defeated Hillary Clinton, he defeated John McCain, he’s African American. Because it’s a transformational presidency, he can do things other presidents might not have been able to do,” Rosenberg said.

It is precisely this possibility of possibility that excites or worries Jewish political activists, depending on their political stripes. Obama’s Jewish backers argue that his victory will provide a significant boost in U.S. credibility and influence that can be used to increase international pressure on Iran and support for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Detractors, on the other hand, have predicted that in his desire to win international respect, Obama could end up pressuring Israel and backing away from confrontation with Iran.

What’s clear, experts say, is that Obama faces an almost unprecedented challenge for a new president. Yoram Peri, a Tel Aviv University political scientist on sabbatical at American University in Washington, described a world facing fundamental historic changes.

“I’m thinking of periods such as after the Second World War when the super powers devised a new world, or the Vienna Congress” of 1814-1815 that re-configured Europe. “You need a complicated, comprehensive approach to the new situation.”

Don’t worry too much about Obama being “tested” as a young, inexperienced president, as the McCain campaign had charged, said Yitzhak Reiter, a Hebrew University professor who just published “War, Peace and International Relations in Islam”.

“Being an Israeli, I know that whenever a radical group has a plan in mind and are able to carry it out, they carry it out,” he said. “If they were able to challenge America, they would have done it by now.”

The most serious challenge, Peri said, is the potential of an Iran with nuclear weapons – a possibility, Israel believes, that could occur within two years.

“It will totally change the balance of power in the Middle East, not just because Iran might use the bomb, but because conventional power has been defined by non-conventional power, the fear that Israel has a nuclear capability,” he said. With a nuclear Iran, “assuming Hezbollah or Syria attacks Israel, Israel will be deterred from deterring them.”

The same goes for Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Persian Gulf states that fear Iranian hegemony. “The whole balance of power in the conventional sphere changes,” Peri said.

Obama’s likely path may be determined by those who advises him, Peri said, noting the preponderance of Clinton administration veterans who favor diplomatic engagement as the best path for ensuring Israel’s security. For example, in recent months, former U.S. Middle East negotiator Dennis Ross has emerged as Obama’s senior adviser on Israel and Iran; and his top staffer on Jewish issues has been another Clinton administration veteran, Daniel Shapiro.

“The people I know who are surrounding Obama have a more progressive view of the Middle East, want to see a peace between Israel and Palestinians, they see the differences in the Arab world and understand you have to take into account Arab interests vis-a-vis Iran,” Peri said.

Ross argues that the United States needs to play a more consistent and involved role in Israeli-Palestinian talks. But he also has ruled out the establishment of any “artificial” timelines for establishing a Palestinian state. On Iran, Ross has echoed Obama in arguing that the United States needs to increase its level of diplomatic engagement with Tehran–but says such an approach must be coupled with tougher sanctions in order to block Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons.

Mitchell Bard, the director of the American Israel Cooperative Enterprise and the author of “Will Israel Survive?,” was heartened by the Obama campaign’s stated intention to make Iran a priority in its first months. “He has to make some decisions early on to create some action to prevent Iran from getting to the point of no return,” Bard said.

He said Obama’s ability, proven during his campaign, to build alliances across the political spectrum would serve him well.

“He has the personal chemistry, the potential for building relationships,” Bard said, noting that Bush’s first term was well served by the personal relationship he developed with Tony Blair, the British prime minister at the time, despite policy differences.

Spiegel said Obama’s willingness to engage diplomatically suggested he would succeed where the Bush administration ran into a wall, in building an international alliance to isolate Iran.

“Obama starts out popular, people want to establish good relations; it’s going to be much easier to sell sanctions,” he said.

Under those circumstances, Spiegel said, Iran should soon face a ban on imports of refined fuel. Iran, with a refining infrastructure in disarray, relies on imports for 40 percent of its petroleum use. Such a ban, coupled with the decline in the price of crude, should hit the Iranian economy hard.

“If the price of oil is dropping and not rising, and with truly effective sanctions, then you’ve got a much better chance” of getting Iran to stand down from its weapons program, he said.

Obama has said he would couple sanctions with diplomatic outreach as a means of persuading Iran. Makovsky predicted that such an outreach would not take place until after Iranian presidential elections next summer in order not to hand a victory to incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has denied the Holocaust and who wishes Israel did not exist.

Jewish vote: Obama 78-21

By Eric Fingerhut

The first exit poll on the Jewish vote is out, and it has Barack Obama bettering John Kerry’s Jewish vote total from four years ago.

The preliminary poll, which is likely to be updated later this evening or tomorrow, has Obama receiving 78 percent of the Jewish vote, to just 21 percent for John McCain. Kerry garnered 74 percent of the Jewish vote in 2004, and Al Gore won 79 percent of the Jewish vote (with a Jewish running mate) eight years ago. The Jewish vote was 2 percent of the poll sample.

If those numbers hold up, it would vindicate Jewish Democrats like Rep. Robert Wexler, who claimed this summer — to skeptical reporters at the Democratic convention — that Obama would hit traditional levels of the Jewish vote for Democratic presidential candidates. At the time, Obama had been totaling slightly more than 60 percent in polls of Jewish voters.

If such outreach fails, Makovsky said, an Obama administration will at least have earned greater credibility if it is forced into a military option.

“If those negotiations don’t work, he will have some very tough calls to make but he will probably believe he is stronger for having made the approach,” he said.

Obama, who emphasized the Iraq quagmire during much of his campaign, was until recently believed to be likelier than McCain to have attempted to reshape the international alignment, tamping down tensions with Russia and refocusing international attention on Islamist extremism in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

That is less likely now with the economic crisis, Peri said. “Without the economic crisis, I think global issues would have been dealt with sooner,” he said.

Even with narrower expectations, experts agreed that the likeliest beneficiary of Obama’s victory in the Middle East would be Israel-Syria talks; Bush has discouraged this track, and McCain’s campaign suggested they would have continued that policy.

Israel and Syria, having engaged in back-channel talks through Turkey, have all but reached an agreement, including security arrangements, analysts say. Syria is seen as close to agreeing to pull itself out of Iran’s orbit and to cut off terrorist groups. The remaining obstacle is Syria’s desire to get back into the good graces of the United States, something that American hawks have been resisting in part because of Syria’s continued designs on Lebanon.

“It won’t take more than a few months to reach an agreement,” Peri said. “With a green light from the United States, the deal is done.”

Another factor favoring a Syrian agreement is that all the leading candidates in the Israeli elections – including Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu – have in the past committed themselves to a peace with Syria that would include a concession of at least part of the Golan Heights, the strategic plateau Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War.

Experts disagreed on what the Obama victory means for Israel-Palestinian negotiations. Peri and Makovsky noted the intractability of the Palestinian split, between moderates in the West Bank and Hamas terrorists in the Gaza Strip–a balance of power many believe makes the creation of a Palestinian state impossible at this time.

But Rosenberg of the Israel Policy Forum predicted that despite the Palestinian disarray, Obama would press the negotiations forward. The outline of an agreement is known, and achieving it would facilitate every other foreign policy initiative, he said.

“You get a hell a lot of mileage out of getting these two peoples together,” Rosenberg said. “A president who has the leadership to have a signing ceremony looks like a magician.”

But Obama’s Jewish detractors are concerned. Morton Klein, the president of the Zionist Organization of America, said his group had deep-seated worries about Obama, but as a tax-exempt organization could not speak of them until now.

“We are worried that he will put enormous pressure on Israel to make one-sided concessions to the Palestinian Arabs without demanding that the Palestinian Arabs fulfill their obligations” under peace agreements, Klein said.

Klein cited as a basis for his concerns Obama’s advisers, including Daniel Kurtzer, a former ambassador to Tel Aviv who has counseled pressuring Israel, and friendships with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Rashid Khalidi, all strident critics of Israel.

Regarding Iran, Klein referred to Obama’s pledge last year to meet with Ahmadinejad, saying: “Someone who said he will sit down with this Iranian Hitler, Ahmadinehjad, without preconditions is clearly someone who will not do what needs to be done to prevent nuclear weapons in his hands.”