By Steven Philp
Despite significant party shifts within the United States legislature, repeal of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) policy may be addressed by the Senate as soon as mid-December. In a press conference held on Thursday, Senator Joseph Lieberman (I-CT) explained that repeal of the policy – included in the National Defense Authorization Act – is no longer contingent on gathering enough votes, but in finding time for full and open debate. According to The Advocate, Sen. Lieberman told reporters, “I am confident that we have more than 60 votes prepared to take up the defense authorization with the repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ if only there will be a guarantee of a fair and open amendment process, in other words, whether we’ll take enough time to do it.” He was joined by twelve other senators, including fellow Jewish politicians Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Barbara Boxer (D-CA), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Benjamin Cardin (D-MD), and Al Franken (D-MN).
It is striking that half of the senators present at the press conference were Jewish. Indeed, Jewish senators have been at the forefront of fighting DADT from early on. Both Feinstein and Boxer were present in the Senate when “don’t ask, don’t tell” came to the floor in 1993, with the latter sponsoring the “Boxer amendment” to remove the policy from the parent Defense Authorization bill. Both voted against “don’t ask, don’t tell.” At the press conference, Boxer touched on her long-standing support for the LGBT community, saying that the vote for repeal is “a no-brainer.” Wyden has more recently added his voice to the debate. In a letter sent to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, he asked that the National Defense Authorization Act come to the floor with the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” included. “This law has resulted in a waste of military talent and resources,” Wyden explained. “It is time for the Senate to repeal it.” Cardin expressed his support for repeal early in the year, releasing a statement on his Web site explaining that the policy “runs contrary to the core American belief of equality.” Franken has been a vocal opponent of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” famously coming close to tears on the Senate floor after Republicans filibustered an initial attempt at repeal of the policy in September.
But can the movement to repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell” count on support from every Jew in the Senate? Jewish senators absent from the press conference include Carl Levin (D-MI), Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), Herb Kohl (D-WI), Charles Schumer (D-NY), Bernard Sanders (I-VT), Michael Bennet (D-CO), and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT). Levin, who serves as Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has been an important ally in the fight to repeal “don’t ask, don’t tell.” In a opinion piece authored February, Levin criticized the policy stating, “I did not find the arguments used to justify ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ convincing when it took effect in 1993, and they are less so now.” Lautenberg has also come out against the policy, tweeting his support for repeal after being targeted by pop singer Lady Gaga in September. With Lautenberg, Kohl voted for the initial repeal that failed to pass that same month. Schumer was an early supporter for repeal; at the Empire State Pride Agenda in October 2009 he expressed his desire to be one of the first co-sponsors for an amendment overturning DADT. Like his colleagues from California, Sanders also voted against “don’t ask, don’t tell” when it was originally proposed in 1993. On his Web site he expresses his support for LGBT service people stating, “As a nation, we owe those who desire to dedicate their lives to service an equal chance to do so.” Bennet also went to the Internet to express his support for repeal, uploading a Youtube response to two students from the University of Colorado who had posted a video urging their senator to come out against “don’t ask, don’t tell.” Blumenthal has been less vocal about his opinion on the policy, prompting a student at George Washington University to solicit a position from the former Attorney General when he was running for Senate this past November. The student related his conversation with Blumenthal on his blog, conveying the senator’s opposition to “don’t ask, don’t tell.”
Considering the divisiveness of issues concerning the LGBT community, it’s remarkable that the Jewish presence in the Senate is not only unanimously opposed to “don’t ask, don’t tell” but includes many of the most vocal advocates for repeal of the policy. Reading the arguments presented by each senator, there is a strong appeal to tzedek, or justice. Not only does “don’t ask, don’t tell” come with significant costs to the military budget and personnel, it prevents the realization of justice within the body that was designed to protect that very American – and Jewish – value (see Moment‘s column on Israel’s example on DADT). This support is not insignificant for their LGBT constituents; unlike the House, there has never been an openly gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender member of the Senate. Although “don’t ask, don’t tell’s” repeal remains uncertain for this congress, it is comforting to know that Jewish senators will continue to fight for what’s right.