August 24, 2000
A Tale of Two Liebermans.
"Is America a great country or what? (APPLAUSE)
Yes it is. God bless America, land that we love."
- Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, Los Angeles, Aug. 16, 2000
Like most American Jews, I'm a Democrat by tradition and temperament. Still, I understand why some Jews might not vote for Joe Lieberman. Nowhere is it written that you should vote for someone just because he's a Jew. For some American Jews, Lieberman is too liberal. For others, too conservative. Another reason why I like him: He doesn't quite fit in any box.
But what I don't get - I mean really don't - is how Jews can be so gripped by anxiety (even if filled with pride) over the nomination of a Jew for vice president. From where I sit in Jerusalem, to which I emigrated from Los Angeles 12 years ago, the collec-tive worrying of my American Jewish cousins over the candidacy of the honorable and immensely qualified Lieberman is a source of considerable ironic amusement. Ladies and gentlemen, what's your problem?
First of all, consider the contrast between the Old Country and the Old-New one, which can be boiled down to a Tale of Two Liebermans. Ours is called Avigdor, who landed here years back from the Soviet Union, began public life as a bouncer at a Hebrew University student pub, and ripened into a right-wing strongman with a small but strident Knesset party of his own called Yisrael Beiteinu (Israel is our home).
Adamantly opposed to a peace deal with the Palestinians and an embittered veteran of police investigation, he has lately been busy plotting the comeback of his buddy Bibi Netanyahu - with whom he shares a gift for the demagogic exploitation of the resentments that luxuriate in Israel's torrid social climate - on the shoulders of an implaus-ible but potentially formidable entente between politicians of Russian and Moroccan extraction, whose loyalists share little by way of values save a feeling of exclusion from the Israeli mainstream. If your Lieberman signals a new wind in national politics, with unpredictable ramifications, ours, I regret to tell you, does the same.
Next, on the matter of an Orthodox guy in the executive mansion: I fully understand how so many American Jews, brought up to believe with perfect faith that opening the store on Saturdays and eating like a normal person make a man wealthy, wise and upwardly mobile, are knocked off-balance, even made uncomfortable, by someone who won't drive on Shemini Atzeret and turned out anyway to be the most accomplished Jew - at least till November and hopefully beyond - in American political history. I also recognize that Lieberman is prone to invoke the Divinity with a frequency more usually associated with the kind of folks who give Jews willies, but let me remind you that you - as opposed to us - are protected from religious excess by a very high wall separating synagogue and state. Prime Minister Barak, his political future growing dimmer by the day, has just uncorked a plan to establish civil marriage and do away with the Ministry of Religious Affairs. A swell idea, so far as most Israelis are concerned, but about as likely at the moment as Arafat trading in his fatigues for an Armani suit. Is America a great country or what?
Here in the Holy Land, we have a brand-new president named Moshe Katsav, an amiable Likud apparatchik whose election by the Knesset over the heavily favored Nobel laureate Shimon Peres was no less shocking than Al Gore's anoint-ment of Joe Lieberman. Katsav is also an Orthodox Jew who wears his skullcap selectively, but there the resemblance ends.
Lieberman, in his debut interview with Larry King, said he had davened in Reform and Conservative shuls, and even a few churches in his time. Katsav's political patron is Shas party puppeteer Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, whose scurrilous comments about Arabs and Holocaust victims the new president was reluctant to denounce, preferring to scold two leading secular politicians for insufficient respect for religion. Katsav met with Israeli rabbis from the Reform and Conservative movements, the big news being that he told them he planned to be the president of all Israelis and would be happy to attend the movements' conferences - abroad, in order to promote aliyah. Presumably, if half a million Reform Jews move to Israel tomorrow, he may also attend their gatherings here.
Finally, what's gonna be? If Gore loses, will the Jews take the rap? If Bush wins, does it mean it will be a hundred years before another Jew gets picked? And if the Democrats win and God forbid something happens to Gore, there's Joe with his yarmulke in the Oval Office. But even if, God willing, Gore should live and be well, it's proof positive of the Elders of Zion - just look at the Internet!
Theodore Roosevelt, who named Oscar Straus commerce secretary back in 1906, first Jew in the cabinet, predicted there'd be a Jewish president someday. But is it healthy for us to be so successful, so conspicu-ous? What about the backlash? Look at Germany, look at Spain. What if the dot-com economy goes south? What if there's a war in Israel? What about dual loyalties, if the Arabs shut off the oil? Who'll get blamed? Won't it feel like a conspiracy? Greenspan, Rubin, Berger, Albright the Marrano, Lieberman?
Dear friends, it's only nervous Jews and anti-Semites who enjoy so fertile an imagination. In his classic story "The Sermon," the Israeli writer Haim Hazaz described the "moonlight psychology" of the Jews: "Persecution preserves us, keeps us alive. Without it, we couldn't exist. Did you ever see a community of Jews that was not suffering?" As an Israeli, I swell with pride that my American brethren, so often accused of assimilation, have upheld - in the face of such overwhelming obstacles - this glorious tradition.