February 6, 2003
A Homeland Paves the Way for Lieberman
I was pulling on my socks in a San Francisco hotel room when Sen. Joe Lieberman, in his hometown of Stamford, Conn., announced he was running for president, live on CNN.
I don't know about you, but I found this mighty moving. Whether or not you identify with his political positions or his Orthodox religiosity, it's hard not to feel a rush of satisfaction. Yes, there are Jews who fret that he's too conservative, or that his crusade against Hollywood sex and violence will hurt Democratic fundraising, or that he might divert Jewish donors whose dollars would be better spent ensuring an Israel-friendly Congress. There are those who cringe every time he utters the word "God," which sometimes seems like every third sentence, and those who worry that if he's elected, and the economy really tanks, that the Jews will get blamed. But c'mon, how can you not kvell over a man with a wife named Hadassah? And that sharp Jewish sense of humor, and a mother who serves rugelach to reporters? Lieberman is the real thing, and he's got a real shot. Heck, the man was elected vice president in 2000 by half a million votes, but then, of course, some (ahem) technical difficulties got in the way.
It struck me as significant that a day earlier, flying out to the West Coast, I had read the New York Times obituary of another Jew in American politics, or more correctly an ex-Jew, twice removed. Readers my age or older may also have taken special notice of the passing, at age 93, of C. Douglas Dillon, the distinguished Wall Street financier who served as John F. Kennedy's treasury secretary.
When I saw his name in the headline, I recalled at once -- Jews (and I suppose anti-Semites, too) automatically remember such things -- that C. Douglas Dillon's father, Clarence Dillon, founder of the investment bank now known as Warburg Dillon Read, was the son of a Polish Jew. The Times confirmed my recollection: The immigrant grandfather was named Samuel Lapowski, who, according to the obit, settled in Texas, changed his name, and "began ... propelling his children to higher social strata through education."
The Harvard University Gazette also marked Dillon's demise -- he was Class of '31, his father '05 -- citing his service as president of Harvard's Board of Overseers and president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, but omitting to mention the long-irrelevant Lapowski connection.
Is America a great country, or what? By the time Joe Lieberman (Yale '64, Yale Law '67) had propelled himself upward by means of first-class education, the country had changed dramatically. Kennedy had succeeded where his Roman Catholic predecessor, Al Smith, had failed.
In contradistinction to Edward G. Robinson and Lauren Bacall, Barbra Streisand had retained her Jewish name and became a superstar, nevertheless. And now -- drumroll please -- we have the serious possibility of a man in the Oval Office who is not only called Lieberman but is shomer Shabbat. What has made the difference?
Call me a Zionist, but I think it has everything to do with the existence of the State of Israel. Back in 1936 -- another era in Jewish history -- the editors of Fortune published a short book called "Jews in America," a reprint of a long essay that had appeared in that highly respected magazine.
Hitler had come to power, and the winds of anti-Semitism blew disturbingly in the United States, as well. Henry Ford and the Rev. Charles Coughlin after him saw the tentacles of Jewish control everywhere, and Fortune undertook to prove such bigots wrong. Still, the editors' well-intentioned words betrayed the scent of patrician condescension: "The outstanding fact about the Jewish people," according to Fortune, "is the fact that they have preserved, though scattered among the nations of the earth, their national identity. They are unique among the peoples of the world not because they have bold noses -- only a small percentage of Jews have the Jewish nose -- but because they alone, of all peoples known to history, have retained in exile and dispersion and over periods of thousands of years their distinction from the peoples among whom they live."
"The Jew is everywhere, and everywhere the Jew is strange," the magazine said. "Japanese are strangers in California but not in Japan. Scotsmen are outlanders in Paris but not in Edinburgh. The Jews are outlanders everywhere. The country of the Jew, as Schopenhauer puts it, is other Jews."
With the founding of the Jewish State, Fortune's claim went out the window. The strange and omnipresent "Jew" now had a country, where, like Frenchmen in France, he was the balebos, the landlord, the host -- a country of Hebrew-speaking cops, cab drivers and cardiovascular surgeons.
And this meant that Jews the world over could stand taller than ever, rising to new social and professional heights, proudly asserting their identity as never before. In other words, David Ben-Gurion enabled Joe Lieberman.
Here in Israel, we, too, will be electing a new government -- much sooner, of course, than back in the Old Country. By the time you read these words, the results may be in, and the pundits will be pumping out gallons of explanatory ink.
Will the new government be inclined to enhance this country's democratic credentials -- our most valuable strategic asset? How long will the prestige of the Jewish state continue to reflect beneficially on Jews in Texas and Connecticut and Illinois? Will the rising global tide of renewed anti-Semitism abate anytime soon?
These are weighty questions for another day. In the meantime, with Iraq on our fevered brain, we in Israel thank our stars for our close ties to the United States -- a recognition that came home to me yet again as my taxi, climbing back from the airport to Jerusalem, passed a convoy of American military trucks bearing Patriot missile launchers into the Jewish heartland.
Stuart Schoffman is an associate editor of the Jerusalem Report and a columnist for the JUF News of Chicago. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.