Jewish Journal

Lieberman and the Jews

by Gene Lichtenstein

Posted on Aug. 10, 2000 at 8:00 pm

The selection of Sen. Joseph Lieberman as the Democratic vice presidential candidate, while clearly a political tactic, has nevertheless managed to thrill most of us, Jewish Republicans as well as Democrats. Even those most at ease with their access to, and success within, mainstream non-Jewish America were affected ... and surprised by being so moved. Albert Gore's inspired choice, regardless of political motive(s), crossed a line that touched every one of us.

There are some among us who immediately fell back on old, well-defended responses: Lieberman as vp is "bad for the Jews." It gives us high visibility, they argued, and will only bring out the latent (as well as open) anti-Semitism in Americans. Indeed, no sooner had Lieberman's name been put forward than the chat rooms on the Internet were flooded with hate messages.

Those angry voices, however, are never stilled, and any event, real or imagined, serves as a pretext for unloading vile and disturbed feelings - against Jews, Blacks, gays, Catholics, Latinos, against almost any minority or perceived "outsider," and against the government itself. The irony is that, in today's America, the chat room men and women are the outsiders.

The other reservation, also misguided, is that Lieberman's candidacy will open the door for expressions of polite and genteel anti-Semitism from Americans within the establishment. It is no longer appropriate, or even acceptable, in most urban circles to "mouth off" against Jews. If nothing else, someone in the room may have a son or daughter married to someone who is Jewish. We are part of the larger society.

Still, there will always be anxiety for some Jews. The past does not suddenly disappear. Nor do memories or stories handed down from one generation to the next. There is recognition that a presidential campaign is a public event and that it may well give license to those who ever so civilly wish to push us aside, perceiving Jews to be a group trying to replace them and their offspring within the social and professional hierarchy.

All of these Jewish concerns may well be embedded in reality, may in fact contain a grain of truth, but they should not dampen our enthusiasm. American Jews in the year 2000 are part and parcel of these United States and are perceived to be so by those on the right and the left. For better or ill, we are insiders today. We enjoy acceptance, support and inclusion from non-Jews. And most of us are confident in who we are as Americans and as Jews, and proud enough of what we have achieved (for our nation) to stand up for ourselves.

A Political Choice

Political spins have an upside and a downside. The upside of Al Gore's vice presidential choice is that he has made a bold move that looks (and is) moral and decisive. He has redefined and extended our ethnic boundary lines, an act that touches Blacks and Latinos and Asians as well as Jews. By emphasizing Lieberman's religious background, choosing him in part because he is observant, rather than despite it, Gore has also staked out a claim for the high ground: God and family and strong cultural values. Politically it should play well in middle America, in the Bible Belt and among evangelical Christians, perhaps turning the tide for Gore in some of the Midwestern and Southern states. At least that is the hope. It is almost enough to raise the hackles of secular Jews whose first commandment often is the First Amendment.

Lieberman may also finally detach Vice President Gore from President Clinton. His politics seem genuinely grounded in his religious beliefs - in his commitment to moral values. The political aim is for Lieberman to deflect much of the Republican campaign, which looks as though it will emphasize social pieties, and which seems geared to run, in part, against Clinton.

The political downside could be that Lieberman is something of a maverick, a moral politician who often goes his own way. That way has been far more conservative than many Democratic groups like, and far more conservative than Al Gore himself. Lieberman has backed school vouchers to the approval of many in the Orthodox community but to the dismay of many other Jews, not to mention the teachers' unions. He has also come out against affirmative action (an issue supported by most Black Americans) and in support of world trade agreements, not high on the AFL-CIO's approval list.

But, then, Joseph Lieberman is the vice presidential candidate, the number-two man whose task it is to trail dutifully behind the man who selected him, to line up with the presidential contender on campaign issues. He is also a close personal friend of Albert Gore. All of these factors will come under the heading of political realities.

There is also a potential political gain from this most conventional politician's unconventional side. During an interview a year ago, he and I talked about the tendency of many Orthodox Jews to associate primarily, even exclusively, with other Jews. Well, of course, many of my close friends are Jewish, he said. But many are not. Every New Year's Eve, he indicated, he and his wife tried to get together with three of his oldest and closest friends and their wives. Lieberman and his wife were the only Jews among the four couples.He happened to be in Los Angeles the day I interviewed him to speak at a fundraiser. For which Jewish organization? I asked him. He flashed me a grin. For your speaker of the Assembly, Antonio Villaraigosa, he said. We're friends.

In one dramatic move, Al Gore has made the political campaign suddenly exciting. Certainly for America's Jews, but I suspect for the rest of the nation as well.

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