Discomfort with Lieberman is partly explained by the fact that this pioneering Jewish politician is far from your typical American Jew. For starters, there’s his Orthodoxy, a stream of Judaism that represents only a tenth of American Jews. More significant is his very public use of faith-based language—particularly jarring to a community that has long seen a high wall of separation between church and state as the best guarantor of its place in American society. Finally, some on the Jewish left resent the fact that the country’s most liberal ethnic group has as its most visible representative an aggressively centrist politician.
Yet for all the ways in which Lieberman is atypical, there is also something very Jewish about his politics. Indeed, some of the hostility he arouses on the left, which often seems disproportionate to his transgressions—recall that his voting record earned him a respectable 76% lifetime rating from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action—is the result of a civil war raging within Jewish liberalism for more than half a century.
From the battles between fellow travelers and anti-communists in the early days of the cold war to the dueling worldviews of the largely Jewish staffs of The New Republic (which offered a lonely endorsement of Lieberman’s presidential candidacy) and The Nation (which hasn’t shown him much love), Jewish liberals are a fractious family. And Lieberman is the closest thing we have to a standard-bearer—however imperfect—for a particular kind of Jewish liberalism: skeptical of race-conscious public policies, vocally opposed to the ideological excesses of the academic left, bullish on America’s potential to advance the cause of freedom abroad and hawkishly pro-Israel.