Monday, January 20, 2003

The Lieberman Factor

If my family is a barometer, we are in for much division among Jews about Joe Lieberman’s candidacy. The disagreement will not be along conventional Democratic-Republican or ideological lines but about whether it’s good for Jews to have a Jew in the White House.

Mr. Lieberman obviously is a serious candidate and right now probably the Democratic front-runner. He has name recognition and he performed strongly as Al Gore’s running mate. His prospects are not impaired by the caliber of the competition, an uninspiring lot whose main attribute is a desire to be President. The possible exception is Al Sharpton, in my view a scoundrel who befouls all that he touches. If what happened some years ago in New York’s Democratic senatorial primary is a guide, he will get a good share of Jewish votes, providing further evidence of the deepening moral crisis in the liberal left circles where Sharpton’s misdeeds are selling points. Republicans at least had the decency to disavow David Duke.

When Senator Lieberman announced his candidacy, he was asked about his religion and faith. His response was sincere and, in a way, moving, saying that while he was not going to campaign as a Jew, being Jewish was part of his essence. I like that, but there are Jews – mainly Orthodox I think – who are worried. They fret that because he is Jewish and not merely by birth but also in practice and commitment, he would feel obliged to demonstrate to the 98% of Americans who are not Jewish that his religion does not influence his public positions and, as a result, he would act in ways that are harmful to Jewish and Israeli interests.

There is something quirky about this reasoning. The fellow has been in public life for nearly three decades and there is zero in his record that gives credence to this pessimistic view. That is, unless we regard his willingness to meet with Palestinian leaders and support for a Palestinian State as evidence of an anti-Israel bias. Since most Israelis and most Jews everywhere else take a similar position, it’s hard to figure out what all the agita is about.

When John F. Kennedy was a presidential candidate in 1960, there were plenty of questions about his Catholicism. But they came from outside his religious community, mainly from those Protestants who feared that the country would be in for some kind of Papacy should he be elected. Catholics weren’t worried about JFK double-crossing them. While he did well with these voters, that had more to do with the tendency of certain ethnic groups to support Democrats than with Catholics supporting one of their own.

The time will come, perhaps soon, when we’ll have a major party Black presidential or vice-presidential candidate. For all of the lingering charges of Uncle Tomism directed at Blacks who are accepted by the Establishment, I doubt that a Colin Powell would get the kind of reception in Black quarters that Lieberman has been getting from some Jews.

The anti-Lieberman Jewish claque unwittingly shares with anti-semites the view that his being Jewish will bring about unwelcome outcomes. There is, of course, the important distinction that Jews who are unhappy believe that Lieberman would be bad for the Jews, while anti-semites believe that he would be bad for the country.

For his part, Mr. Lieberman is saying – or I think he is – that he is a Democrat and a public official and for the most part how he votes and his public service have nothing to do with religion. If he is hawkish on Iraq or security matters, it’s because he believes that that is what is best for America. His being Jewish is not entirely irrelevant to his public persona. Thus, his position against certain cultural excesses which result in his being labeled a social conservative may echo elements of his religious faith, yet that faith is primarily a personal matter. It defines what he eats, but at times not where he eats; it defines his observance of the Sabbath, but does not preclude for him certain public activities; it is the basis for his deepfelt commitment to Israel and to the Jewish people, without impairing his capacity to take positions that some Jews who are supporters of Israel would dispute.

In 2000, Joe Lieberman’s Jewishness attracted considerable media attention because of the novelty of a Jew being a major party candidate and because he is an observant Jew. There is likely to be greater attention this time around, certainly if he gets the nomination. We will then get a ton of articles and broadcasts detailing fine points of Jewish law, with descriptions of how Joe and Hadassah live and how they are raising their daughter. There will be commentary by Rabbis, learned and unlearned, telling the public what is permitted and what is proscribed. There will be discussions of how to use a “Shabbos Goy” and how to maintain a kosher cuisine.

For more than a few American Jews, this will be their introduction to the basics of Judaism. Since reporters will be scrambling to get their facts right, I wonder whether my good friend, the wonderfully effy-vescent Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald of the National Jewish Outreach Project might develop a crash course on Judaism to help these folks.

For all of our understandably parochial interests in the Lieberman campaign for most Americans his being Jewish will be a non-starter, in part because he broke the ice in 2000 and also because of this country’s traditions. Voters will decide on the basis of party and policy and by how President Bush handles or mishandles the economy. The Senator’s religion will not be a major factor in voting booths, except for a relatively small number.

Some voters will be receptive to Mr. Lieberman’s preachy style; others will be turned off because his voice does not have the cadence or music that so often envelops the public speaking of the best Black political preachers. When Joe Lieberman is on the campaign trail, he just might ask Reverend Al for some pointers.