Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, who will not seek a fifth term in 2012, hasn’t announced his future plans. But as a prolific author and prominent observant Jew, Lieberman says he wants to do "a little bit of missionary work," promoting Sabbath observance as a divine gift and lifting the mystique about what an observant Jew can and cannot do, especially while holding public responsibilities, within the confines of the day of rest.
Simon and Schuster will publish "The Gift of Rest: Rediscovering the Beauty of the Sabbath," written by Lieberman and David Klinghoffer in August.
The Jewish Week caught up with the former Democrat and current independent, 69, during a Passover vacation in Westchester with his wife Hadassah and their extended family, and he spoke candidly and extensively about what motivated the book, some pressing issues of the day, his place in history and the future.
Jewish Week: What do constituents and others have to say to you since you announced your retirement from the Senate?
Lieberman: People are very gracious and thanked me for my service, and were curious about what I was going to do. … The other night there was an interesting question someone asked about who would take my place [when he retires in January 2013], as it were, particularly in terms of U.S.-Israel relations. I said that no one is irreplaceable; it was my honor to play this role. Wherever I go and whatever I do I will always be concerned about the relationship between the U.S. and Israel. Yet there are a host of people already there who continue to play a significant role in Israel’s security – the New York senators, Kirsten Gillibrand who is new and cares deeply about Israel and I have worked closely with her on Iran and other issues; people in both parties. John McCain is very strong and rising in importance as a pro-Israel senator.
Do people express concern about Israel and the Obama administration?
Yes, and I say that Obama is certainly pro-Israel; his whole record shows that. I mean he’s done some things such as call for a settlement freeze, which I thought was a mistake. And I think anybody looking back at it now will say that it didn’t work, [that] it didn’t accomplish anything, [that] it created doubt in our relationship on the Israeli side with the government. But actually, not only did it not advance the prospect of negotiations between Israel and Palestinians, it seems to have set them back because the Palestinians raised the threshold. … So in other words there are things I have disagreed with. I’ve now been through two Bush presidents, Clinton and Obama, and if you look not only at the ones I served with but all American presidents since 1948, some generally more supportive, some less, there are times when almost every presidency is more supportive and times when he is less supportive. But the great guarantor of the U.S. Israel relationship is a pro-Israel, bipartisan majority in both houses, and I’m really pleased to be able to say that is stronger than ever.
How did you pick the topic of your new book?
Well, I’ve been very lucky to write six books in my life, none of which will jump instantly into your mind because they were not bestsellers, but this is very different. I’m very fortunate that I had the chance to write this book because it comes from deep inside me.
Rabbi Menachem Genack [CEO of the Orthodox Union’s Kosher Division] and I have known each other for a long time and we learn together pretty regularly on the phone on Fridays. When he comes to Washington he sees me, and for a while he was noodging me that I should write a book about Joseph from the Torah, because of him being a political leader. But I said, Rabbi, you know what I have inside me: at some point I would like to write a book about Shabbat, which is so important to me because I experience it. It begins with a commandment from God as a gift; it really has centered my life in so many ways. People always ask me what I do and how do you do it on the Sabbath.
In the last couple of years Rabbi Genack formed the OU Press and they are doing some very significant publishing … and he said, ‘Why don’t you write the book that you want to do about Shabbat?" and he said the OU Press will publish it, I promise you, but I think some other commercial publisher would do it. Interestingly, [Simon and Schuster] has a subdivision called Howard Books that mostly publishes books for religious Christian readers, and the publisher thinks there would be a real interest in this book in the Christian community.
Are you dealing with some of the questions people raised – some well meaning, some not – when you ran for vice president and president about what your limitations might be on Shabbat?
I decided the best thing I could do in introducing people to what the Shabbat is, is to take them through a typical Shabbat. I begin with Erev Shabbat and go through the whole day to the end of Saturday night, Havdalah. So there is a lot of description about what happens … I talked about the basic ideas underlying Shabbat. The book is an appeal to people. I say at the very beginning that I’m describing what Shabbat is and how important it’s been in my life, how meaningful it has been to Hadassah and me in our marriage and with our family. I’m also very clear that I’m doing a little bit of marketing, or missionary work here.
People in our country work hard, and they can’t get away from work; they have their BlackBerrys and cell phones. … Shabbat is just a gift I’m urging people to take on in whatever way is comfortable to them. … I have one chapter in which I say, in the middle of a Shabbat afternoon, I’m going to stop now and describe the occasions when observant Jews have a reason to set aside the normal restrictions of Shabbat. [They can be set aside] because there’s a purpose greater than even those restrictions, that are related to the underlying purpose of Shabbat, which is to honor God’s creations. I deal with pikuach nefesh [the precept which says that you can break the Sabbath to save a life], tell some personal stories about how I walked to the Capitol on Shabbat when I anticipated there would be votes; what I’ve done when I’ve had calls come into the house on Shabbat, how I decided whether to take them or not. I actually went back and did some research, and there are Talmudic opinions all the way back to Roman times about the occasions when normal prohibitions have to be set aside for reasons of security for the community.
I hope that’s of interest. The truth is our religion is very detailed and yet it has perspective. As I said, if you were walking along the street and saw someone having a heart attack, you wouldn’t say ‘Oh, gee I wish I could call an ambulance, but it’s my Shabbat’. Of course you can call an ambulance, and in a similar way if someone calls about a national security matter, of course I would surely have to answer it.
What has it been like for you to have your religious views and practices under a microscope, both from within and outside your community?
It comes with territory. As my friend [New York Assembly Speaker] Shelly Silver likes to say, it is what it is. As time went on I felt that perhaps this was some sort of special opportunity in terms being observant in public life, an opportunity to explain to people why we do what we do and why I do what I do. And in the book there are times when I say I made this decision [but] I’m not sure every Jew would have made this decision.
The 2000 election and recount will be debated throughout history. In your heart, do you believe that you won?
I do, particularly because I know that our ticket got a half-million more votes than the other ticket. In a way I’m skipping over the Electoral College. Whenever I either visit a foreign country or am being visited by a foreign leader, they are puzzled about how you could have gotten a half-million more votes and not taken office, and I have to explain the Electoral College. … There is no question that it was close in Florida; I think for various reasons that Al Gore and I had won, but life has to go on.
What would you have done differently? What about Tennessee and Arkansas?
Good point. None of these are unconventional answers. There are a few things, like sending Bill Clinton to Arkansas for the last two weeks of the campaign, or Al Gore would have had a sense earlier on that Tennessee was in some difficulty and spent more time there. In Florida, I happen to have been close to the Cuban community because of all the controversy, I think, over the Elian Gonzales case. The campaign didn’t use me very effectively in the Cuban community and, of course, if we could have taken two or three more percentage points in the Cuban community we would have carried Florida. But these are all, sort of, ‘could have beens.’ The reality is, I still have — believe it or not, it could just be my nature — a very positive feeling about the whole thing because I was given this extraordinary honor by Al Gore, a singular decision; there are very few decisions as big in American politics where a single person makes a [vice] presidential nominee.
Also, as a Jewish American, the fact that I was chosen for the ticket — I said this in the book we wrote about the campaign — the night that Gore selected me and we flew to Nashville, he said: ‘I want you to know that I talked to a lot of people, Jewish and non-Jewish, about whether the country was ready for a Jewish vice president and the conclusion is that fear of anti-Semitism among Jews was radically greater than the reality of anti-Semitism among Christians, and so I decided I can choose who I wanted to choose, which was you.’
And the second thing is we experienced almost no anti-Semitism.
Well, there was a little flurry of anti-Semitism on the Internet when I was first named. But we were never confronted with anything. I always say to people that politics, even though there can be disputes, as in Florida, is like sports. It comes down to numbers, and in the end, the first time a Jewish candidate was on a national ticket, the ticket won by within half a million votes. To me that says what an open, fair country it is.
I’ll tell you something, I went to Obama in ’08 when I saw him on the Senate floor, even though I had already supported McCain. It was after he clinched the nomination; we had a conversation, and he said, ‘You know, I understand that one of the reasons I was able to do this was because of what you did in 2000.’
What do you make of all the fixation on the president’s birth certificate?
I think it’s a real waste of time; I don’t get it. From all that I can tell, I haven’t done an exhaustive investigation but from what I’ve read in newspapers and seen on television he was born in Hawaii. The former health director of Honolulu she said she saw [the birth certificate] with her own eyes. [Editor’s note: President Obama released the long form of his birth certificate the day after this interview.]
It’s early, but who do you see supporting for president in 2012?
[Laughs] I’m just going to enjoy being independent for a while.
Do you think the president deserves to be re-elected?
I think it’s early to say. I’ve tried my best to work with him when I agreed with him and to be respectfully disagreeable when I don’t.
What do you think about J Street?
Listen, this is our political system; they have a right to do what they want to do — to organize, to express a different point of view than I have about Israel and the U.S.-Israel relationship.
Are they bringing something constructive to the table?
I’ve got to be honest with you, I don’t really see their stuff enough to know whether they are. I can tell you this, in my opinion they don’t have much influence on Capitol Hill at this point. AIPAC has tremendous influence in terms of the attitudes of members of Congress toward Israel.
There has been growing support for clemency for Jonathan Pollard by former senior administration officials and intelligence leaders. You have not supported his release in the past. Has your position changed?+
To me, this has always been a matter for the president. I mean, way back when I was first elected, maybe it was in the first three or four years, in the early ’90s, people asked me about this and I was fully briefed on it, a classified briefing. Pollard did some terrible things, not just for Israel but otherwise. And the intelligence community feels it would be a terrible precedent to set, and they are still saying it now, I presume, to let him go because of what it would say for others. They are not necessarily thinking about other Israeli agents; they’re thinking about other ethnic Americans.
But he’s been in a long time. I guess my own feeling has been that this really is a matter that ultimately must be resolved between the prime minister of Israel and the president of the United States, but if you’re asking if I’m going to get involved, no.
Is there a point where you might feel he has served enough time for his crime?
He’s been in a very long time. Our system of justice unfortunately sometimes produces results like this. Two people, even in the same state, can both be charged with murder and convicted of murder. One gets a life sentence for some reason and maybe that is commuted to 25 years; the other gets executed. I mean that’s just the way it is.
Probably the question you hear most these days is, what’s next?
Yeah, and the great answer is, I don’t know. This is the first time in decades [that I don’t know what’s next]. It’s not that I’ve always known what’s next, but it has always been clearly in elective politics. So, when I made the decision not to run again, I was saying my career in elected politics is over. But public service has been so much a part of my life, including the U.S. Israel relationship, that I’ll always want to be somewhat involved in these issues. But I don’t know, and I’ve got time. I have until January, 2013. Nothing specific at all, and I’m enjoying it.
Would you rule out being a lobbyist?
I’m not going to become a lobbyist.