The selection of Sen. Joseph Lieberman as Al Gore’s vice presidential running mate — the first Jew on the national ticket of a major political party — has brought a sense of renewed pride to many American Jews, though some are concerned about a backlash of anti-Semitism.
“Lieberman’s appointment is what [Holocaust] survivors always say — it could only happen in America,” said Benjamin Meed, president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors. “We always thought a thing like this could happen, but we never thought it would happen in our lifetime.”
Noting that survivors were victims of evil, Meed said it was gratifying to see the Connecticut Democratic “portrayed as a symbol of goodness. We are very proud that our people are portrayed this way.”
He also brushed aside the collective Jewish neurosis against maintaining a high profile, saying: “You shouldn’t be visible if you are a bad example, but if you are an example like Lieberman, you should.”
Meed added that Lieberman’s selection also has a special resonance with survivors because his wife’s parents were survivors.
Lieberman’s wife, Hadassah, 52, spoke of that experience Tuesday when Gore and his wife, Tipper, officially introduced his vice presidential choice and family during a rally at the War Memorial in Nashville, Tenn. She pointed out that it was American “soldiers who actually liberated my mother in Dachau and in Auschwitz,” and she called the Holocaust “the most horrendous thing that happened.”
Lieberman, 58, said that after his selection, “I felt I was on a magical mystery tour,” and that to some Gore’s decision had been “an act of chutzpah.” He said the Rev. Jesse Jackson had called him and said, “You know, Joe, each time a barrier falls for one person, the doors of opportunity open wider for every other American.”
Among those at the rally was M.J. Rosenberg of Chevy Chase, Md., a longtime friend of Hadassah Lieberman. He said he and his wife, Mindy, had never cried at political events but “were stunned by how powerful it was.”
“You wouldn’t have thought that having a Jewish vice president would mean so much to us — we are Americans and have made it in this country,” Rosenberg said.
His wife, also the child of survivors, said she has a cousin who still lives in Poland, where her parents lived in a small shtetl.
“It’s a short distance from the shtetl to the vice president’s mansion,” she said. “This makes you feel that you now belong. Not that you didn’t before, but it closes the circle.”
Some Jews say they have not felt such pride in being a Jew since June 1967, when Israel defeated its Arab enemies in The Six-Day War.
The Lieberman choice also caught the imagination of the public, resulting in the virtual disappearance of a 17-point lead for the Republican ticket of Texas Gov. George W. Bush and his running mate, Dick Cheney, pointed out former New York State Attorney General Robert Abrams.
“I’ve been around the political scene for 35 years and I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Abrams, “where a person surfaces as a candidate and not a single person has a bad word to say about him.”
Abrams, who has been a family friend of the Liebermans for 20 years, was effusive in his praise of Lieberman. Abrams said Lieberman has an “incredible array of talents and qualities.”
Comedian David Letterman joked that Democrats had greeted Lieberman’s selection with such enthusiasm that they were “urging Lieberman to dump Gore.” Rival late-night talk show host Jay Leno bemoaned the fact that Bill Clinton won’t be around much longer to poke fun of.
“A born-again Christian and an Orthodox Jew,” Leno said of Bush and Lieberman, “What am I going to do?”
On a more serious note, it seems clear that religion and morality may play major roles in the upcoming presidential campaign. Lieberman gained national attention two years ago when he stood on a nearly empty Senate floor and delivered a scathing attack on President Clinton, terming his “extramarital relations with an employee half his age [White House intern Monica Lewinsky] … not just inappropriate, it is immoral.”
Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said Tuesday’s appointment has captured the imagination of young people.
“My own 10-year-old said it was just like Jackie Robinson,” he said, referring to the first black baseball player to make it to the major leagues more than 50 years ago.
“I thought this generation took the acceptance of Jews in American society for granted, but there seems to be a keen sense of the historic importance of this moment,” the rabbi said. “We have young, post-college legislative assistants here and I see how excited they are.”
Richard Joel, executive director of Hillel, said Lieberman, who is Orthodox, is a “proud, passionate and purposeful Jew, and his presence gives permission for lots of young Jews to feel pride in being Jewish. For too many Jews, being Jewish is just being part of an ethnic group, tribal background or nationality. Lieberman says it is so much more than that.”
He observed that as more Jews are moving toward tradition and finding meaning in ritual, “Joe Lieberman now becomes the poster child for doing Jewish. Our message to college students is that being a fully participating Jew makes you a great American. If we live our lives a certain way, we get to be a light unto the nations.”
Ilana Ausubel, 20, a Queens College junior, said she had lunch with a friend “who generally doesn’t vote, and I told him it’s his duty to vote for [Lieberman]. He said I was right, that this was something he had to do as a Jew.”
Devorah Rosenthal, 22, a senior at SUNY Stony Brook, said she and other Jewish students she spoke with are excited about Lieberman and worried about Bush, whose frequent references to Jesus make them nervous.
Both students said that with the Middle East peace process on shaky grounds, having Lieberman as vice president would be comforting.
“He believes that the peace process is predicated on a strong Israel,” said Ephraim Inbar, director of the Besa Center at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan and Lieberman’s cousin. “He is in favor of the basic Israeli position of territorial compromise.”
But a spokesman for the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee, Hussein Ibish, said Lieberman’s selection “only enforces concerns we already had about a potential Gore administration” in terms of a bias toward Israel.
Jewish groups across the board praised Lieberman and his selection. The National Council of Young Israel said it was a “historic new level of achievement for American Jewry, and is proof that America has achieved a new level of acceptance for all minority groups and religious beliefs.”
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee said there was not a single piece of legislation affecting U.S.-Israeli relations in the last decade in which Lieberman did not play a “crucial role. … He has been a strong supporter of foreign aid and the peace process, including the fulfillment of Palestinian obligations.”
Noting that John F. Kennedy was the first Catholic elected president in 1960, the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York said it was “proud of the continued progress of expanding the boundaries of inclusiveness in our country.”
The Anti-Semitism Factor
A Gallup Poll found that the number of Americans who said they would vote for a qualified Jewish candidate for president jumped from 46 percent in 1937 to 92 percent last year. That result, said the National Jewish Democratic Council, proves that “America is clearly ready for a Jewish candidate for high office.” And the American Jewish Congress said the selection was a “sign that we have decisively turned away from those prejudices that at one time disfigured American society.”
The Anti-Defamation League, however, said that although only 12 percent of the population has some anti-Semitic views, Lieberman’s appointment is a “stimulus for the anti-Semites to crawl out of their holes.”
Internet chat rooms were bombarded with anti-Jewish sentiment this week, prompting AOL and other on-line services to delete some of the messages.
Some in Internet chat rooms said Gore’s choice of Lieberman proves that Jews run the country, the ADL said. That thought was echoed on the Web site of the hate group Stormfront under the headline “Jew in the White House.”
“I urge all of you to get out and vote this November and keep this kike and his puppet out of the White House!!!” said one message.
Voters in three swing states — Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan — apparently don’t share those views, having elected Jews to the Senate even though “they are without a significant Jewish population,” pointed out Brooklyn College political science professor Michael Kahan.
Those states, along with Ohio, Illinois, Indiana and Florida, are “where this election will be won or lost,” he said. “And Lieberman’s relatively conservative voting record is going to be attractive” in those areas.
Jeb Bush, the Florida governor and brother of George W. Bush, told The Jewish Week at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia last week that he hoped Lieberman would not be tapped by Gore because “he is one of the finest public servants in Washington, D.C.”
He said he believed the country was ready for a Jewish vice president but lamented: “I wish he was a Republican.”
Kahan said that although Jews do not vote for a candidate just because he or she is Jewish, “Jews have a better chance of winning where there is a measurable Jewish population.
“Lieberman is a middle-of-the-road, religious Jew who brings no embarrassment to the party, has a record that is squeaky clean, mitigates the Clinton [scandal] issue, and has a voting record that can appeal to those parts of the country that tend to be middle road,” he said.
Kahan thinks Lieberman on the national ticket can help Hillary Clinton win the crucial Jewish vote in the New York senate race. It may “rub off onto her, even if reluctantly, because Lieberman is going to show up here and campaign with her,” said Kahan.
Polls have shown that Clinton is below the 60 percent of the Jewish vote Democrats have typically needed to win statewide office.
Hillary Clinton, in an Albany radio interview, praised Lieberman as a man who “would be a great vice president and would be a terrific president.” She said she hoped he would campaign with her but added: “I can’t be greedy because he’s got a lot of ground to cover.”
Democratic pollster Mark Mellman said Lieberman’s selection “takes the wind out of Bush’s convention speech. Bush wanted to critique the Democrats on character and values. He can’t attack a Gore-Lieberman ticket on character and values. He can’t attack them on partisanship.”
Lieberman’s position in support of tuition vouchers for parochial school students is unlikely to cost the Democratic ticket the support of teachers’ unions, a core constituency to whom such programs are anathema.
“One of the things that make Democrats different from Republicans is that there is no single litmus test,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the United Federation of Teachers in New York. “I disagree with his position on school vouchers, but on balance he is committed to protecting public schools and making public schools work. All of his other positions are squarely in line within Democratic principles.”
She said Gore is “clearly against vouchers because of what they would do to the public schools and the opportunity each public school child needs. I believe that will be the position of the Democratic Party on school vouchers.”
Staff writer Adam Dickter contributed to this report.