While the American public continues to look kindly on Sen. Joe Lieberman — with his religious observance either a non-issue or looked upon favorably by Christians — Jews on the right and left continue to make him a target of their religious and/or political agendas.
Are these negative stories on Lieberman fair game, or efforts to embarrass him? And why are they coming primarily from Jewish media?
Last week, The Jerusalem Post published a story based on a conversation the Democratic vice presidential candidate had with popular radio personality Don Imus on his “Imus In The Morning” program Sept. 17. After acknowledging that he “skips” the prayer thanking God for not making him a woman, Lieberman responded to a question about interreligious and interracial dating and marriage by saying, “No, there’s no ban whatsoever.”
He went on to say that Jews, like other ethnic groups, “marry within to keep the faith going.”
He made no reference to the biblical prohibition of intermarriage.
Benjamin Jolkovsky, who broke the story on his conservative Internet magazine Jewish World Review and then gave it to the Jerusalem Post, says that as an observant Jew himself who looked up to Lieberman as a role model, he was “hurt and disappointed” by the senator’s remarks.
The story was picked up by Internet reporter Matt Drudge, whose politics are clearly on the right, and was made a lead item on his Drudge Report, with the headline from the Jerusalem Post, “Lieberman: Intermarriage Is Kosher.”
Jolkovsky said his intention was not to embarrass Lieberman but to point out his political “backtracking” since becoming a national candidate. “I agonized over chilul Hashem” [or, bringing embarrassment to Judaism] in making the Lieberman comments public, he said, but decided to go ahead, particularly because he felt the senator has backed down from a number of positions — including vouchers, late-term abortions and moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem — since joining the Democratic ticket.
“What can I say as an observant Jew when a person who could be a kiddush Hashem [or, blessing to Judaism] has sold out? If you have a belief system, defend it.”
He added that Lieberman “probably feels the ends justifies the means,” that his election “will be good for the Jews. But what he doesn’t understand is that when you wrap yourself in a tallis, people watch your every move.”
Similarly, Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesman for the Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox organization, noted that Lieberman’s lack of understanding of certain Jewish laws or practices does not give him “license to reject” them. He said his concern is not Lieberman’s level of observance but that he is speaking “in effect, on behalf of Judaism” and mischaracterizing certain precepts.
On the other side of the religious spectrum, Zev Chafets, a journalist perceived as highly critical of Orthodoxy, takes Lieberman to task in his current Jerusalem Report column for recently praising Shaare Zedek, an Orthodox hospital in Jerusalem that does not perform in-vitro fertilization on intermarried couples. Chafets describes the policy as “religious bigotry” and says that Lieberman, whose wife, Hadassah, was a paid consultant for the hospital until this summer, should have known Shaare Zedek’s “dirty little secret” and not associated himself with the institution.
Chafets, who has moved from Israel to New York and will be writing a column twice a week for the Daily News here, says he has no political agenda. “But I certainly have an agenda — I’m opposed to hospitals that don’t treat mixed couples,” he said.
In the past Chafets has written openly about being married to a “shiksa” — his term — and his displeasure that such marriages cannot be performed legally in Israel. And he first wrote critically of Shaare Zedek’s policy more than two years ago.
Asked if he would be upset if his article hurt Lieberman’s chances in the November election, Chafets, who said he was leaning toward Gore, added, “nothing that ever happens to a politician troubles me, but I would be happy if Shaare Zedek dropped its policy, and if American Jews paid more attention to which institutions they support in Israel.”
Jack Bendheim, co-chair of the international board of directors of Shaare Zedek, noted that the hospital’s dilemma is a microcosm of the conflict the State of Israel faces — balancing modernity and Jewish tradition — and pointed out that as the only Orthodox hospital, it has a mandate to satisfy its clientele. “We’re serving a population,” he said, “and tolerance doesn’t only mean to be tolerant of people on your left, it also means being tolerant of those on your right.”
These stories critical of Lieberman — a combination of “Gotcha Journalism” and the new strain of “Tzitzit Check” reporting — come on the heels of a report last month, carried by Matt Drudge, that Lieberman was seen drinking water on Tisha b’Av while campaigning on the fast day, implying that he was not truly observant.
Dennis Prager, the Los Angeles-based host of a national radio talk show, told The Jewish Week that Lieberman’s religiosity “is a complete non-issue” to callers, “except for Jews who are upset with him.”
Chafets says it is only normal for the mainstream press to shy away from what they see as intra-Jewish squabbling, in part because “they don’t want to be labeled anti-Semitic.” And while some Jewish Democrats admit to embarrassment over some of Lieberman’s recent pronouncements, including comparing President Clinton to Moses, they prefer to ignore them publicly.
One local Democratic official, who stresses that he is strong advocate of the Gore-Lieberman ticket, says the Lieberman comment about intermarriage is particularly troubling because “every Jewish organization is working to stem the tide,” and the candidate was not saying that he believes intermarriage is all right, but that Judaism does.
On Tuesday, a close Lieberman aide said the senator’s intermarriage comment was “a mistake,” according to Barry Freundel, Lieberman’s rabbi in Washington, underscoring the Democratic official’s observation: “Politicians shouldn’t discuss theology, and especially not on Imus.”