The Boston Phoenix
August 10 - 17, 2000


Playing the faith card, continued

by Seth Gitell

Lieberman's selection has even broader implications for American Jews than it does for American politics. The most important fact about Lieberman is not just that he is Jewish, but that he is an observant Orthodox Jew. In his most recent book, In Praise of Public Life (Simon & Schuster), Lieberman recalls that Gore invited him to stay at his parents' apartment on Capitol Hill so that the Connecticut senator wouldn't have to trek three miles back to his home in Northwest DC on Friday afternoons. (Once the Sabbath begins at sundown, Orthodox Jews do not use fire or electricity, ride in vehicles, or operate machinery of any kind.) At other times, he has made that walk across Washington to cast votes on Saturday.

When news broke that Lieberman was on Gore's shortlist -- along with Massachusetts senator John Kerry, Indiana senator Evan Bayh, and North Carolina senator John Edwards -- American Jewish leaders privately worried about what it would mean to have a high-profile Orthodox Jew as vice-president. Some told me they thought it might compromise Lieberman's ability to advocate on behalf of Israel. Others saw it as a mistake for Lieberman to get caught up with the Clinton-Gore attack machine. And still others said they feared it would draw out anti-Semites.

"I am so flabbergasted," said Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who has heard some of the whispered concerns of American Jews. "I thought the Jewish community was a lot more secure than [what] I'm hearing."

Lieberman's fiercest critics will probably be leftist American Jewish intellectuals. This past May, Philip Weiss, a columnist for the New York Observer, attacked Lieberman for being affiliated with a movement opposed to interfaith marriages. "The rhetoric and practices surrounding opposition to intermarriage are often so discriminatory they seem to border on racism," Weiss wrote in a piece titled "What Would a Jewish Veep Say About Intermarriage?" The question of intermarriage has been hotly debated by American Jews, especially since the National Jewish Population Study showed 10 years ago that Jews marry non-Jews at a rate of 52 percent. The United Jewish Communities, which is updating the study, has put off releasing its results, leading observers to surmise that the new figures are even more dramatic.

Meanwhile, Michael Lerner, the editor of the magazine Tikkun, wrote on the Web site Beliefnet ( on Tuesday that "Lieberman's nomination is bad for the country and bad for the Jews." The crux of Lerner's critique is that Lieberman is too conservative on economic issues.

Ironically, both Weiss (who appears consumed with personal feelings of guilt and ambivalence over his decisions about his faith) and Lerner (who echoes the left's complaints about centrist politics) miss the concerns that Lieberman raises among many of those American Jews who are thoroughly assimilated into American life. And that is that Lieberman's overt, in-your-face Jewishness is scary. Unlike non-
observant Jews, who can vanish voluntarily into the mass of white America, a yarmulke-wearing, Sabbath-observant Jew is making a statement about diversity in the United States. (Lieberman's beliefs allow him to forgo headgear when need be.)

Weiss, Lerner, and the Jewish leaders who echo their complaints are also missing an even bigger point: within a few generations, the only Jews involved in public life will be the observant ones. Demographic studies suggest that the descendants of less religious Jews simply disappear from the faith through a spiral of assimilation and intermarriage. The studies have shown that individuals can continue to maintain a semblance of Jewish identity without serious religious practice, but the less observant they are, the less likely it is that their descendants will be Jewish. The "cultural Jew" is becoming an anachronism. The intermarriage issue, then, is one of survival.

These are the debates that concern the american jewish community -- but the broader american public has plenty at stake as well. What's important is that gore has succeeded, at least for now, in getting voters -- and pundits! -- To take a fresh look at his candidacy. If all it does is put gore back in the running as the convention approaches, then the lieberman pick was a successful move. But it's silly not to acknowledge that Gore's choice will have longer-term implications for American political life. One example can be found right here in Massachusetts, where Steve Grossman is vying to be the first Jewish governor in the history of the Commonwealth. In an interview with the Phoenix, he said that Lieberman's selection might help his chances here. "I used to say, if a Jew could be lord mayor of Dublin, a Jew could be governor of Massachusetts," he says. "Now I'll amend that -- if a Jew could chosen as a candidate for vice-president, a Jew could be a governor of Massachusetts."

The coming months will shed more light on what kind of country America is. Will Lieberman really be able to take all those days off from campaigning in October? Whatever happens, it's likely that his candidacy will open the door for even more diversity in the selection of national candidates. Plus, at least we'll get to see Lieberman go to work against Cheney. And perhaps a Jewish mother will finally see her son in the White House -- well, the vice-president's residence at the Naval Observatory, at any rate.

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Seth Gitell can be reached at sgitell[a]

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