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Liebermanís tough road ahead

THURSDAY, JANUARY 8, 2003 -- Senator Joseph Lieberman is in a pickle. Lieberman wants to run for president and will likely announce his intention to form an exploratory committee next Monday. As a precursor to his run, Lieberman just returned from a fact-finding mission from the Middle East that is drawing fire from those on the right and those on the left. E.J. Kessler, writing in the Forward , reports that hawkish, mostly Orthodox, Jews are angry at Lieberman because he criticized the Bush Administrationís policy toward the Middle East and expressed support for a Palestinian state.

"The Orthodox community is troubled by his statements, by his trying to lean over backward for a Palestinian state," Mandell Ganchrow told Kessler. The trip, meanwhile, drew the ire of Israel-critic and Web columnist Prima Soho. In a piece headlined "Senator Lieberman meets his master.   Israel," Soho excoriates Lieberman for making a distinction between Israel and Iraq in an interview with the Arab News. "Israel is not a danger to its people and its neighbors in a way that Iraq under Saddam is," Lieberman said. For Soho, who sends me her pieces which I can not easily find on the Internet, hence no link, Liebermanís comments demonstrate "the official Israeli viewpoint, and that of pro-Israeli lobby groups in the U.S." In other words, says Soho, Lieberman is a tool of Israel.

Putting aside the obvious and simple point that Soho is trotting out the usual anti-Semitic canard about American Jews -- that they are more loyal to Israel than America -- the contrast in the reactions of the two camps is stunning. For Orthodox Jews, Lieberman wasnít pro-Israel enough. For extreme anti-Israel critics, he was too pro-Israel. This is only a taste of what Lieberman has in store for him in a presidential run.

The world has changed since 2000 when Lieberman teamed up with Vice President Al Gore to win the popular vote. The aftermath of September 11 showed that anti-Semitism was once again a powerful force in the world: remember the rumor that swept the Arab world and much of the west that Jews didnít show up to work at the World Trade Center that day? Terrorists forced Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl to make his last words an admission of his Jewish identity. US policy on Israel has become a hot button dividing issue between America and Europe.

None of this is to suggest Lieberman should not run. The Democratic Party needs his updating of the philosophies of Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson for the modern era. Americans, generally, are free of bias on religious grounds. But Liebermanís Jewish identity will create a special obstacle that he will need to overcome.

Already, he is doing what he can on a personal level. When he is in Washington DC, he has been lingering after Sabbath services at Kesher Israel, his synagogue in Georgetown. (Known informally as Kesher, the synagogue is home to a host of low-key, but important, political activists and attendees such as Leon Wieseltier, the literary editor of the New Republic, Daniel Benjamin, a terrorism expert and the author of The Age of Sacred Terror, and Alfred Moses, a Clinton Administration ambassador to Romania.)

Rather than rushing out of synagogue to make the rest of the 1.5 mile trek back to his home -- observant Jews donít ride in cars on the Sabbath -- Lieberman, always friendly, has been making a special effort to take time after Saturday services and schmooze with regulars. "He was definitely hanging around the Kiddush [a small meal after services] for longer than usual," one worshipper told the Phoenix one attendee. "Heís been kibbitzing with everyone -- much longer than before."

Lieberman can hope that his personal charm can outweigh the obstacles to his campaign. But it will be a tough road in these tough days.

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Issue Date: January 9, 2003
"Today's Jolt" archives: 2002  2001

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