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Jewish World Review August 11, 2000 /10 Menachem-Av, 5760

Jonathan Tobin

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Religion in Politics, Jewish-Style

Lieberman will shatter Jewish assumptions about American political life -- THIS WEEK, Vice President Al Gore surprised the country by choosing Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman as his running mate, hoping to breathe new life into a bid for the presidency that polls show him losing badly.

At this moment, it’s anyone’s guess as to whether the Lieberman gambit will prove to be the decisive moment for the 2000 presidential election. But the American perception of Jews in politics will never be the same, not just for the vast majority of Christian voters but for Jews, as well.

The potential elevation of Joe Lieberman from his lofty perch as the “conscience” of the Senate to the even loftier post of vice president may turn out to shatter a host of assumptions, at least two of which are commonly held by American Jewry.

First among those skewered assumptions is that the public profession of religious faith by national political candidates is inherently dangerous for Jews.

On his way to winning the Republican presidential nomination, Texas Gov. George W. Bush made no secret of his strong religious faith. His stand as a man who was informed and molded by the religious values he had accepted as an adult was considered a big plus with conservative Christian voters in key primary states.

But many Jews reacted to Bush’s professions of personal faith (even though they were always qualified with statements embracing pluralism and tolerance) as conclusive evidence of his hostility to non-Christians.

The mere mention of the Christian messiah in public by a presidential candidate is enough to send shivers down the spines of many Jews. Even though most Americans saw Bush’s statements as innocuous, many Jews believed Bush’s talk of religion was an implicit threat.

That’s because many non-Orthodox Jews espouse a rigid secularism — in which politics is treated as a religion-free zone — as the best defense religious minorities have against the threat of persecution.

Yet, contrast this reaction to the well-deserved Jewish adoration afforded Lieberman, who has never been shy about saying publicly that his religious beliefs are not only deeply held, but have had a major impact on his political life.

Indeed, Lieberman’s reputation as a man of integrity and a moral authority stems in large measure from his willingness to stand out because of public religious observance. His colleagues look up to him because he is an observant Jew, not in spite of it.

With so much focus on Lieberman’s religion and the fact that he takes it as seriously as Bush claims he does his faith, the public expression of a politician’s religious beliefs will no longer be presumed antithetical to Jewish interests.

Even more important is the sea change that the Lieberman campaign will have on our assumptions about anti-Semitism in American life. Many Jews still cling to the idea that anti-Semitism is widespread, and that we are all only a couple of Supreme Court decisions away from losing our freedoms.

But most Americans take the advance of American Jews to the heights of power as nothing to get upset about. After all, while Jews comprise only 2 percent of the United States population, 11 percent of the United States senators and 22 percent of the Supreme Court justices are Jewish. These well-known facts haven’t provoked any pogroms I have heard about.

For all of the fearful talk of an anti-Semitic backlash against Lieberman, the fact is that his stance of moral authority will actually play very well to Christian America, something Gore seems to realize. The Gore camp hopes Lieberman’s public condemnation in August 1998 of old friend Bill Clinton’s “immorality” will inoculate Gore’s candidacy against the sleaze factor in the Clinton-Gore record. Lieberman’s moral stature will be very attractive for the vast number of American voters who are sick of the values vacuum in the Oval Office for the past eight years.

As with his Senate colleagues, the 98 percent of Americans who are not Jewish are more than likely to find Lieberman’s proud Jewish observance an incentive to vote for the Democratic ticket, not a deterrent.

That doesn’t mean that vast numbers of Christian conservatives are going to switch their allegiance from Bush to Gore, but don’t be surprised when it is the northern Jew and not the Tennessee Baptist who is the Democrats’ best hope of winning in the “Bible Belt” of the South and West.

Anti-Semitism isn’t completely dead, but my bet is that the warm reception Joe Lieberman receives around the country — even in places where there are few Jews and Democratic majorities are unlikely — may be enough to convince most of American Jewry that the world has truly changed.

For the nation as a whole, the sight of a politician placing his religious obligations over his lust for votes will be a powerful tonic. Lieberman’s observance of the Sabbath every week during the campaign will generate positive press from a values-hungry public. This will be good not just for religion in America, but also for this country’s political health.

Some left-wing Jews will be unhappy about the candidacy of a Jew like Lieberman, who has taken some very nonliberal stands on issues like school choice. But my experience covering Lieberman in Connecticut for several years prior to coming to Philadelphia leads me to believe that he will not only have tremendous appeal for non-Jews, but that his candidacy will have an impact on Jewish political opinion as well.

Even more important, having a man who is a proud and faithful Jew break through this glass ceiling will be a powerful message for American Jewish identity and for Jewish youth.

When all is said and done, it will be the relative merits of Al Gore and George W. Bush that will decide whether or not Joe Lieberman is sworn in as our next vice president.

But win or lose, the symbolism of this nomination may change Jewish life for the better in ways that we have only just begun to understand.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. He was the recipient of the American Jewish Press Association's highest awards in two categories: First Place in the Louis Rapoport Award for Excellence in Commentary and Editorial Writing for his column "Israel's China Syndrome -- and Ours" and First Place for Excellence in Arts and Criticism for his column "Jewish Art, Jewish Artists." The awards were given to Mr. Tobin at the AJPA's 2000 Simon Rockower Awards dinner at Washington D.C. on June 22, 2000. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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