Lieberman Candidacy Spotlights Fear Factor

Sen. Joseph Lieberman was in town the other day, raising money and support for his presidential quest. Since his stint as vice-presidential nominee of the Democratic Party in the oh-so-close contest of 2000, Lieberman has become a national fixture in the political world.

Throwing his hat into the presidential ring was a natural outgrowth of the 2000 experience and has been met with welcoming applause in all but the Jewish community. While many Jews have expressed support for the Connecticut senator, still many are troubled by either his level of religious observance, his political stands and/or the perception that his candidacy, dare I say presidency, might act as a conductor of anti-Semitism.

I made a number of calls on the senator’s behalf for a fundraiser here and was surprised by the number of Jews who told me that they didn’t feel comfortable with Lieberman’s candidacy. One person said that they were concerned that Lieberman might be unnecessarily hard on Israel, while attempting to silence his skeptics that his being Jewish would lead him to be easy on Israel.

Another said to me that while they had voted for the Gore-Lieberman ticket in 2000, they were extremely glad Bush was president post-Sept. 11. The person reasoned that a Jew couldn’t be as hard on Iraq and Osama bin Laden as Bush had for fear that it would be seen as currying favor to Israel.

At first, I was amused at this discomfort people were expressing, until I heard from a Lieberman staffer that concerns about Lieberman’s being Jewish have been seen consistently nationwide — expressed only by Jews. Non-Jews have expressed no such reservations about Lieberman the presidential candidate, who happens to be Jewish. Indeed, at this point, Lieberman has jumped into an early lead in the polls.

This was bound to happen. The glass ceiling that has for so long hovered over the heads of the Jewish community now has Jews questioning whether completing this ascension to the full array of rights afforded all peoples in the Constitution is really worth the risk — the risk of arousing the anti-Semites.

It is instructive to look at two prominent Jewish columnists for The New York Times, William Safire and Tom Friedman, to realize that one can be Jewish and of two different minds. Here are two very Jewishly committed men with two very different views of the world and of the Middle East. Neither one represents a monolith that some of the "Lieberman-scared" Jews fear exists.

This all tells me that there is no one unique Jewish way of thinking or looking at the world, and this is good. This should tell us that Lieberman will only be Lieberman, and if elected, he will govern as he sees fit. Certainly his being Jewish will inform and mold his behavior, but it won’t be Jewish, because there is no such thing.

A President Lieberman may pressure Israel to dismantle settlements or he may even encourage such Israeli behavior, but he will ultimately do what is consistent with his campaign platform and what is true to his political philosophy.

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, founder of CLAL — The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, who is currently serving as president of the Jewish Life Network, is troubled by this Jewish ambivalence to power. Greenberg said, "It expresses a fear that at a time of heightened anti-Semitism, Jews should not be too visible."

Greenberg’s point challenges the notion that if we are fearful, then we should be quiet. Greenberg continued, "For me, the Lieberman candidacy is proof that Jews have come of age, that we are capable of taking our fate into our own hands."

Alan Abramowitz, the Alben W. Barkley professor of political science at Emory University, contends that there is one element of the Jewish community that seems to be looking at the presidential candidates on the sole basis of where they stand on the issues. Abramowitz stated that "the fact that Jews do not automatically support a candidate because he happens to be Jewish is a reflection of the political maturity and self-confidence of American Jews."

How about that? Political maturity. What a great concept. It suggests that we American Jews have arrived at the place within American society where we feel equal to all Americans on all counts. We can now compete as individuals economically, socially and politically.

While Abramowitz is correct in pointing out this political maturity, there is still a segment of the Jewish community that appears to be afraid of this inalienable right. Greenberg claims "those Jews who are running scared in time will only hand a victory to anti-Semitism. One cannot hide or evade responsibility at this point of history. On the other hand, if we act — like everyone else — like we are entitled to compete for power and to be visible, then we will truly overcome the last residues of anti-Semitism."

If one doesn’t like Joe Lieberman’s stand on any of the issues and feels that there is another candidate who better reflects their views, then that would be a very mature way to look at the candidates. However, to reject Lieberman’s presidential bid because he is Jewish and that makes you feel uncomfortable as a Jew, that would be, well, immature.

Steve Berman serves on the board of the American-Israel Chamber of Commerce. He is a columnist for the Atlanta Jewish Times.