Is America Ready for a Jewish President?

Is America ready for a Jewish president?

According to a Gallup Poll released this month, as well as other polling data, the answer is a resounding yes.

Despite this polling data, some Jews are fearful that "America is not ready" for a Jewish president. Or in a variation on that theme, they suggest inferentially, because Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) — the candidate in question — is Jewish, "he can’t win."

Funny, though, the facts suggest precisely the opposite. The Gallup Poll concluded that nine out of 10 Americans would vote for a qualified candidate, regardless of religion. Americans are embracing the candidacy of Lieberman with such enthusiasm that he continues to lead in the national polls.

Because of our history, American Jews have had reason to worry about anti-Semitism and scapegoating, but we have also worked to break down barrier after barrier in virtually every aspect of American life.

Today, we have the opportunity to break down perhaps the most important barrier: that a Jew cannot be elected president of the United States. And ironically, the skepticism on this issue comes not from non-Jews but from Jews.

Lieberman, the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2000, who, by all accounts significantly strengthened the Democratic ticket and assisted the ticket in winning not only the popular vote but competing (perhaps winning) in the southern stronghold of Florida, has garnered the support of a broad range of Americans who believe he is the best candidate for the presidency in 2004. He is leading in national polls among non-Jews and Jews alike, but the idea of a Jewish president seems to scare some Jews.

Leaders throughout America, including leading non-Jewish political leaders, actively embrace Lieberman’s candidacy. In California, several of these leaders are Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, Rep. Calvin M. Dooley (D-Fresno), Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher (D-Walnut Creek) and Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-Modesto).

And Lieberman is leading in the national polls. He is leading in states as diverse as California, New York, Michigan and South Carolina. He is rightly seen as the Democratic candidate most likely to beat President Bush, because he combines a strongly progressive social record with a record of leadership on national security and homeland defense.

Yet, we hear in our own community the question: Is it good for the Jews?

The answer is unequivocally yes. We have Jewish officeholders at all levels of our government — local, state and national — and their leadership has helped to insure not only Jewish inclusion but respected leadership throughout America. When a highly capable and respected leader who is Jewish seeks the office of the president, he should be judged on his merits.

Today’s polling numbers, contrasted with those as recently as 1960, suggest that America is, indeed, ready for a Jewish president. In 1960, when American voters were polled on whether they would vote for a Catholic presidential candidate, only 71 percent said yes, while 21 percent said no. John F. Kennedy won.

Today, the same question about a Catholic candidate garners a response rate of 92 percent yes and only 4 percent no. Interestingly enough, those are substantially the same numbers the pollsters get when asking if people would vote for a Jewish candidate for president.

Obviously, this polling is not exact. But in light of the 1960 benchmark, it is compelling. Other types of polling reinforce this conclusion.

And although no one should vote for Lieberman — or anyone else for that matter — simply because he is Jewish, it would be distressing if members of our community elected to vote against the senator out of fear because he is Jewish, despite their view that he is the strongest and best candidate.

Just as Jackie Robinson inspired not only African Americans but all Americans of my generation as a "revolutionary in a baseball uniform," Lieberman is right now doing the same thing: breaking down another important barrier that will open doors for Jews and for members of all other minority groups, who will have an easier time traveling down this path, because he was courageous enough to lead.

As Lieberman has said, "Have faith in America."

Americans today will support the candidate they prefer on the merits. That is how the choice should be made.

Mel Levine served as a Democratic Congressman from California between 1983 and 1993. He is now a partner in the law firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher and is assisting Sen. Joseph Lieberman in his presidential campaign.