Whatever happens in this election, we’ll always have Lieberman. It is easy to forget now, amid the post-election chaos, just how momentous a day Aug. 8, 2000, was. Al Gore stood before supporters in Nashville (little did we know those may have been his only supporters in Tennessee) and called Lieberman “someone with the experience, the character and the judgment to become the president at a moment’s notice.” Then Gore said words that should ring in the ears of American Jews from that day on: “With pride in his achievements, I am here to announce my running mate for vice president, Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut.”
That Lieberman was the first Jew nominated to a major party ticket was stunning enough. That he is an observant Jew was even more shocking. A giddy pride bordering on elation overtook American Jewry. We followed his every Shabbos walk and relished his immigrant-son success story. We all could relate to the son of a hard-working bakery owner, nurtured on the holy trinity of tradition, education and democracy, who played by the rules and, ultimately, rose to the top.
I entered the Staples Center the night of his formal nomination just in time to see an ocean of blue “Hadassah” placards waving above the delegates’ heads. It was either a dream, I figured, or a scene from a Woody Allen movie.
Reality sank in as the relationship quickly became more fraught. Lieberman’s scolding of Hollywood for an immoral product chilled the very Jews who had been enjoying all those “Top Ten Changes Lieberman Will Bring to the White House” lists the week before (“Number One: The State of the Union will end with an appeal”). His comments on Louis Farrakhan at a Black radio station proved that his own morals didn’t preclude pandering to racist demagogues.
Some fretted that “The Lieberman Factor” would keep voters away from Gore. But 90 percent – 90 percent – of Americans polled said that a Jew’s presence on the ticket was either a positive or didn’t matter. In any case, Gore-Lieberman won the popular vote. And whatever the outcome in Florida, the Connecticut senator’s tireless campaigning there clearly put the state run by George Bush’s brother in play for the Democrats. (If only Joe hadn’t urged so many Democratic Jews there to vote for Pat Buchanan…) Lieberman was a brave choice for Gore, and in the end he was perhaps the best possible political choice, too.
Does this mean that 210 years after George Washington wrote that he hoped “the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants,” American Jews can really stop worrying about whether they are accepted? Yes, that’s exactly what it means.
Certainly, we have violent enemies here. In Los Angeles, we saw this a year before Lieberman’s selection, when a madman opened fire at the North Valley Jewish Community Center. But these Americans are either deranged or isolated or both. It will be hard to sell our sons and daughters on the once-valid idea that Jews must remain together because “They” are out to get us, when the majority of “Them” voted to make us vice president.
For those whose main identity as Jews begins and ends with being persecuted and set apart, this may come as a shock. They will have to dip back into their heritage to find new wellsprings of Jewish identity: faith, say, or values and ethics and culture. The Lieberman nomination taught us that a great many Americans see being Jewish as a “positive.” Now a lot of Jews can start seeing it that way, too.