November 18, 2018

Lieberman, Easterbrook and Dearborn

Sound bites from last week:

“I am Joseph, your brother.” — Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), speaking before the Arab-American Institute in Dearborn, Mich.

“Disney’s CEO, Michael Eisner, is Jewish; the chief of Miramax, Harvey Weinstein, is Jewish. Yes, there are plenty of Christian and other Hollywood executives who worship money above all else…. Does that make it right for Jewish executives to worship money above all else?” — The New Republic columnist Gregg Easterbrook.

“Go home to Tel Aviv.” — A member of the audience at Sen. Lieberman’s Dearborn speech.

For the past several months, the issue that had not been raised (by non-Jews, at least) in Sen. Joe Lieberman’s campaign for the presidency was his religion. Lieberman has been poised to prove that a Jew can stand for president as a patriotic American and be judged solely on those terms.

Moreover, recent mainstream American coverage of Jewish issues has been anything but anti-Semitic — witness media investigations into Mel Gibson’s “Passion of Jesus” movie; coverage of Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s bizarre conspiracy theories; and the generally pro-Israel editorial stances of most American newspapers.

But then Gregg Easterbrook comes along — a high-brow journalist with an impressive track record — with code phrases that could have been lifted from Vienna circa 1932.

After The New York Times broke the story, Easterbrook immediately apologized. He wrote, “Accuse a Jewish person of this and you invoke 1,000 years of stereotypes about … which Jews have specific historical reasons to fear. What I wrote here was simply wrong.”

His Jewish colleagues from The New Republic have compellingly rallied to his defense.

L’Affaire Easterbrook does not portend a resurgence of anti-Semitism — as David Lehrer has persuasively argued, “fears of anti-Semitism ought to be tempered by reality…. [M]eaningful anti-Jewish hate [is] not about to emerge in America.”

Yet what the Easterbrook contretemps does demonstrate is how easily anti-Semitic sentiments can still slip off the word processor and be blogged to the masses.

Many of the blogged masses, in turn, are far more unsophisticated than readers of The New Republic. Anti-Semitic concepts may be relatively dormant in some parts of America, but not, evidently, in some parts of Dearborn, Mich.

Lieberman spoke in Michigan against the backdrop of a Democratic field divided over the war in Iraq and the proper American response to terrorism. Before the Arab American Institute, Lieberman stated his views about the Arab-Israeli conflict, and in particular about the difficult, heart-wrenching debate over Israeli actions such as bulldozing the homes of suicide bombers and constructing a wall to keep suicide bombers out of Israel.

While these are issues that evoke passionate responses, there was nothing extreme about the actual positions Lieberman articulated. Indeed, Lieberman’s statements were consistent with the bipartisan tradition of recent U.S. Middle East policy, which has been designed to achieve peace between the parties and which has recognized that stopping terror is a key prerequisite to a lasting peace.

Yet, there were those in the Dearborn audience who didn’t react to the message — they reacted to the messenger (it is reassuring to note that there were some in the audience who did respond respectfully). As one audience member stated about Lieberman, “He is such a Jew. He’s running for the wrong office. He should be running for the prime minister of Israel.”

Lieberman, alone among the Democrats, was heckled by the crowd.

The visceral Dearborn reaction should serve as a wake-up call to many in the Jewish community. There really are forces that want to deny Lieberman the opportunity to serve as president just because he is Jewish, and they are willing to say that openly. While these elements are undeniably a minority, there ought to be unanimity in our response. Lieberman’s legitimacy as a candidate needs to be underscored by the Jewish community.

No one, including Jews, should support Lieberman for president just because he’s Jewish. But all Americans, including Jews, should be concerned that either latent or overt hostility to Lieberman’s being Jewish could deny him the presidency. Lieberman told the Dearborn audience that “whatever differences we may have on the issues of the day are differences of ideas, not of religion or nationality.” Recognizing the value of that message may be the next step in increasing the level of Jewish support for his American campaign.

Jack Weiss represents the 5th District on the Los Angeles City Council.