Newsweek's Jonathon Alter on Lieberman...Aug 13
- Post-Seinfeld America
Sure, you can get a bagel at McDonald�s, but is the nation really ready
for a Jewish vice president? American Jews are greeting the idea with a
blend of pride and skepticism.
Jew-friendlier: Is America ready for a Jewish Veep?
By Jonathan Alter
August 13 � I was there for Shapp �76. as a young reporter, I briefly
covered the campaign of Pennsylvania Gov. Milton Shapp, who ran in a few
early Democratic presidential primaries that year. Shapp was Jewish.
Shapp was crushed. And although there was no apparent causal connection
between the two, the country was clearly not ready then for a son of
Abraham in high office.
IS THE COUNTRY READY NOW? Is the religious affiliation of one of
the vice presidential candidates even a factor in a race as big and as
multidimensional as this one? Or, if Gore-Lieberman loses, will we look
back on the whole thing as something out of a Woody Allen movie? And as
long as we�re asking questions... is Lieberman�s ascension, in the
familiar tribal formulation, good for the Jews?
The answer to the first question is: We won�t know if the country
is ready for a Jewish vice president until Election Day, if then; people
don�t tell pollsters the truth about this kind of thing. Even so, the
omens are favorable. Like a good Jewish boy, I called my rabbi for
counsel (something I probably wouldn�t have admitted in print to doing
before last week). Rabbi Steven Kushner of Temple Ner Tamid made the best
argument for the optimists: �People who wouldn�t vote for a ticket with a
Jew on it weren�t voting for Gore anyway.� The rabbi added that Jews
reaching positions of political power is �no big deal anymore.�
Probably not. Only 4 percent of American voters are Jewish, but
there are currently 11 Jews in the Senate�more than one tenth of the
total�many from Midwestern states with tiny Jewish populations (though in
some of those states, voters didn�t know the candidate was Jewish). And
the bicoastal assumption that the South is a hotbed of anti-Semitism is
not borne out by the experience of Jewish state and local candidates. In
fact, the country has come a long way since 1916, when Woodrow Wilson�s
appointment of Louis Brandeis as the first Jewish justice of the Supreme
Court caused an ugly confirmation fight.
The main change is cultural�the Seinfeldizing of America. You can
get a bagel almost anywhere in the country nowadays (a good bagel is
another question), including at that quintessentially American
institution, McDonald�s. Jewish entertainers are everywhere, and they
don�t hide their heritage as the old stars and their studio bosses did.
Judaism is even hip with non-Jews: Madonna studies the Kabbalah (Jewish
mysticism), and the �kosher sex� rabbi counts Michael Jackson among his
followers. (On second thought, maybe that�s not such a recommendation.)
More relevant is the fact that the history of the Jews is much
better known than it once was. The Holocaust Museum in Washington is
hugely popular with non-Jews determined to learn about the 20th century�s
greatest crime, which will get even more attention as Hadassah Lieberman,
the child of Holocaust survivors, tells her harrowing family story.
Yiddish expressions, which seemed on the verge of extinction a generation
ago, are increasingly part of everyday conversational shtik. George W.
Bush told Tom Brokaw last month that he and his father had been
�kibitzing� about the vice presidency, though his misplaced emphasis on
the second syllable drew laughs from Jews.
In political terms, Lieberman will benefit from the fact that he
joined the ticket when Gore was way down in the polls. That makes it
unlikely that a loss in November would be blamed on him. And if Gore
wins, Clean Joe Lieberman will be seen as Al Gore�s air freshener, his
inoculation against Clinton Sleaze Syndrome. There�s an irony in those
medical metaphors. Nazi propaganda harped on the dirty Jew, infecting
Aryan purity. Now, an American Jew is seen as a disinfectant.
This quality in Lieberman is connected to his moral rectitude and
criticism of President Clinton, not his Judaism. Even so, we may be
living amid a new age of philo-Semitism. All of the smart Jewish lawyers,
doctors and accountants out there could, by example, make their Christian
clients and patients think better of Lieberman.
By and large, I�ve been struck more by the positive reaction.
In homage to Gregory Peck�s passing as a Jew in the 1947 classic
�Gentleman�s Agreement,� I passed as a non-Jew in some conversations last
week with non-Jews in both the North and the South and was surprised at
what I heard. Most people in my very unscientific survey didn�t care
about the Jewish angle, or said Lieberman should be commended for his
strong faith. Maybe they weren�t telling a stranger about feelings of
envy or resentment, but I didn�t hear it in their voices. More than a
few, perhaps influenced by Robert Rubin and Alan Greenspan, employed
positive stereotypes. One said: �Jews are good at business, and the
government is basically a business, so get him in there.�
Anti-Semitism is a virus of history that lies dormant, then
erupts, century after century. Even in this country, millions of
people�including many under 40�received religious instruction that
repeated the ancient lie that the Jews killed Jesus. This article, like
any in a major publication that identifies the author as Jewish, will
generate some disgusting anti-Semitic mail. But the real anti-Semites are
mostly on the fringe. Internet hatemongers on the day of the announcement
totaled less than a tenth of those who wanted to talk about Britney
By and large, I�ve been struck more by the positive reaction.
Evangelical Christians have been full of praise for Lieberman. Even Jerry
Falwell and Alan Dershowitz actually agreed with each other last week on
�Rivera Live.� Christian leaders would have been much less friendly had
Lieberman been a secular Jew whom they could connect to the values of
Hollywood and Wall Street. Instead, they�re faced with a man who teamed
with William Bennett in fighting the entertainment industry.
In a larger sense, the old animosities among religions seem to
have been replaced by a broader divide between the religious and the
irreligious. People of faith are drawn to each other, regardless of
faith; nowadays, the only religious test for high office seems to be:
atheists need not apply.
Traditional sources of anti-Semitism are softening. The old WASP
establishment types, who wrote the book in this country on excluding Jews
and other minorities, have long since opened most of their clubs and
reconciled themselves to sharing power. Some blacks may grumble;
anti-Semitism is alive in that community, as the crude radio comments
last week by the head of the Dallas chapter of the NAACP suggest. He was
promptly forced to resign. But most African-American leaders are
genuinely enthusiastic about Lieberman. One of his biggest backers in the
Gore camp was Donna Brazile, the campaign manager. Jesse Jackson made an
important public point: �Each time a barrier falls for one person, the
doors of opportunity open wider for every other American.� Privately,
despite being to the left of Lieberman on several issues, Jackson called
the choice a �stroke of genius.�
Ironically (or perhaps fittingly) it�s within the Jewish community
that the nomination is causing the greatest anxiety. The ratio of pride
to pessimism tends to vary along generational lines. For me and other
Jews I know under 50 or 60, the answer to the �Is it good for the Jews?�
question tends to be yes. Even for Jewish Republicans, Lieberman is now a
source of pride, like baseball slugger Hank Greenberg to our parents and
grandparents. But those same older-generation Jews�who experienced far
more anti-Semitism than their children�tend to be more concerned about
the choice, fearing it will cause renewed anti-Semitism. Better to
exercise power in low-profile, advisory roles, they have long thought.
Viennese Jews before the war paraded their prominence, and look what
happened to them.
Some Jews are unnerved by Lieberman�s status as an Orthodox Jew
(�serious Jew� is probably a better description, given the gradations of
Orthodox). That challenges their �don�t call attention� sensibility. To
see names like Hadassah and Isadore (Lieberman�s middle name) so
prominent was startling in families where names were changed, ethnic
edges softened, the Sabbath forgotten.
For nonobservant Jews and the larger Christian world, Lieberman
will have to clarify that while he observes the Sabbath (Saturdays for
Jews) by not working or using modern conveniences like cars or computers,
there are well-recognized exceptions for matters of life and death and
the good of the community. He votes in the Senate on Saturdays when
necessary and as vice president would be fully able to handle Saturday
emergencies. Jan. 20, 2001, is a Saturday. If the Democrats win,
Lieberman will take the oath�and walk to the White House.
All this will take a little getting used to. The New York Times
received dozens of calls from Jews objecting to Lieberman�s being
described in a banner headline as the �first Jew� to win a place on a
national ticket, as if the paper could have called him the �first Jewish
person� in the headline. (Would they have preferred the pseudo
politically correct �Jewish American�?) Old sensitivities die hard.
But they are dying. Look at it this way: why are jokes about WASPs
safe, and jokes about blacks offensive? Because it�s kosher to joke about
the powerful. Jews are in transition on this continuum. By last week, Jay
Leno and David Letterman were telling Jewish jokes about Lieberman that
would have caused consternation only a few years ago. That�s progress.
� 2000 Newsweek, Inc.
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