Bad for the Jews, Bad for the Country Joseph Lieberman has strayed , from the best aspects of Jewish tradition (written by a Rabbi)
Bad for the Jews, Bad for the Country Joseph Lieberman has strayed from
the best aspects of Jewish tradition
By Rabbi Michael Lerner**
Among the candidates considered by Al Gore for the vice-presidential
nomination, Joseph Lieberman was the most politically conservative. While
Bush supporters are claiming that Lieberman's voting record shows a man
closer to Bush than to Gore, and may be lamenting the political capital
Gore may thereby accumulate with conservative voters, the rest of us have
a deeper concern. Joseph Lieberman is likely to accelerate the process in
which the two major parties seem to be merging into one pro-business,
pro-wealthy, elitist, and morally tone-deaf governing force. Joseph
Lieberman will also give greater prominence to the tendency in the Jewish
world to subordinate values and spiritual goals to self-interest and
material success. All the more ironic, then, that the media is responding
to his nomination by talking about his willingness to critique Clinton on
moral grounds or his Orthodoxy as proof of having a spiritual center.
In short, Lieberman's nomination is bad for the country and bad for the
Lieberman joined with Bill Clinton and Al Gore to create the Democratic
Leadership Council precisely to transform the Democratic Party from its
previous New Deal roots as the champion of working people, minorities, and
the poor to a party that would cater to the needs of Wall Street and to
the upper middle class. And they've done a great job. With Democrats on
board, the gap between rich and poor has accelerated in the Clinton/Gore
years, environmental protections have eroded when they conflicted with
corporate interests, and instead of using the end of the Cold War to
dramatically reduce the defense budget and redirect spending to rectify
the history of inequality and provide basic social services, health care,
and education, defense spending has been treated as sacrosanct, and
savings were found by eliminating welfare.
There were those who argued that all this was Clinton's doing, and that
Gore in his heart was a more progressive and caring person who had to hide
his true feelings in order to remain in Clinton's good graces. In
selecting Joseph Lieberman, Gore has unwittingly given great impetus to
the Naderites and others who argue that the trajectory of American
politics is to reduce even more the differences between the two major
parties. Before the American people have a chance to register their
desires, the party supposed to be representing the only chance to restrict
corporate irresponsibility has already made its lunge to the right.
One reason why that's not good for the country is that the elimination of
real debate on fundamentals leads many people to give up on the public
sphere, refusing to vote, turning away from the news, and generally being
cynical about participation in any aspect of democratic life. It's also
not good for the Jews.
American Jews are among the most liberal voters in America, more
consistently supporting a progressive agenda than any other voting bloc.
There's an important reason for this--the Torah tradition has a strong
commitment to social-justice values and to caring for "the other." Jews
who became secular in America carried those values with them, and they
became the backbone of the labor movement, the anti-war movement, the
women's movement, and other progressive social-change movements of the
past hundred years.
But in the past 50 years, a strong conservative voice has emerged in the
Jewish world that has had a very different agenda. Forged by the new
possibilities of "making it" in America, these more conservative Jewish
voices have insisted that the best interests of the Jewish people lie in
identifying with America's elites of wealth and power, finding a place
within those elites, and, just in case that didn't work out, building a
militarily strong Israel to which we might escape should the (in the
conservative view) ever-present danger of anti-Semitism reappear here.
Cuddling up to the powerful meant subordinating social justice and joining
in the celebration of the globalization of capital and the triumph of the
ethos of selfishness and materialism.
These same conservatives sought to build American ties to Israel on a new
basis--no longer as the exemplar of democratic and human rights values
that had been the view of many liberal Jews, but rather as the strong
military ally of the U.S., which could fight against communist and
post-communist threats to U.S. interests. From their standpoint, the
documentation of Israeli torture of Palestinians, the denial of human
rights, and the oppression of another people were all irrelevant and
uninteresting. Jewish self-interest, from their standpoint, had nothing to
do with the triumph of a moral or spiritual reality, either in the U.S. or
in Israel. So while most American Jews were critical of Israeli policy
toward Palestinians, these conservatives gave knee-jerk support to
whatever government the Israelis produced (and to be fair, I sat next to
Hadassah Lieberman at the signing of the Oslo Accords at the White House,
and she was as willing to support this as she and her husband had been to
support previous hawkish Israeli governments).
The sad truth is that Lieberman represents the tendency within the Jewish
world to abandon the moral and spiritual vision that led generations of
Jews to be the moral conscience of our society. Rather than championing
dramatic escalations in spending for social purposes, and to end poverty
and oppression, he will champion defense spending. Rather than critiquing
Israeli policy and attempting to push Israel toward more significant
compromises with the Palestinians, he will exhibit the kind of contempt
for the needs of the Palestinian people that is already over-represented
by Gore's top adviser Martin Peretz (editor of The New Republic, and one
of the most consistently anti-Palestinian voices in American politics).
Some people have imagined that Lieberman's nomination will generate
anti-Semitism. I think that Gore should be praised for not allowing that
concern to influence him. But there's another side to that, too. The
typical anti-Semitic attack on Jews portrays us as having disproportionate
power and influence in the world. This is a lie about Jews in general, but
it's true about the sector of Jews who Lieberman represents. Had Gore
picked one of the many Jews involved in the leadership of the causes for
social justice (Sen. Barbara Boxer, for example), he would have
highlighted the way that Jews are doing our best to heal and transform
this world. Instead, he chose one of the Jews whose power is used to
accelerate the interests of the elites, thus strengthening the distorted
image of Jews as uncaring and elitist. It's not that a Jew was nominated;
it is the kind of Jew that gives some of us concern.
Joseph Lieberman may be a committed Orthodox Jew in his personal practice,
but in his role as a public spokesperson he has gone far away from the
best aspects of the Jewish tradition. He has none of that prophetic voice
that leads Jews to criticize our own Jewish community and Israel in the
name of Torah values. He has none of that Jewish sensitivity to the
oppressed that would place their needs above the needs of the wealthy. And
yet this is the man who will become the symbol of Jews to most Americans.
That's not good for the Jews.
But there's a deeper level still. America needs a fundamentally new
foundation for politics--a foundation that challenges the selfishness and
materialism that is our "bottom line" at this historical moment. That new
politics can be grounded in the wisdom of the biblical tradition and its
central teaching, "not by bread alone shall human beings survive"
(Deuteronomy 8:3). Lieberman and his ilk rap themselves in the Bible and
are the first to throw stones when people violate the sexual ethics of the
Bible. Yet the central vision of the Bible is one that calls for a world
in which we can recognize the Spirit of God embodied in every human being
and build a world consistent with that vision. To do that, we would need a
whole new definition of productivity and efficiency, one that sees
institutions and social practices as valuable not only to the extent that
they maximize money and power but also to the extent that they maximize
love and caring, awe and wonder. Lieberman doesn't exist in that
discourse, and his nomination is one step further away from a spiritual
politics and from a world reconnecting to the message of the Bible.
So it's not good for America either.
**Michael Lerner, a rabbi, is the editor of Tikkun magazine and the author
of numerous books, including "Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and
Transformation," "Jews and Blacks: Let the Healing Begin," and "The
Politics of Meaning: Restoring Hope and Possibility in an Age of
Cynicism." Rabbi Lerner was a student of the eminent Jewish scholar and
thinker Abraham Joshua Heschel. He founded the Institute for Labor and
Mental Health, and for many years served as a psychotherapist for
middle-income working people. He is currently the rabbi of Beyt Tikkun
(The House of Love and Healing), a young synagogue in San Francisco.
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