A decade ago, I found myself in a hotel lounge in a mid-sized American city chatting with a local Jewish leader. He spoke loudly, but every time he used the words “Jew” or “Jewish,” he lowered his voice. For an instant, I experienced an urge — similar to one I had felt in a Moscow cafeteria in the 1970s — to hop on the nearest table and shout to the crowd: “We are Jews, Jews, Jews, Jews.”
We have come a long way in America. A highly visible Jew has run a credible campaign for the highest office of the greatest, most powerful country on earth. Even for the most acculturated, comfortable and unabashed among us, this feels historic. Only now that Joseph Lieberman has withdrawn from the race does the enormity of it begin to sink in.
The word “Jew” has crossed the lips of every politically aware citizen, has been printed on the front pages of every small-town newspaper. This is not the first time a Jew has run for president — Governor Milton Shapp ran in 1976 and Senator Arlen Specter in 1996 — but never before was there a candidate as visibly or seriously Jewish as Lieberman.
Lieberman is the first highly observant Jew to run for the presidency, and consequently, he stands with his Jewishness out front. Keeping Shabbat in the middle of a campaign where every second counts was a lesson in restraint, priorities and faithfulness. Similarly, Lieberman’s travels surely brought him challenges in keeping kosher, yet he offered a lesson that one could eat according to a distinctive set of laws without separating from the company of others who did not. His allusions to Scripture and use of prayer were genuine, not hokey. He carried the modest demeanor of a man whose religion was not for show but came from a deep well. And with all this ancient stuff bubbling inside of him, he still looked every bit American, with his well-cut suits, nice ties and neatly groomed hair.
To questions about dual loyalty from interviewers (who never used the word but asked with the subtlety of a sledgehammer), Lieberman answered forthrightly and with great dignity. His responses are useful for every Jew, or for that matter every person of faith in this country. Just as John Kennedy ended the idea that being a Catholic is a political handicap, so Lieberman has opened a door to practitioners of all religions so that they can be themselves and also aspire to the highest office in the land.
To be sure, Lieberman benefited from an unparalleled level of acceptance of Jews in American society. In a 2003 Gallup poll, 89% of Americans said they would vote for a qualified Jew for president. But he also contributed to elevating the image of Jews in America.
Lieberman radiated decency. Divorced, remarried and living in a newly blended family, this was all done the way these things should be done, with no messiness. His wife Hadassah has a gripping history and a panache all her own; who can ever forget that moment as she stood under the lights at the Democratic convention in 2000 telling the story of her parents and her family’s journey from the fires of Europe to the apex of American life? Greatly devoted to his mother, Lieberman attacked the stereotype of Jewish mothers and, by extension, all mothers. On the mothers’ vote alone, seeking a model for their own sons, he should have won the primaries. Strong family values, responsibility and fidelity, not unscathed by the realities of living in a divorce culture but offering hope of a second chance after failure — all of this is a good model for America today.
He also embodies the political maturation of American Jews in our time. Uniquely, he integrates the best of liberalism — a humane government responsibly defending social welfare, the environment, minorities and education — with the best of conservatism — limited government, restraint in taxation, fiscal responsibility, nurturing business and advancing free trade over narrow economic interests. He is pro-choice but strong on family values; for pluralism and multiculturalism yet unafraid to criticize media and cultural abuses; supportive of welfare, yes, but also supporting responsibility and self-help; favoring genetic research, along with responsible medical ethics. In international politics, he is not afraid to call evil “evil,” or to use American power to protect our national interests. His unwavering support for Israel has not compromised his determination to secure a decent life and homeland for the Palestinians. In other words, he put together combinations that represent the best in centrist Jewish politics today.
Finally, Lieberman is a nice guy, an image that Jews are proud to project. The pundits are quick to say that part of his failure in the primaries may in fact have been his kid-gloves approach, but the idea of the Jew as nice guy was and remains a great boon for us. Nothing more powerfully refutes the antisemitic, demonizing stereotypes of Jews than Lieberman’s transparently nice persona.
For these reasons it is sad that more Jews did not understand the full implications of his candidacy and give him the support that he needed. The fact that some Jews still run for cover out of fear of growing antisemitism is a real concern for the future. And what a lost opportunity! In addition to all else, an observant Jew in office would have provided an education for Jews of this country in what Jewish living means. We could not build enough schools or programs that could give equivalent exposure. In other words, Lieberman as president would have been priceless. But even though it was not to be, the legacy that he leaves will only grow and deepen, contributing to the maturation of our community and the larger American society.
Blu Greenberg is the founding president of the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance. The views expressed in this article are her own.