The American Jewish community may be the most politically sophisticated ethnic or religious group in America. After all, Jews — who make up only 2% of the American populace — are highly over-represented as voters, as contributors, as elected officials on the federal level, as appointees to high government office, as campaign contributors, as political professionals and as political journalists.
Yet the initial reaction within the American Jewish community to the presidential candidacy of Senator Joseph Lieberman is beginning to make me question some of my assumptions about Jews being sophisticated political actors.
There is no 11th commandment that states that all Jews should support the candidacy of a Jewish candidate for president. One would expect a mature community like ours to be less susceptible to ethnic voting than more recent immigrant groups. And it is reflective of the central role that Jews play in the Democratic Party that all of the major Democratic candidates for president have prominent American Jews in their inner circles.
But there is also no reason that a Jewish candidate should face more critical scrutiny from his co-religionists than a non-Jewish candidate would. And this is exactly what has happened to Lieberman so far in 2003.
Since the senator announced his intention to run at the end of 2002, numerous stories have appeared regarding the criticism of the Lieberman candidacy within the Jewish community. For example, when he recently traveled to the Middle East, there were comments in the Jewish press about how Lieberman was trying to be too conciliatory toward Arabs — and in the same stories there were comments by American Jews that the senator was too hawkish on Middle East matters.
But the core of the criticism of the Lieberman candidacy in the Jewish community is the often unstated worry that a Jewish president “would not be good for the Jews.” Especially after September 11 and the reemergence of virulent antisemitism in Europe and in the Arab world, many American Jews seem to be more concerned than ever that a Jew cannot be elected — and that if he were elected, the scrutiny of his religion domestically and internationally would bring even more antisemites out of the closet.
Curiously, this worry that antisemitism will kill a Jewish presidential bid is almost totally lacking among non-Jews. At a recent political briefing, I heard one highly-respected, non-Jewish political pundit comment that the only Democratic political operatives who worry that Lieberman’s religion would be a serious negative in a primary or a general election are Jews.
Another operative told me that she has heard Italian Americans and Asian Americans comment that if they had a serious candidate for president who was a member of their ethnic group, their communities would be openly ecstatic about their candidacies. One heard little criticism out of the Greek community when Michael Dukakis ran for president in 1988.
Luckily for Lieberman there are a few silver linings in this grey cloud of ethnic hand-wringing. There are a large number of dedicated Jewish political activists who are proud of the senator’s record and are enthusiastically working on behalf of his candidacy. Moreover, the 2000 election is proof that this type of public worrying by American Jews tends to fade away when a candidacy takes off.
If Lieberman runs well in the early 2004 primaries, there will be few stories about American Jews worrying about a Jewish candidate for president; many of the Jews who question his candidacy now will jump on the bandwagon, and he can expect to win an impressive share of the Jewish vote in November. On the other hand, if the Lieberman campaign does not execute its larger strategy effectively, then even unanimous support from the Jewish community would not secure the Democratic nomination for him.
There is no doubt that the disease of antisemitism is thriving in the international community, and it still lurks around the edges of American society. But this knowledge should not paralyze the American Jewish community in its political action, nor should it preclude American Jews from attaining the highest positions of trust and responsibility in our country.
On nearly every level, the American Jewish community plays the game of American politics with great sophistication and confidence. We will know we are even more sophisticated and competent when most of us can judge candidates for president on the merits — and not because of an outsized fear of lurking antisemitism.
Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, is co-editor of “Jews In American Politics,” which is being reissued this fall in paperback.