Dedicated readers of E.J. Kessler’s presidential campaign coverage in the Forward will hardly be surprised to learn that the latest entry into the Democratic presidential field, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, has adopted a kosher vegan diet in deference to the religious practices of his long-time “best friend,” Cleveland labor lawyer Yelena Boxer. Bemused, perhaps, but not surprised. Not at this point.
By our tally, Kucinich’s entrant means that of the eight announced Democratic contenders at press time, no fewer than four have first-degree ties to the tribe of Abraham. Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, the reputed front-runner, would be the first president with a Jewish father — halachically, at least; Kerry’s paternal grandparents were both Jewish converts to Catholicism. Both Kucinich and Vermont Governor Howard Dean, if victorious, can be expected to preside over the first White House Seder, with the extended family of the first lady (or first best friend) crowding around the table, joined no doubt by selected world leaders, big donors and perhaps Barbra Streisand. Then, of course, there’s the man who started it all, Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman.
We didn’t go looking for this. Honest. It all started because we were curious about what motivated Dean to take the politically daring step of appearing at an Americans for Peace Now dinner. Then we approached General Wesley Clark, an unannounced candidate, because of rumors that his late-in-life discovery of his Jewish roots may have helped fuel his passion to stop a new genocide in the Balkans. Then came Kerry’s self-outing, then a few Middle East-related policy interviews, and bada-boom, bada-bing, we’re hearing that Kucinich davens Conservative. We couldn’t make this stuff up.
It hardly needs saying, but most voters, including Jewish voters, will make their decisions at the ballot box on the basis of the candidates’ positions on the issues, not their ethnicity. Many Jews will be drawn to Kucinich because of his fiery liberalism, though some may be deterred by his dovish views on the military; his family life won’t change that. On the other hand, there are countless Jews who swelled with pride when Lieberman was tapped for the Democratic ticket in 2000, but won’t back him for the top job in 2004 because he’s simply too conservative for their tastes.
The fact that so many candidates feel comfortable stepping forward and disclosing a Jewish link in their family heritage speaks volumes about the tolerance and maturity of the American electorate. American voters, it appears, plan to vote for the candidate who seems likeliest to do the job well. American Jewish voters will do the same. And that’s as it should be.