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The Jewishness of Joseph Lieberman

Joseph Lieberman may have held on to his Senate seat, but it’s safe to say that there were plenty of Jews who weren’t celebrating with him on election night. Indeed, Lieberman — one of the greatest political path-breakers in American Jewish history — has long been a controversial figure among his fellow Jews.

This has been a source of continuing consternation to Lieberman’s Jewish boosters. Following Lieberman’s narrow defeat in this summer’s Democratic primary, Newsweek’s resident Reform rabbi, Marc Gellman, wrote: “Joe Lieberman did not lose the Democratic primary because of his support for the war in Iraq. He lost because of his lack of support from Jews.” Similarly, when Lieberman’s 2004 presidential run fizzled, disappointed supporters loudly lamented the failure of America’s Jews to line up behind their co-religionist.

While these laments may be overwrought — after all, if we insist that our fellow citizens judge Lieberman by his merits and not his religion, shouldn’t Jews be expected to do the same? — it is also true that in some precincts of the Jewish left, revulsion wouldn’t be too strong a word to describe what he evokes.

Discomfort with Lieberman is partly explained by the fact that this pioneering Jewish politician is far from your typical American Jew. For starters, there’s his Orthodoxy, a stream of Judaism that represents only a tenth of American Jews. More significant is his very public use of faith-based language — particularly jarring to a community that has long seen a high wall of separation between church and state as the best guarantor of its place in American society. Finally, some on the Jewish left resent the fact that the country’s most liberal ethnic group has as its most visible representative an aggressively centrist politician.

Yet for all the ways in which Lieberman is atypical, there is also something very Jewish about his politics. Indeed, some of the hostility he arouses on the left, which often seems disproportionate to his transgressions — recall that his voting record earned him a respectable 76% lifetime rating from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action— is the result of a civil war raging within Jewish liberalism for more than half a century.

From the battles between fellow travelers and anti-communists in the early days of the cold war to the dueling worldviews of the largely Jewish staffs of The New Republic (which offered a lonely endorsement of Lieberman’s presidential candidacy) and The Nation (which hasn’t shown him much love), Jewish liberals are a fractious family. And Lieberman is the closest thing we have to a standard-bearer — however imperfect — for a particular kind of Jewish liberalism: skeptical of race-conscious public policies, vocally opposed to the ideological excesses of the academic left, bullish on America’s potential to advance the cause of freedom abroad and hawkishly pro-Israel.

Like many young Jews of his generation, Lieberman went south to Mississippi as a civil rights volunteer. Like many Jews, he would grow uncomfortable as the civil rights movement abandoned colorblind liberalism for racial preferences. In the 1990s, Lieberman repeatedly criticized affirmative action based on racial and gender preferences as divisive and un-American — a position he quickly abandoned on being named Al Gore’s running mate and drawing fire from black Democrats.

During the 1960s, many liberal Jewish university professors recoiled at the student rebellions of the era, repulsed by what they saw as wild assaults on institutions they had struggled so hard to enter. Jewish academics have been among the leading critics of political correctness, seeing in it a censorious illiberalism. Lieberman is a co-founder, with Lynne Cheney and others, of what is now the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, an active combatant in the campus wars over political correctness.

Lieberman also reflects a hawkish strain within Jewish liberalism. Having been touched by totalitarianism in its Nazi version or witnessed firsthand the true nature of communism in the internecine battles of the American left, many Jewish intellectuals urged a hard line against the Soviet Union. And many — liberal hawks and neoconservatives alike — have since advocated an aggressive approach on the Middle East.

Even before the September 11 terrorist attacks, Lieberman was the Democratic hawk par excellence, backing the first Gulf War, intervention in the Balkans and the removal of Saddam Hussein. As former Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer said last year, “The Hebrew word for ‘Scoop Jackson’ is ‘Joe Lieberman,’” referring to the hawkish Democratic senator around whom liberal cold warriors — and future neoconservative luminaries — huddled during the 1970s.

And, of course, Lieberman is an outspoken supporter of Israel. During his recent race, Lieberman took on the role of Israel’s defender, accusing his opponent, Ned Lamont — who went out of his way to demonstrate pro-Israel bona fides — of being “surrounded by people who are either naïve or are isolationists or, frankly, some more explicitly against Israel.”

These are the issues that sent Jewish neoconservative intellectuals fleeing the party. But Lieberman stayed in the fold.

To be sure, Lieberman’s are not the only Jewish positions on these issues — nor even necessarily the majority ones. Still, he gives voice to a segment of Jewish opinion with a venerable history. For all the hostility of the Jewish left, Lieberman still managed to garner upwards of 60% of the Jewish vote in the general election.

Spurned by his own party, yet still emerging victorious, Lieberman may now drift further to the right. There were already signs of this in his post-primary campaigning, when he began harshly rebuking fellow Democrats. Recently, on “Meet the Press,” he refused to rule out the possibility of someday joining with the GOP. But Lieberman should beware of drifting too far.

The neoconservatives marched out of the Democratic Party, expecting their fellow Jews to follow. They never did. It’s a lesson that Joseph Lieberman would do well to remember. Many Jews may share Joe’s concerns, but if history is any guide, they will likely never follow him too far from his, and their own, roots.

Daniel Treiman is the founding editor of The Brooklynite magazine and a former associate editor at the Forward.

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