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The Liberman Candidacy and the Continuing Crisis of American Jewish Identity

Allan C. Brownfeld
Summer 2000

The selection of Senator Joseph Lieberman (D-CT), an Orthodox Jew, as the Democratic Party's vice presidential candidate has resulted in extensive discussion of the role of religion in American politics and, in particular, the role of Jews and Judaism in the American society.  

As the campaign proceeds, few expect religion to loom very large. The Rev. Richard Neuhaus, a Roman Catholic priest who is the editor of First Things, a religious journal, said that, "For a lot of serious Christians in America, the fact that he's an observant Jew would be viewed very positively. America is incorrigibly and confusedly a religious nation, and the fact that a person is viewed 5 religiously devout, someone who lives what he believes, is clearly a plus."  

Political scholars generally dismiss the notion that any religious prejudice among Christians, who account for 85 percent of voters, would be much of a factor. America, they declare, has changed. In 1937, only 46 percent of voters surveyed by Gallup said they would vote for a qualified Jewish candidate for president. By 1999, 92 percent of voters said they would; only 6 percent said they would not, and the rest had no opinion.  

No Substantial Bias  

That Result, reflected in other polls, "suggests that even if there is a hidden bias that people are unwilling  
that people are unwilling to admit to pollsters, it is not substantial enough to make a difference," said John C.  
Green, director of the Ray Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron.  

The Rev. Jerry Falwell, a leader of the Christian right and a supporter of Governor George W. Bush, said of the Lieberman candidacy: "I think the vice president made an excellent choice. It is a public acknowledgement that his candidacy had two great needs. One is credibility, which Mr. Lieberman brings to everything he touches. The second is an everlasting divorce from Bill Clinton, and this is that."  

Martin E. Marty, emeritus professor at the University of Chicago and author of Politics, Religion and the Common Good, points out that many evangelical Protestants "see Mr. Lieberman's selection as enlarging the space for themselves in American culture. He is celebrated for being different from the mainstream culture while they have been criticized for it. They mention God in public and draw sneers; he does, and is admired. Will the acceptance of his views lead to greater acceptance of theirs?"  

Among Jews there has been enthusiasm for the Lieberman candidacy. Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, called the selection of Lieberman "a historical step forward in the complete integration of Jews in American society." Rabbi Schorsch added that it was perhaps an inevitable step, given the fact that Jews were already highly visible in the upper reaches of American life, from corporate boardrooms to the U.S. Senate to the president's Cabinet. "I think the nomination just confirms the status of Jews in American society," he said. "It's not a breakthrough. It's a confirmation."  

Contradiction between Fear and Reality  

What Has been lacking in much of the discussion about the larger question of the role of Jews and Judaism in the American society is the contradiction between what the organized Jewish community preaches-and fears-and the reality in which the overwhelming majority of those in whose name they speak really live.  

Polls repeatedly indicates that American Jews believe that anti-Semitism is a serious problem. In 1985, a third of those affiliated with the Jewish community in the San Francisco area said, in response to a questionnaire, that Jewish candidates could not be elected to Congress from San Francisco. Yet, three out of the four congressional representatives from that area-as well as the two state senators and the mayor of San Francisco--were, in fact, well-identified Jews at the time the poll was conducted. And they had been elected by a population that was about 95 percent non-Jewish.  

Many "watchdog" groups such as the Anti-Defamation League raise millions of dollars each year for their crusades against hate. Laird Wilcox, a Kansas author and editor who has spent decades researching what he calls "fringe" groups, says that these "watchdog" groups exaggerate the dangers posed by the small number of racist movements which do exist. The total number of active, organized extremists on the far right, he reports, is not much more than 10,000--0ut of an American population of more than 270 million people.  

Tiny Danger  

The small size of such fringe groups represents a tiny danger, yet they are the target of what Wilcox calls an "industry" of watchdog organizations. In his 1999 book, The Watchdogs, Wilcox writes: "There is an anti-racist industry entrenched in the U.S. that has attracted ...moralizing fanatics whose identity and livelihood depends upon growth and expansion of their particular kind of victimization."  

Watchdog groups, which spread fear among their constituents, may actually help the hate groups they claim to oppose, says author Jim Redden: "My belief is that there aren't that many hard core racist activists in this country...And even with their Internet sites, they're very limited in their ability to get their ideas before the public, so the mass media coverage of their movement does more to publicize their beliefs than what they do themselves."  

In a typical fund-raising appeal, sent in May 2000, the ADL declared: "Violent hate groups are gaining ground. We must fight them. Please support our Annual Appeal... Organized hate groups...have become more effective recruiting new members, more sophisticated using the Internet. More brutal in their attacks...It is painfully clear that the ADL must continue to fight the haters with even greater urgency..."  

Jews as "Victims"  

Many Jewish groups have spent their time and energy in recent years portraying American Jews as "'victims" using images of the Holocaust, as if this event had occurred in the United States and been endured by American Jews. In his book, The Holocaust In American Life, Professor Peter Novick of the University of Chicago argues that this has been a largely fa.'1ciful effort: "Their contemporary situation offered little in the way of credentials. American Jews were by far the wealthiest, best-educated, most influential, in-every-way-most successful group in American society-a group that compared to most other identifiable minority groups, suffered no measurable discrimination and no disadvantage on account of that minority status. But insofar as Jewish identity could be anchored in the agony of European Jewry,  
certification as (vicarious) victims could be claimed, with all the moral privilege accompanying such certification."  

In addition to seeking a status of "victims" for American Jews, the organized Jewish community has embraced the Zionist idea that all Jews living outside oft Israel are in "exile:' and that the State of Israel-not God-is "central" to Judaism. Even Reform Judaism, which previously rejected Jewish nationalism, adopted a new statement of principles in May 1999 which, among other things, calls upon American Jews to make "aliyah," or emigrate to Israe1. Israeli leaders miss few opportunities to tell America Jews that their religion is illegitimate and that Israel is their genuine home. At a 1998 convention of North American Jews in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for "massive alivah from every country in the Diaspora, including the United States." President Ezer Weizmann has frequently said that, "The place of Jews is in Israel. Only in Israel can Jews live full Jewish lives."  

Classic Zionist Theory  

All of this, of course, is classic Zionist theory. Jacob Klatzkin, a leading Zionist writer expressed the accepted view that Jews are in "exile" outside of the "Jewish state." He declared: "We are simply aliens, we are foreign people in your midst, and we emphasize, we wish to stay that way." In 1941, Nazi Germany reprinted the following statement by Simon Dubnow,a Zionist historian an, author: "To be sure the emancipated Jew in France calls himself a Frenchman of the Jewish faith, would that, however, mean that he became part of the French nation, confessing to the Jewish faith? Not at all...A Jew...even if he happened to be born in France and still lives there, in spite of these he remains a member of the Jewish nation."  

And now we have the Lieberman candidacy which has produced an outpouring of support from almost every' sector of the Jewish community, Few have questioned the hypocrisy of claiming that the free, open and tolerant American society is a hotbed of anti-Semitism at the same time that Jews face few, if any, obstacles in their lives based upon religion. Nor has the idea that American Jews are in '"exile" been properly rejected-particularly since, in a free society, anyone

There are some signs that while organized Jewish groups may be unwilling to abandon their campaigns of fear and their obsession with Israel, most American Jews, and increasing numbers of articulate Jewish observers, are now in the process of leaving them behind.  

Columnist Leonard Fein expresses the hope that, "Perhaps, at last, we will be able to disabuse ourselves of the notion that anti-Semitism is an urgent issue, a position that every survey of Jewish opinion shows we still hold. One might have supposed that the fact that the state of Wisconsin, not exactly a hot-bed of Jewish life, is represented by two Jews in the United States Senate, as is the state of California, would have been sufficient to cure us of our obsession with anti-Semitism-that, plus the fact that very few Jews have experienced anti-Semitism."  

Sign of the Times  

Harvard Professor -Alan Dershowitz notes that, "The selection of Senator Lieberman...is more a sign of the times than a change of direction. It is unlike the nomination of Senator Kennedy in 1960, though there are, of course, some similarities. Mr. Kennedy was a charismatic and dynamic new face who changed perceptions about Catholicism among many Americans. At the time of Mr. Kennedy's nomination, there was still significant anti-Catholic bigotry in many segments of American life. Mr. Kennedy. through his personal charisma and charm altered much of that...Mr.  
Lieberman's nomination comes at a time when discrimination against Jews has all but ended... The Jewish background of both of President Clinton's appointments to the Supreme Court was hardly noticed and barely noted. It was only natural, therefore, that Mr. Lieberman's Jewishness was not seen by AI Gore as in any way disqualifying. His selection validates the status of American Jews as full participants in American democracy."  

Editorially, The Forward (Aug. 11, 2000) declared: "The challenge now facing American Jews is to absorb the enormity of their changed circumstance. For more than three centuries, Jews have retold their story in America as a tale of uphill struggle to break down barriers and open up opportunity. They have defined themselves by their enemies and by their scars. This will not do any longer. As organizing myths of Jewish identity, 'outsider' and 'underdog' are finished."  

The fact is that from the first settlement of America by Europeans to the present time, Jews have not only been present but have been deeply committed to the success of the unique experiment in democracy and self-.government which slowly unfolded. Even before the Constitution mandated religious freedom, Jews in the original colonies had more freedom to practice their religion than existed anyplace in the world. Others, in many instances, were not as fortunate. In his book, A History of the Jews in America. Howard M. Sachar writes that, "Unlike restrictions imposed on Catholics. not a single law was ever enacted in British North America specifically to disable Jews...the Jews of colonial America unquestionably were the freest Jews on earth"  

No Marginalization  

In an essay of "American Religious Exceptionalism," Edward Tiryakian points out that, "...Jews in America have not been marginalized...by virtue of their religion...there has been no historical ghetto experience, no pogroms. In fact, because of a deep-structure affinity of Calvinist Puritans for Judaism, it is in America that Jews have increasingly found full societal and cultural participation and acceptance, symbolized by widespread acceptance in recent years of the term ' Judeo-Christian."'  

In the colonial period, Jews were already an intrinsic part of American society. The playwright Joseph Addison wrote in 1712 that Jews were "the pegs and nails in a great building, which, though they are but little value in themselves, are absolutely necessary to keep the whole frame together.'. George Mason said the Jews "were not only noted for their knowledge of mercantile and commercial affairs, but also for their industry, enterprise and probity."  

Good will among Americans of different religious faiths is not a new phenomenon. When Philadelphia's Mikveh Israel congregation, still in desperate straits nearly a decade after the American Revolution, appealed for help to "worthy citizens of every religious denomination," Benjamin Franklin. David Rittenhouse and William Bradford were among the contributors. In that same city, four years earlier, on July 4, a gala Independence Day celebration had been mounted. One of the floats symbolized religious freedom and was escorted by 17 clergymen of different faiths. "They formed a very agreeable part of the procession," noted Benjamin Rush. "The rabbi of the Jews, locked in the arms of two ministers of the Gospel, was a most delightful sight. There could not have been a more happy emblem contrived.  
which opens all its power and offices alike, not only to every sect of Christians but to worthy men of every religion." In his memoirs, Joseph Jonas, the first Jew in Cincinnati, recalled that 52 non-Jews contributed $25 each to construct the city's first synagogue. At the consecration in 1835. "The crowd of our Christian friends was so great that we could not admit them all."  

American Diversity  

In the case of Joseph Lieberman, his maternal grandmother, Minnie Manger a Central European immigrant with  
whom the family lived until Lieberman was 8, marveled each week when she walked up Hawthorne Street in Stamford to the synagogue. The Christian neighbors she passed wished her a good Sabbath. Her delight in the diversity of he adoptive country rubbed off on he grandson. Lieberman himself says that "I grew up in a multiethnic, multiracial multireligious community and I was lucky. I can't remember a single instance of anti-Semitism in my youth."  

Editorially, The New Republic declared that, "The Lieberman nomination did not create a climate of decency in America; it confirmed such a climate.. The United States does not 'tolerate' minorities, it welcomes them, and lift~ them up, and expects them to lift up the minorities who come after them. The American ladder is sublimely long, and nobody ever pulls it up behind himself...For all these reasons, America represents not only a revolution in the history of the world. but also a revolution in the history of the Jews. The freedom and safety that the Jews found in America are not historical accidents they are historical achievements. The United States is not just another address that is not Zion. America is itself a kind of solution to the torments of otherness that afflicted and nearly destroyed the Jews in Europe. It is (to use the old Jewish terms) a diaspora that is not an exile."  

Hopefully, the Democrats will not ask Americans to "make history" by voting for the Gore-Lieberman ticket because of Lieberman's religion in order to send a "message." And Jewish groups would be wise not to support Liberman's candidacy for this reason as well. Just as it would be wrong to vote against a candidate because of his or her religion, voting in support for such a reason would be equally mistaken.  

Don't Ask Voters to "Make History"  
Paul Goldman, who served as Virginia state Democratic Party chairman and was campaign manager for L. Douglas Wilder's successful race for governor, writes that, "As a supporter of Al Gore. I am concerned about his call for voters to help him and Joe Lieberman 'make history' through his choice of a Jewish American vice president. That's a very different approach from the one we in the campaign of L. Douglas Wilder took when he set out to break another barrier: the color line in southern politics... We made a fundamental decision: Doug Wilder would never say, 'You can make history with your vote in this election.' In fact, we would never say that a vote for him was anything but a vote for the best qualified candidate. We specifically said we didn't want anyone to vote for him, or against him, on account of race. The reasoning was simple enough: If you really believe race should not be a relevant factor in determining whether one is elected, then it's wrong to imply that making history is a reason to choose an African American candidate such as Wilder over his opponent."  

Whoever wins the November election, the questions about Jewish identity will remain. Will Jewish groups continue to promote the siege mentality of victimization, or will they embrace the freedom which the American society provides for all of its citizens? Will they begin to confront the intolerance within their own community as they hail the tolerance of the larger American society? Will they continue to agonize over "survival" and promote an ethno-centric faith focused on the Middle East? Will hey continue to oppose "inter-marriage" as a deadly threat to religious faith? Will they repeat the formulas of "exile" and "aliyah?" If they do, they may be left without an audience and a following.  

Jewish Intolerance  

Writing in the New York Observer Philip Weiss argues that it is time to confront Jewish intolerance: "Not long ago, I received an e-mail from a friend proclaiming, bottom line, Jews should not vote for Governor Bush because his parents forced him to break off his engagement to a Jewish woman in the late 60s. ( First Son, the Bush biography by Bill Minutaglio, says that Houston socialite Cathryn Wolfman . . . was possibly Jewish; the book hints at Bush family concern about the engagement, but says it petered out because Ms. Wolfman was on a more serious course than W.) Guess what, that sword cuts both ways: If a parent's objection to intermarriage in 1969 is going to keep someone out of high public office in 2000, there isn't one Jew over legal age 35 who could now be President. It didn't stop in 1969. In a multicultural society, youthful love affairs are still being thwarted by Jewish Montagues as we speak. In fact, there is a good possibility that the next Vice President of the United States wi1l be someone who does not want his children to marry non-Jews. He wants to lead the people, he just doesn't want his children to marry any of them."  

Mr. Weiss points out that, "The Orthodox Union of which Senator Lieberman is a member, and conservative Jewish organizations put out statements on intermarriage that border on racist. It All Begins With A Date is the name of a book the conservatives promote. Mandell I. Ganchrow, head of the Orthodox: Union has said that Jews who marry Christians are being swept out to sea...These are not only religious attitudes, they are cultural. They infuse the Jewish experience of America, a mistrustful one...Is that mistrust warranted? Jews have been inside the American establishment now for a good 10 years, just no one has wanted to say it lest the bubble burst. Now the word is out. And what will happen to the Jewish suspicion of goyishe culture if Lieberman ' s presence is met with a big ho-hum? How will Jewish identity be transformed? That's what's most at stake here. Yes, AI Gore has changed American history, hooray. More than that, he will have changed the Jews."  

Fear and Suspicion  

Jewish fear, mistrust and suspicion are attitudes which bear no relationship whatever to the American reality. In his book Where Are We ?, Leonard Fein writes: "How is it that a people so manifestly successful continues to represent itself-and in truth, to see itself-as a victim people? Is Jewish survival every where and always at stake, as Jews so often announce, or ought a people that has weathered 4,000 years of time, much of it traumatic, take its continuing survival pretty much for granted."  

The real question the Jewish establishment prefers not to confront is the one Leonard Fein poses: .'Why now that Judaism is no longer a condition but an optional commitment, why be Jewish' What are the motives that move Jews to act as Jews and sometimes to live as Jews .? . . . For this generation of Jews. . . the more urgent question is not how to defend the Jews against their external enemies, but how to defend Judaism from its internal erosion and corruption. For the threat to Jewish survival in our time is less that the Jews who bear Judaism's meaning and message will be destroyed more that the meaning and message will be forgotten and distorted...America offered more than new options for its growing number of Jews; here Judaism itself became an option...True freedom meant freedom from class, from group, perhaps, above all, from the past. It meant therefore, the freedom to stop being Jewish."  

American Uniqueness  

The uniqueness of the American experience has not influenced those who persist in speaking in a terminology designed for different times and places, but without any relevance to the American condition. This experience provides a unique challenge to those who continue to promote a narrow, ethnocentric and nationalistic brand of Judaism rather than the universal Judaism of the prophets which motivated the original reformers who understood very well the American environment in which they lived.  

In A History of the Jews, Paul Johnson writes that, "America was, from the start, unlike any Jewry elsewhere. In Europe and Afro-Asia, where religious barriers were universal in some form, the Jews always had to negotiate or have imposed upon them a special status. This obliged them to form specific and usually legally defined communities, wherever they settled. To a greater or lesser extent, all these Jewish communities were self-governing, even though the actual condition of the Jews might be miserable and perilous. In Poland, under the monarchy, the Jews enjoyed a kind of home rule, governing themselves through the Councils of the Lands, which their wealthier members elected. They were taxed more heavily than the surrounding Poles and had no real right of self -defense, but otherwise ran their own affairs. To a less pronounced extent this was true of every Jewish settlement in Continental Europe. The Jews always ran their own schools, courts. hospitals and social services. They appointed and paid their own officials, rabbis. judges, slaughterers. circumcisers. schoolteachers, bakers and cleaners. They had their own shops. Wherever they were, the Jews formed tiny states within states."  

This pattern was completely broken in America. "In North America it was quite different." Johnsorl writes. "even before the U.S. attained independence. With the virtual absence of religious-determined law, there was no reason why Jews should operate a separate legal system, except on matters which could be seen merely as internal religious discipline. Since all religious groups had virtually equal rights, there was no point in constituting itself into a separate community All could participate in a common society. Hence from the start, the Jews in America were not organized on communal but congregational lines, like the other churches...American Jews did not belong to 'the Jewish community,' as they did in Europe. They belonged to a particular synagogue. It might be Sephardi or Ashkenazi; or, of the latter, it might be German, English, Dutch, Polish, all of them differing on small ritual points. Protestant groups were divided on comparable lines. Hence a Jew went to 'his' synagogue, just as a Protestant went to 'his' church. In other respects, both Jew and Protestant were part of the general citizenry, in which they merged as secular units. Thus for the first time, Jews, without in any way renouncing their religion, began to achieve integration."  

Something New in History  

The theorists of a separate Jewish ethnic identity never anticipated or understood the uniqueness of the American experience. In the book Jews and the New American Scene, Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab set forth the manner in which America was genuinely something new in history: "Almost every country with the exception of the U.S. and the now-deceased Soviet Union is a historically defined nation united by a common history, not a political doctrine. Though immigrants may acquire citizenship almost everywhere, the meaning of being English, French, German or Russian is predominantly a birthright status. As a new nation legitimated by a revolutionary ideology, America differed from all these other countries, and the meaning of being an American was different. . .As the self -conscious center of liberal revolutions from 1776 into the 20th century, the U.S. has been open to new citizens who are willing to accept the creed."  

American Jews have acquiesced far too long in being told by Israelis that they are in "exile.' Slowly, the fact that this alien ideological concept bears no relationship to reality. has become increasingly clear. More and more respected Jewish spokesmen are vocally rejecting any such idea.  

"Twenty years ago, a 12-year-old kibbutznik who lived near Jerusalem asked a visiting American mission an unexpected question: 'Why don't you make aliya to Israel.7"' writes Bernard Beilush in The Forward. "Breaking through a pervading and embarrassing silence this writer volunteered the thought that a New Jerusalem had been created...in America. And until such time as this New Jerusalem stopped flourishing...one could not expect us to make aliya, except to other parts of our own country. . ."  

Mr. Belush notes that, 'This exchange has come to my mind many times, including recently when. in a unique event members of a new synagogue In Woodstock, Vermont marched down its quaint Main Street. Carrying a Torah at the head of the parade was the synagogue president, accompanied on one side by Protestant ministers and on the other by a Catholic priest. . .As we enter the 21st century, American Jews remain a vital and, as always, disproportionate force in the political and social reform movements of the nation. Many of them continue to see a vibrant New Jerusalem in America's future."  

Not in "Exile"  

In a recently published book, My Love Affair with America: The Cautionary Tale of a Cheerful Conservative" Norman Podhoretz, long-time editor of Commentary magazine, rejects the idea that American Jews are, somehow in "exile." Discussing his time as a graduate student In England and an early visit to Israel, he writes. "Six weeks there (in Israel) finished what a year in England had inaugurated. No doubt the Jewish people had been in exile, but not this Jew, not me. My true homeland was America. and the Jewish homeland was, so far as I was concerned. a foreign country."  

While Podhoretz was happy that Israel had been established as a sovereign state to which persecuted Jews could flee. he could not imagine such a thing happening to him or the Jews of America. But "if, God forbid, it ever did and I was forced to settle in Israel, I would almost certainly feel that I was now in exile.'"  

Podhoretz closes the book with what he calls an "American-style dayyenu.' inspired by the Hebrew' hymn, recited at Passover, of thanks for God's blessings. Here, he lists the many blessings he has received from America.  

Author E.L. Doctorow. whose latest novel is City of God, declares that, The United States cannot be conceived in a vision of religious exclusion: the two ideas are incompatible. If you consider a paradigm that merges the Pilgrims of Plymouth Rock and the Jews of Ellis Island, something essential emerges. The Puritans proposed for their new land a covenant with God modeled on that of the ancient Israelites. They spoke of America as 'Zion.' That Puritan adaptation-according to the historian Garry Wills-is what we usually means when we speak of our country's Judeo-Christian heritage. It was the Puritan preacher Cotton Mather who called George Washington the American Moses, King George the pharaoh and the Atlantic Ocean the Red Sea. Via the early Puritans has come the transreligious dimension of American public life whereby our nation is not an end in itself but exists for a higher purpose, a transcendental role-in the words of Thomas Jefferson 'the last best hope of mankind,' or in even more venerable words, 'a light unto nations."  

Re-Evaluation of Jewish Life  

Hopefully, the Lieberman nomination and the increased interest it has brought to the question of Judaism and Jewish life in America will cause a serious reevaluation by those in the Jewish community who have, for so long and with so little reason, engaged in the politics of "victimology" and in stirring alienation on the part of the younger generation by telling them their own country was a form of "exile."  

Professor Stephen J. Whitfield of Brandeis University, author of In Search of American Jewish Culture, says this of Senator Lieberman's choice as a vice presidential candidate: "In 2000 the choice could be made precisely because it was not bold- Mr. Lieberman could be nominated because the surmounting of an historic wall can occur only when it no longer matters to his party' s chances of victory. When the barrier can be shown to be illusory (by smashing it), the gamble is not audacious. Mr. Gore's decision ratifies the obvious: America is not galut, where Jewish life is precarious and beleaguered... What has been vindicated is the abiding Jewish faith in a society in which personal merit is supposed to count more than membership in a group in which privileges can be expanded into rights...." Perhaps, at long last, the American Jewish establishment will finally take "Yes" for an answer.

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