A Jewish President? Lieberman: a Jewish Candidate or Just a Candidate Who is Jewish?

When he ran for class president of Stamford High School in 1960, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) says he faced no bigotry because he was Jewish.

Now, as a candidate for president of the United States, he’s hoping for the same treatment and the same victory — from a national audience.

Lieberman officially entered the race for the presidency Monday, announcing that he was filing papers to seek the Democratic nomination in 2004.

Lieberman enters a strong field that includes two fellow senators — with the possibility of a third entering soon — a former Democratic leader in the House, a liberal Northeast governor and a civil rights activist.

Lieberman is one of the first Jewish candidates in U.S. history to seek the White House — and the only one who is considered to have a real shot.

Among American Jews, he has almost an angelic status, considered a ground breaker for others to follow.

But he has also been a controversial figure at times, taking stands that buck the views of the majority of American Jews and liberals, and consistently evoking faith in his campaigns.

While many in the Jewish community say Lieberman’s candidacy represents an important achievement for Jews in the United States, there is confusion over exactly how to view him.

Is he the Jewish candidate or just another political candidate who happens to be Jewish? And will Jews see it differently than the rest of the American population?

At his news conference on Monday, Lieberman held himself up as the man for all Americans.

"I’m running because of the ideas I have for our nation’s future and how to make it better," he said at his high school alma mater.

"I’m not running on my faith," Lieberman said. "But the fact is my faith is at the center of who I am and I’m not going to conceal that."

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said he does not think Lieberman will be seen as a Jewish candidate the way the Rev. Al Sharpton, who also intends to run, will be seen as an African American candidate.

"I think outside the Jewish community, the only ones who will look at him as a Jewish candidate are the bigots and the anti-Semites, who are a minority," Foxman said.

Foxman chastised Lieberman when he ran as the Democratic nominee for vice president in 2000 for often referring to faith and God in his speeches and for advocating a greater role for faith in American life.

But on Monday, Lieberman indicated that his style of campaigning would continue through 2004.

Lieberman said he would not hesitate to invoke faith and God’s name, when it comes naturally, while on the campaign trail.

He cited the Declaration of Independence as the source that American political power comes from the creator.

"I think if the spirit moves me on occasion to say a word or two of faith, I think it’s a very American thing to do," Lieberman said to a strong round of applause.

And Lieberman set that tone Monday in his announcement speech.

"Every day along the way I will feel blessed by God to live in a land where our dreams can come true," Lieberman said, flanked by his family and classmates from the school.

"And everyday I will remember what President Kennedy told my generation, which is that here on earth, God’s work must truly be our own."

A senator from Connecticut since 1989, Lieberman became a household name just over two years ago when he was chosen as the Democratic vice presidential nominee to run with then-Vice President Al Gore.

Although the Democratic ticket lost the race to President Bush, Gore won the popular vote, a point that Lieberman highlighted on Monday.

Many Jews say Lieberman’s bid — coming from an observant Jew with strong ties to the American Jewish community — is a historic moment and a sign of the accomplishments Jews have been able to achieve in the 60 years since the Holocaust.

Lieberman and his wife, Hadassah, frequently mentioned this as they campaigned in 2000.

"I said to Joe that I was thinking about how my presence here was a victory, a victory over evil, over people who wanted us dead," Hadassah wrote in a recently published book, "An Amazing Adventure: Joe and Hadassah’s Personal Notes on the 2000 Campaign."

"Here I am, the daughter of survivors, married to a United States senator in a great, free country," she wrote.

"And I said, ‘I’m thinking about how my fist is up in the air to Hitler,’ " she wrote.

On Monday, she told JTA: "Obviously it’s historic. He’s breaking a glass ceiling. But it’s important to see him as a candidate who’s been a politician for quite awhile now."

Only two other Jews have sought a major party nomination for the presidency, according to the book "Jews in American Politics."

Lieberman’s base of support outside the Jewish community is expected to come from environmentalists, moderate and conservative Democrats, hawkish and pro-defense segments of the party and the business community in the New York metropolitan area.

He is also expected to have strong support among Democrats in Florida, California and Texas.

While there is clearly excitement about his candidacy, Jewish leaders and donors are not throwing their support behind Lieberman.

In addition to his focus on faith, Lieberman’s positions on some issues do not sit well with many American Jews, especially liberal Democrats.

And there is some concern that people throughout the country will equate Lieberman’s position statements with that of the Jewish community at large.

In fact, on Monday, as Lieberman spoke briefly about preserving the U.S.-Israeli relationship, two dozen protesters, calling themselves "Jews Against the Occupation" chanted that they will not back Lieberman.

"We’re here to say that Joe Lieberman does not represent us as Jews," said Lorne Lieb, who traveled from New York City to hold signs outside Stamford High School.

"We wanted to show that there is dissension within the Jewish community and not all Jews support Joe Lieberman for president."

Lieberman was also criticized by more hawkish American Jews after his recent visit to the Middle East, where he expressed sympathy for the Palestinians and support for an Arab-led plan for peace.

On the domestic front, Lieberman’s position in favor of faith-based initiatives and school vouchers have angered many in the Jewish community who worry that such programs blur the line between church and state.

In his remarks on Monday, Lieberman qualified his support for vouchers, saying he would only support them for a limited period of time, and only for people below the poverty line. He also said the voucher funds could not come out of public schools’ budgets.

While there is some concern, Jewish analysts say they are not concerned that Lieberman will be seen as the voice of the American Jewish community.

They also note that Jews have been elected to other offices in the Midwest and other parts of the country without a strong Jewish population.

"Americans are sophisticated enough to know that the Jewish community is both hydra-headed and pluralistic," said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee.

"There are any number of Jewish voices speaking in America, and Joe Lieberman will not be seen as the only Jewish voice."

In the Jewish world, there is also some anxiety that Lieberman’s actions, if he does not succeed or makes a major gaffe, could reflect poorly on the community.

"There is an anxiousness of how it will impact the Jewish community if he does well and if he doesn’t do well," Foxman said.

At the same time, some analysts suggest that Lieberman will try to separate himself from the American Jewish community so as not to be seen as a Jewish pawn or as someone controlled by the pro-Israel lobby.

While the media are expected to focus somewhat on his religion, the issue is not expected to be as profound as in 2000.

"This is not breaking a barrier in the same was as a barrier was broken in 2000," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.

NEXT STORY