DEARBORN, Mich., Oct. 21 (JTA) — Joseph Lieberman, unlikely to win much Arab support in his bid for the presidency, may have made the best impression of all the Democratic candidates appearing at an Arab American forum this weekend. The Connecticut senator, whose Jewish faith and pro-Israel record was an issue for Arab Americans when he ran for Vice President in 2000, earned points just by showing up last Friday at the Arab American Institute conference. "It was classy that he came," said Rami Naser, a Palestinian-born student at Florida State University. "I give him full props." Lieberman made headlines when he was booed for saying that Israel is a democratic state and for refusing to describe Israeli demolitions of Palestinian homes as terror. But the hecklers were a minority and were quickly shushed by others — and the ensuing controversy helped fuel his popularity. "I´m so grateful he came, for his honesty and integrity, whether or not I agree with his agenda," said Samia El-Badry, a demographer from Austin, Texas. "I´m more than embarrassed for our community to ask a guest and then to speak out of turn and to boo him." The main heckler was not an Arab American, and some conference participants suggested that the hostile reception was upsetting because it was inconsistent with Arab culture. The next day, when candidate Howard Dean made one of the same points — that Israel was a democracy — there was silence, but no booing. James Zogby, president of the institute, admonished the hecklers, saying it reflected poorly on the organization´s coming of age. "That´s not what we are," he told conference-goers. "Five people have no right to define 25 years." Lieberman directly addressed issues that several other candidates tried to avoid, including the security fence Israel is building in the West Bank. The willingness to be direct impressed some, even though they didn´t like his message. "He didn´t come and tickle your ears," Michael Farah, a Republican who heads the National Lebanese-American Chamber of Commerce, said the next day when the incident was being discussed. "The next time I´m in Washington, I´m going to visit Joe Lieberman and thank him for coming out here among the lions." Zogby had, in introducing Lieberman, noted the senator´s openness to Arab Americans despite political differences. Lieberman´s first stop in 2000 after being chosen as Al Gore´s vice presidential candidate was with an Arab American group, and in 1992 he used his connections to force the Clinton campaign to open its doors to Arab Americans. Lieberman also consults with Zogby on civil liberties issues. "I like the person, I like what he´s done in reaching out to my community," Zogby told JTA. "When other candidates rejected us, Joe Lieberman came to talk to us." Zogby also noted that Lieberman´s appearance came just before the Sabbath and the holiday of Shemini Atzeret. "It´s only a short window between now and the High Holidays," he said. "That´s important." One of the hecklers said Lieberman should have stuck to what unites the Arab and Jewish communities and kept away from the Middle East. "There is a very weak bridge between the Muslim and Jewish community in the United States and we need to strengthen that bridge," said Imam Ahmed El Khaldy of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. "There are so many things we could discuss. Instead, to talk about opinion in the Middle East won´t build that bridge." Lieberman, who earned polite applause for his criticism of how the Bush administration has handled minorities since the Sept. 11 attacks, said he thought his audience deserved an unvarnished telling of his opinions. "I thought it was important to stress what we have in common as Americans," he told reporters. "I was not going to pander or waffle to please a crowd." He wasn´t perturbed by the heckling. "I would have been disappointed if there hadn´t been that reaction," Lieberman said. "It reminded me of dinner with my family."
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Ron Kampeas is JTA's Washington bureau chief, responsible for coordinating coverage in the U.S. capital and analyzing political developments that affect the Jewish world. He comes to JTA from The Associated Press, where he worked for more than a decade in its bureaus in Jerusalem, New York, London and, most recently, Washington. He has reported from Northern Ireland, Afghanistan, Bosnia and West Africa. While living in Israel, he also worked for the Jerusalem Post and several Jewish organizations.