U.S. Jews have come of age, leaders say


NEW YORK, Aug. 7 (JTA) — American Jewish leaders are rejoicing that a Jew has reached a new height in U.S. politics, citing it as a milestone not only for the Jewish community, but for all minorities and America itself.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), among the most visibly religious members of the U.S. Senate and widely respected on both sides of the aisle, has accepted Al Gore’s offer to serve as his vice presidential running mate.

Some Jewish leaders spoke of great pride in America itself, where a Jew can rise to the front and center of the political scene. Meanwhile, some lay Jews were uneasy about the reaction of the American public at large.

Mostly, though, Jewish leaders and activists heaped praise on the Connecticut senator for his honesty and integrity, and a sterling sense of morality they say is derived from his faith as an Orthodox Jew.

“His value construct is so solid, his moral compass so defined, that it resonates with anyone who shares that definition,” said Ethan Felson, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council in Hartford.

They said the fact that Gore and his advisers were confident enough to tab a Jew for the No. 2 spot is a sign of the country’s political maturity.

As recently as 1984, Walter Mondale reportedly decided against Dianne Feinstein, now a U.S. senator from California, because her Jewishness was considered a detriment.

“It’s taken a while, but America has finally come of age,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.

“I think people now recognize that these are public servants who happen to be Jews, not Jews who happen to be public servants.”

And in the process, the glass ceiling may have cracked, said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

“We’re seeing another barrier come down,” Hoenlein said.

“This is an important message to all young Americans: that anyone of hard work and integrity can answer the call to public service, regardless of religion, ethnicity or race.”

Retiring Sen. Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), who is not Jewish, may have been as excited as any Jew about the ascendancy toward the top by an American minority.

“He says this is the finest thing that has happened in America in a long while,” said his senior adviser, David Luchins.

Jewish leaders noted, however, that the same strong convictions that enabled him to cross party lines on crucial legislation also means he will not always agree with mainstream Jewish consensus on crucial issues.

Nor will every American Jew vote for him.

Lieberman runs against the grain with his support for school vouchers, while resisting the release of convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard.

“This is no slam dunk for the Jewish community,” said Mandell Ganchrow, president of the Orthodox Union, for whom Lieberman serves as a member of the board of directors.

“Joe Lieberman has a wonderful record to stand on, people love him and admire him, but it’s not automatic that Jews will vote for him. People will judge him on the issues. And that’s the way it should be.”

Conversely, Lieberman is expected to continue to judge issues on their merit, regardless of what the majority of Jews think. If fact, one Jewish activist in Connecticut said his vaunted independence combined with Jewishness may make him more immune to Jewish pressure groups.

While Lieberman has always been actively involved with Jewish causes, the activist said it sometimes appears that his Senate colleague from Connecticut, Christopher Dodd, is even more receptive to Jewish public opinion.

“I’m going to tell Joe Lieberman how Jews feel? He knows how Jews feel,” said the activist, who requested anonymity.

“It would be chutzpah to say, ‘If you do this, you’ll alienate the Jews.’ Joe’s not a candidate of the Jews; he’s a candidate who happens to be a Jew.”

While Jewish leaders, accustomed to the limelight and the struggle to enter the mainstream, cheered the news Monday, they acknowledged the initial trepidation felt by some lay members of the community.

Indeed, some wondered privately whether Lieberman’s nomination “is good for the Jews.”

So the question for some was not so much, “Is America ready for a Jewish VP?” but “Are Jews ready for a Jewish VP?”

“There is a schizophrenia in the Jewish community where, on the one hand, we want to exert influence, while on the other hand, we’re sensitive to the question of Jewish power,” said Foxman.

“I think there’s still a remnant of this schizophrenia, this discomfort. But from where I sit, I think we’ve matured and moved past that.”

Anxiety about the potential for such a high-profile Jewish politician — for example, if crisis strikes America, will Jews be blamed? — touches on a deeper pathology, one ingrained over centuries, if not millennia, say observers.

“There is a predisposition to create Jewish identity based on fear of ‘the other,’ ” said Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.

“There has been a lot of trauma, and the trauma is real. But this should be part of the process of healing that trauma. America is a qualitatively different place than any in which Jews have ever lived.

“It’s a very new challenge to build Jewish identity in a place of freedom and affluence, rather than in persecution and insecurity. We should stop worrying about who’s an anti-Semite, and let’s be who we are.”

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