The Lieberman effect: Will we ever know?


NEW YORK, Oct. 31 (JTA) – And down the track they come, neck and neck, with no clear sign of a “Lieberman Factor” influencing the race one way or the other.

Not until Nov. 8 will America find itself with its first Jewish vice president – or a footnote in the annals of history.

Perhaps the public will never know if the Democratic nomination of Joseph Lieberman for vice president played a decisive role – especially in a campaign now dominated by the personalities of the two presidential candidates.

After all, would anyone admit to not voting for Al Gore exclusively because he had a Jewish running mate?

Or would a Jewish Republican confess to swinging the other way for the thrill of seeing a Jew next in line for the White House?

And how many religious conservatives are so enthralled with Lieberman’s espousal of religious values that they would desert the GOP?

Nevertheless, for the Jewish community, the ground-breaking choice of one of their own clearly enlivened the last three months of the campaign.

His selection stirred pride, fear and optimism – in addition to an apparent surge in fund raising for the Democratic coffers.

The pride came as many proclaimed that America, and American Jews, have “come of age.”

Jewish grandmothers in Florida kvelled over the choice while younger Jews suddenly found “it’s cool to be a Jew.” And Gore-Lieberman kipahs were an ephemeral craze.

Meanwhile, standing by Lieberman’s side was a wife with the very Jewish name Hadassah, who also happened to be the daughter of Holocaust survivors.

His nomination also sparked fear, as some worried that the prospect of a Jew “a heartbeat away from the presidency” would flush anti-Semites out of the closet. Indeed there were a few outbursts, but they were quickly denounced.

And his selection spurred optimism, that this senator known as a beacon of morality and Orthodox Jew who lives his life in worldly, practical terms would tear down anti-Jewish stereotypes – and educate America about Orthodox Judaism.

Lieberman became a hot topic for rabbinical sermons, and educators hoped that the new Jewish role model would boost interest in Judaism itself.

But the novelty wore off for some Jews, some of whom felt let down over several issues.

The first grumblings came when Lieberman, in his acceptance speech at the Democratic convention, made several references to God.

While some religious Jews applauded the remarks, they made many secular Jews uncomfortable. It even raised the specter of a new stereotype, that non-Jews would wonder why all Jews weren’t like Lieberman. Some Jews half-jokingly began to dread the possibility that Gentiles might quiz them on various aspects of the religion.

In late August, Lieberman went further, declaring at an African American church in Detroit the need for Americans to renew the “dedication of our nation and ourselves to God and God’s purpose.”

The next day, the Anti-Defamation League rebuked the candidate.

“Appealing along religious lines, or belief in God, is contrary to the American ideal,” the ADL said in a letter to the candidate.

The debate has continued as ADL has incurred the wrath of some Jews for criticizing for Lieberman.

In September, he raised the ire of many rabbis when he ventured on a radio talk-show into public explanations of Jewish law, saying intermarriage was permitted in Judaism. At that point, some Jewish religious leaders advised him to stick to politics.

Lieberman has responded that public pronouncement of faith is not irreconcilable with church-state separation. Last week he called for a national “conversation” on reintroducing religious values to “the public square.”

On other fronts, some Jews and fellow Democrats criticized Lieberman as too conservative. He soon moderated some stances, particularly on affirmative action and school vouchers, to align them with the Democratic platform.

His outreach to the black community riled some Jews in late September when he praised Louis Farrakhan for his voter registration efforts and expressed a willingness to meet with the notoriously anti-Semitic leader of the Nation of Islam.

For his part, Farrakhan, who once called Judaism a “gutter religion,” said Hitler was a great man, and described Jewish businessmen as “bloodsuckers,” publicly asked whether Lieberman as vice president wouldn’t be more loyal to Israel than to the United States.

Some have questioned Lieberman’s relative silence since the violence in the Middle East broke out a month ago. Some Jews privately worried that a Jew in the White House might have the opposite effect of what Farrakhan charged.

Out of sensitivity to the “dual loyalty” charge, would a Vice President Lieberman overcompensate with a neutral stance vis-a-vis Israel?

Others, however, believe that Lieberman would assert his commitment to Israel if he was past the campaign and in a new administration.

Regardless of the criticisms – some say foibles expected of any candidate – the candidate remains popular within his Jewish base.

He scored high marks with Jews and non-Jews alike at his Oct. 5 debate with the Republican nominee for vice president, Dick Cheney.

Indeed, to at least one Jewish woman in New York, these two came across as so likeable and serious that she said she wished she could vote a “Lieberman-Cheney” ticket for the White House.

She wouldn’t disclose which was her preference to head the ticket.

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