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A Jewish President? a Little Pride and a Little Fear: Jews React to Candidate Lieberman

January 15, 2003
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

The American public appears to be ready for a Jewish president — but some American Jews may be a little more anxious about the idea.

Lieberman, who ran as Al Gore’s vice presidential nominee in 2000, announced this week that he would seek the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination.

For most Jews, there’s an immediate swelling of pride that an M.O.T. — a member of the tribe — is seriously being considered as a presidential candidate.

However, “after the pride is past, and I think that will pass pretty quickly,” there will be “ambivalence from both ends — the liberals and the traditionalists,” said Samuel Heilman, a professor of sociology and Jewish studies at the City University of New York.

For those who are more liberal than Jewish, there’s ambivalence that the face of Judaism presented to the American public is one of observance.

Lieberman prays at a modern Orthodox synagogue in Washington and observes the laws of kashrut and Shabbat.

“There are always Jews who will look over their shoulder and feel uncomfortable when a co-religionist rises to a highly visible position of society. This is a reflection of their own personal discomfort with who they are,” said Rabbi Joshua Plaut, the executive director of the Center for Jewish History in New York.

During the 2000 campaign, Lieberman consistently invoked God, in turn invoking the wrath of the Anti-Defamation League for often referring to faith and God in his speeches and for advocating a greater role for faith in American life.

When he announced his bid Monday at Stamford High School in Connecticut, he pledged to do so again.

“My faith is at the center of who I am. I am not going to conceal that” during the campaign, he said, adding that he would not “hesitate to talk about faith when it’s relevant.”

On the flip side, among some Orthodox Jews, there’s a fear that Lieberman will be seen as a negative model of adaptation to the modern world, Heilman says.

“What do you do with an Orthodox Jew who will have a Christmas tree in his house, which he will have in the White House if he is president,” said Heilman, the author of “Defenders of the Faith: Inside Ultra-Orthodox Jewry.”

And will Lieberman, Heilman wondered, allow pictures of himself praying in his tefillin and tallit?

“He won’t want to have these strange things on his head” that could alienate Americans, he said.

For his part, Lieberman says that if elected he would not allow his Shabbat observance to interfere with his duty to serve the country.

While almost all U.S. Jews fall somewhere in between these two poles, many may experience at last a muted aspect of these feelings.

And for some Jews across the religious spectrum whose Judaism derives primarily from a fear of anti-Semitism, that ambivalence morphs into fear.

These Jews fear that “if Jews are going to be in the public arena, then it will increase anti-Semitism,” said Eva Fogelman, a New York-based psychologist.

If anything goes wrong,” Fogelman said, these Jews worry that “the Jews as a group will be blamed.”

This worry is likely more pronounced among the older generation of Jews, who may have firsthand experiences of anti-Semitism — whether abroad or in the United States in the 1950s and early 1960s.

These worries fly in the face of facts: Polls indicate that Americans don’t really care about a candidate’s religion anymore.

In 1937, the Gallup organization found that 46 percent of Americans would vote for a Jewish person for president. By 1999, that number had climbed to 92 percent.

Of course worries about Jews in high office are nothing new.

Before Henry Kissinger became secretary of state in 1973, “there were those who felt it shouldn’t be a Jew, never mind a Jew with an accent,” said Menachem Rosensaft, a member of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council.

But while white supremacists had their day with Kissinger’s Jewishness, it had little play elsewhere.

Indeed, outside the Jewish community, the white supremacists are likely to make the most of Lieberman’s religion.

Lieberman ran alongside Gore in 2000 with almost no problems related to his religion — and no evidence that his Jewishness hurt the Democratic ticket.

But the events of the past few years — the echoes of Sept. 11 and the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian violence — have created a heightened anxiety.

“The American Jewish community is also in a somewhat different place than it was two years ago,” said Jonathan Sarna, Braun professor of Jewish history at Brandeis University.

“The community is much more nervous, about anti-Semitism domestically, about Israel, about the fate of Jews around the world and historically, Jews know that sometimes it’s been dangerous to have Jews in high positions of power in such moments,” he said.

“Some feel, and this is whispered a lot, that it is ‘untimely’ to have a Jewish president.”

Whatever their reactions, many American Jews respond strongly to Lieberman’s nomination. Whether this will translate into votes is another matter.

“This an era of the maturing of the Jewish politician and the Jewish political world,” Sarna said. “We’re seeing a diversity of Jews in American politics and different Jews staking out different positions.”

As a result, most observers believe that few Jewish voters will base their votes on ethnic pride. But that, of course, remains to be seen.

“Let’s see whether we vote for him,” Rosensaft said.

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