Holy Joe, health care and the Hebrews


At the Washington Post, Howard Kurtz rounds up the Joe Lieberman-health care ruckus.

He includes the knotty forays into Holy Joe’s Judaism (Howard doesn’t like these, invoking a mild "oy," but dutifully covers them), including Jon Chait’s "People think he’s smart because he’s Jewish, but he’s actually a dunce" theory (which I blogged yesterday).

Now, Kurtz notes, Lee Siegel at the Daily Beast is having at Joe’s Orthodoxy. Siegel couples Lieberman’s obstructionism on health care with his passionate advocacy for the Iraq war:

You don’t doubt the morality of your feeling, because you have used your strict, self-sacrificing observance of Jewish law to prove to yourself that you are a good man. And you are not a hypocrite, because your observance proves that not only do you profess a belief in God, but you act on your belief. God on one side, your obedience to God on the other—the result is an ironclad conviction that what you do is absolutely right.

And if you get a big fat check from the insurance lobby on the one hand, and the Israel lobby on the other, well, this the tribute that reality pays to virtue. An impoverished man cannot work effectively against God’s enemies on earth. Any thought that trading a moral position for money might be wrong bends before the feeling that it is right. And if you’re doing well, you must be doing good.

Two big, fat "whoas:"

* "Your observance proves that not only do you profess a belief in God, but you act on your belief. " No such thing. There’s no Jewish equivalent to the "true believers" who populate Chick’s Christian comics.  You heed the commandments, you don’t make a "show" of belief. Holy Joe may indeed be a little guilty of this, but this is not his Orthodoxy speaking.

This is basic stuff (if I know it, believe me it’s basic), but you’d think if Siegel were going to expound on Orthodoxy he would start from a position of familiarity with its tenets.

More to the point, Siegel’s entire entry excoriating the pinched, uncompromising soul of Orthodoxy has nothing to do with Orthodoxy. I know of Orthodox Jews engulfed, profoundly, by doubt and I know of Reform Jews who are arrogant whatnots. And vice-versa. Orthodoxy is less an absolutist set of prescriptions than a rule book, an evolving constitution with inviolable fundaments that inform debates and resolutions. Turning the Orthodox into the Taliban is offensive. The yutz in Siegel’s opening anecdote may have been Orthodox but what was more germane to his offense was his yutziness.

* "And if you get a big fat check from the insurance lobby on the one hand, and the Israel lobby on the other, well, this the tribute that reality pays to virtue." Siegel is suggesting that Lieberman’s support for the Iraq war was sourced in Israel lobby money — earlier, he inveighs, "An American war in Iraq will be futile, wasteful, and ultimately destabilizing? This rational skepticism cannot hold a candle to the feeling that it would be just."

Siegel is just as adrift here as he is with Orthodoxy. I’ve covered the lobby for years, and there simply no evidence — none — that any major player made support for the Iraq war a contingency for political support.

Were major players in the pro-Israel lobby played, cajoled and bullied by the Bush administration into joining support for the war? Yes. So were Democrats, so were the media, so were other estates of the American polity. There is a difference — unlike Lieberman and Hillary Rodham Clinton, who lost bids for the presidency because of their support, and unlike the Judith Millers who were shunted from the media frontlines, no major Jewish player has paid for kowtowing to the war party, but that’s another story.

But the suggestion that the pro-Israel lobby drove the war is, simply, a calumny.

It is one that speaks to a larger problem with Siegel’s post — everything about Lieberman’s political genesis, every foreign policy position he has endorsed, was consistent with his Iraq war support. Lieberman never shied from an assertive American posture in the world, he did not shy from neoconservative views about how American force could be transformative toward stability and democracy. Did these ideas fail in Iraq, at least so far? Yes, many would say. But nothing suggests Lieberman did not come by them honestly.

Siegel is hardly alone in this feint. It would do history a better service were that war’s critics to engage with the actual substance of its motivation than with made-up fantasies about why it started.

By contrast, a succession of bloggers have made minced meat of Lieberman’s claim that his opposition to aspects of the health reform legislation is consistent not only with his 2000 vice-presidential campaign but with his views three months ago.

Kurtz also notes defenses of Lieberman from two bloggers who happen to be Jewish, but who don’t make an issue of Lieberman’s Jewishness — Tevi Troy and David Frum.

At least I don’t think Tevi is making an issue of Lieberman’s Jewishness, but he asks a fraught question, noting that Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) is more obstructionist of Democratic goals than Lieberman:

I’m not sure why Lieberman in particular inspires such hatred on the left.  Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson is at least at obstructionist to the Democrats, and not just on the abortion issue. 


Yet no one to my knowledge has accused Nelson of murder, or gone after members of his family.  What is about Lieberman that makes liberals want to turn Joe into Job? 

Tevi, this one is easy: Nelson did not buck his party after losing a primary. He did not endorse the Republican in the 2008 race and he did not describe the incumbent as unqualified.

Ben Nelson could picket an abortion clinic toting an AK-47 and riverdancing on a pile of Rent DVDs and his party loyalty would keep him in the caucus. No further speculation needed.

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