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Lieberman’s Judaism informs his public policy


WASHINGTON, Aug. 7 (JTA) — Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) has been in public life a long time and has left an extensive public trail of votes and positions on the issues.

But when Al Gore named the two-term U.S. senator and former Connecticut attorney general as his running mate this week, as much was initially made of Lieberman’s religion as his record on the issues.

Lieberman, who is Orthodox, will be the first Jew in U.S. history to be named to a major national party ticket.

Perhaps this scrutiny on his religion comes because Lieberman’s religious convictions form the base for his political beliefs.

His record shows him to be a moderate Democrat who crosses party lines on certain issues. His moderate approach fits most of the agendas supported by mainstream Jewish organizations.

On many domestic issues, such as gun control, abortion and hate crimes, Lieberman supports much of what those organizations stand for: some increased gun control, the right of a woman to choose and national hate crimes legislation.

One issue that may define him as a candidate — and at the same time divides the American Jewish community — is school vouchers, government money that could be used for private schools.

Lieberman co-sponsored legislation in 1995 that would have provided vouchers to low-income parents so they could choose to send their children to attend public, private or parochial schools.

Most Jewish organizations oppose school vouchers, fearing even indirect government funding of parochial schools would still violate the separation between church and state. But Orthodox groups side with Lieberman.

“Certainly he has been one of the key champions of school choice in the Senate,” said Abba Cohen, director and counsel of the Washington office of Agudath Israel of America.

Lieberman’s plan doesn’t directly provide vouchers, but it is an incentive program and an “important step,” according to Cohen.

Another issue that may demonstrate Lieberman’s pragmatic approach is his stance on prayer in public schools.

While he generally opposes such prayer, in 1992 Lieberman spoke out against a Supreme Court decision that struck down prayer in school graduation ceremonies.

“Students who are graduating will lose much more than they will gain from the prohibition of prayer at their graduation,” he said.

The Supreme Court this year said student-led prayers at high school football games are not constitutional. The court is expected to address the issue of student-led prayers at graduations in the coming term.

Lieberman also takes a centrist approach to foreign policy.

A strong supporter of Israel and foreign aid to the Jewish state, Lieberman did not want to put pressure on the administration to advance an American peace plan while Israeli-Palestinian negotiations were going on last year.

In a letter to the administration from 81 senators led by Lieberman, he said, “It would be a serious mistake for the United States to change from its traditional role as facilitator of the peace process to using public pressure against Israel.”

The letter praised Israel’s support of the Oslo accords and cited Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat’s threats of violence.

Nevertheless, at the National Prayer Breakfast last year, Lieberman, over objections from some American Jewish groups and congressional lawmakers, welcomed Arafat and prayed that God would guide him and Israeli leaders in the path to peace.

Lieberman also has showed his disapproval for the administration’s use of a waiver to postpone moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in the interests of national security.

In 1999, Lieberman and nine other senators sent a letter sternly warning President Clinton against invoking the waiver, saying it would be inconsistent with the intent of Congress.

“Non-fulfillment of the law does no good to the U.S.-Israeli relationship or to prospects for Arab-Israeli peace,” the letter stated. Clinton exercised the waiver at that time, but he indicated after the failed Camp David summit last month that the administration would reconsider its position.

Lieberman’s Orthodoxy plays a major role in his politics and he is not afraid to say so.

“One of the great values of American society, which I believe is shared by most all Americans, is a belief in God,” Lieberman once said.

In an interview several years ago with Reuters, Lieberman said that his religious upbringing and religious education contribute to his identity. “And who I am determines how I vote on particular issues,” Lieberman said.

Lieberman has said he would break Shabbat in cases of an emergency and he has walked from his Georgetown home to the Senate, several miles across Washington.

But one of the most memorable stands that Lieberman took was not on a policy issue, but rather on Clinton’s behavior during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

In September 1998, just a few weeks after Clinton admitted he had a sexual relationship with Lewinsky, Lieberman was one of the first Democrats to speak out and he chose the Senate floor as his venue.

He called Clinton’s behavior “disgraceful” and said the implications of the Clinton scandal were so serious that he felt a responsibility to his constituents and his conscience to voice his concerns publicly.

“Such behavior is not just inappropriate. It is immoral. And it is harmful, for it sends a message of what is acceptable behavior to the larger American family,” Lieberman said.

“I am afraid that the misconduct the president has admitted may be reinforcing one of the worst messages being delivered by our popular culture, which is that values are fungible. And I am concerned that his misconduct may help to blur some of the most important bright lines of right and wrong in our society,” he said.

Lieberman’s strong moral stand showed his character, many analysts say, and will help Gore distance his ticket from the problems of the Clinton administration.

But even as he rebuked the president, Lieberman showed his loyalty to the Democratic Party and to Clinton, an old friend.

“Let us as a nation honestly confront the damage that the president’s actions over the last seven months have caused, but not to the exclusion of the good that his leadership has done over the past six years, nor at the expense of our common interest as Americans,” he said.

While Lieberman said that Clinton’s behavior should be followed by “some measure of public rebuke and accountability,” Lieberman eventually voted against convicting Clinton on the two impeachment articles that he faced in the Senate in 1999.

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