Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Cathartic Candidacy

The Jewish Week, 2004

I’ve been a rabbi in Senator Joseph Lieberman’s hometown for sixteen years and over that course of time have met the senator on a number of occasions. By the time I arrived here, “Joe,” as he is universally called by Stamford Jews – even by those who never met him – had long since moved on to state office and then to Washington. But Stamford is the place he most identifies as “home,” and his presidential campaign kicked off here last January with a pep rally at Stamford High School, followed by a series of afternoon interviews at his delightful mother Marcia’s modest residence. If ever Senator Lieberman ever had a secure base of support, it’s right here in this small-town-turned-corporate-Mecca roughly halfway between Bridgeport and Broadway.

So I was more than a bit surprised when I received a phone call in June inviting me to a hastily arranged meeting between Joe Lieberman and local rabbis. I had heard of some of the difficulty he had been having in raising money – Lieberman raised $3 million in the first quarter of 2003, well behind other major candidates, though in the second quarter he raised a much more respectable $5 million – and in particular among Jews, but attributed that mostly to his late start and the distraction of the Iraq war. While many Jews were making contributions, as evidenced by the hundreds of donations made in multiples of 18, many more prospective donors were not. The till was surprisingly empty in Florida. In late May, the Hartford Courant ran a headline story, “Jews in No Rush to Back Lieberman,” in which Sophie Bock, a Century Villager from Pembroke Pines, was quoted as saying, “We love him. But to vote for him, that’s different.”

Was this invitation an indication that, despite the near win in 2000, despite the candidate’s respectable stature in the early polls and despite his unwavering support for Israel, Joe Lieberman has a Jewish problem, even here Stamford?

It’s not that I hadn’t heard the whispers, even among his oldest hometown friends. “How would Joe be able to negotiate with the Arabs?” “Would he bend over backwards to prove that he is not in Israel’s pocket?” “Would he bend over backwards to show that he is?” And, most tellingly, “Will Joe’s candidacy bring anti-Semites out of the woodwork, God forbid?” But these were the same whispers I was hearing three years ago, when Lieberman ended up only a few butterfly ballots short of the vice presidency.

“Only in America” was the recurrent theme of Lieberman’s 2000 campaign. Indeed, “Only in America,” could Jews take a moment of unabashed achievement and transform it into a touchstone of paranoia.

But what is it that Jews fear? Is it the anticipated backlash of anti-Semitism that many think this candidacy will unleash? Most certainly there are elements of that fear that persist, especially among the older segment of American Jewry. And most certainly there are many Jews who are not supporting Lieberman because he is too conservative, or too anti-Hollywood, or even because of his hawkish support for Israel. But other explanations for this phenomenon speak very powerfully and reveal much about the modern Jewish condition. For in fact everyone who has been playing the anti-Semitism card has been missing the point entirely:

It’s not that anti-Semitism makes Jews uncomfortable regarding Joe, it’s that Joe makes Jews uncomfortable about their Judaism. For the vast majority of American Jews, Joe is “too Jewish,” that annoying goodie-goodie who, by his mere presence reminds others their spiritual shortcomings. Jews are especially sensitive when that holier-than-thou button is pushed, even if the perpetrator has no intention of being sanctimonious. What most Jews won’t even tolerate from their rabbis they certainly are not going to accept from their presidents.

And it’s not that Jews fear a resurgence of anti-Semitism, it’s that, deep down, they fear its elimination. A Jewish president of the United States would signal the beginning of a new era, where, at least potentially, the old model of Jewish particularism would melt away. The Jew would no longer be the “other” here in America if a committed Jew inhabited the very symbol of Americanism, the White House. On the geo-political level and even at its very spiritual core, Judaism with an American Jewish president would cease to be Judaism as we know it. How could Moses become Pharaoh and still remain Mosaic?

Senator Joe Lieberman entered the room at the Stamford Marriott at 3:47, twenty minutes after the meeting had been called, which made him precisely on time in the minds of his designated audience. It was a nice touch to begin on “Jewish time,” and there was a comfortable, familiar feel in the room when he came in – we could just as well have been in Marcia’s kitchen. I looked around and thought that if Lieberman could bring this collection of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis to the same table, he could certainly handle Russia and France.

Joe shook hands with everyone around the table. When he came to me and quipped, “My mother’s favorite!” I thanked him, knowing that my own mother would be kvelling, (although she would simultaneously remind me that HE calls his mother every day).

He looked no more frazzled than I had seen him before, with that wisp of hair slightly out of place, the bottom lip turned up enough on the left side to make it seem like he’s always about to break out in a smile. He is comfortable with all people, but he seemed especially comfortable with us. I got the feeling that we weren’t just looking at a Member of the Tribe, but someone intimately familiar with the workings of our little rabbinic sub-tribe.

He opened with a brief upbeat presentation about the campaign, detailing how recent polls have placed him in the lead among Democrats and within 13 points of President Bush. He wanted to meet with us, he said, because, despite the progress he was making, he couldn’t understand why so many Jews were reluctant to come on board. “It’s not that I want Jews to vote for me because I’m Jewish,’ he pointedly said, “I just don’t want Jews to not vote for me because I’m Jewish.”

He cited the surveys that had proven to him that Americans would vote for a Jewish candidate, to a far higher degree than they were willing to consider a Catholic in 1960. He cited internal polling demonstrating that Americans firmly believe he would “do what is right for America” rather than “bend over backwards for Israel.” But for some reason, he said, Jews have been holding back. He wanted to understand why.

Obviously this was more than a campaign fundraising stop. He was here to get beyond what his staffers sarcastically call the J.Q.: the Jewish Question.

There was no shortage of suggestions from my colleagues. The usual ideas spewed forth: Jewish liberalism, an anti-Orthodox bias, and the indelible scars of history. One quoted a reluctant congregant who had quipped, “Jews are kingmakers, not kings.” Others concurred that their parishioners are nervous. One rabbi simply said, “Jews are nuts.” I began to get that queasy feeling that maybe some of those Florida retirees actually DID intend to vote for Buchanan.

Lieberman responded with a passion he rarely shows combined with the earnestness he always shows. “We’re not guests in this country,” he exclaimed, “We’re Americans. We have as much right to be President as anyone else. This is our home.”

Lieberman believes strongly in a Jewish mission, that Jews are to be a “light unto the nations,” but he also craves this normalization of the Jewish condition. I came out of this meeting with the impression that Joe Lieberman wants to be President; of that there is no doubt. But the driving force behind Joe Lieberman right now is that he wants to be the first Jewish President, and that it is his historic responsibility to seize this moment.

The rest of the country will find this quest enthralling and captivating over the coming months. For African Americans, Hispanics and other minorities, it will be downright inspirational. But Jews, who love to wallow in ambivalence, are in for a roller coaster ride like nothing seen before in American politics. When the dust settles, win or lose, everything will have changed. This is fast becoming the cathartic candidacy.

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