Recently in these pages I suggested that Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut (or Vermont Gov. Howard Dean) would provide the Democrats with their best possible chance of beating President Bush in 2004. Lieberman officially entered the race yesterday and his faith will again be the subject of much talk, at least in the media. The immediate and near universal response that the column elicited from fellow Jews was that America will never elect a Jewish president and that furthermore, a Jewish president would be anathema to American Jews and the state of Israel. With the appallingly sharp rise in global anti-Semitism following the start of the second Palestinian intifadah, I all too easily understand these worries. There is an ancient and legitimate Jewish fear of placing a Jew in a leadership position. As a people who have been scapegoated for all the world’s problems throughout 3,000 years of history, many Jews think the mistakes of a Jewish president would inevitably be blamed not only on the man’s Judaism, but Jews in general. Crouching to these fears is antithetical to the innately American principles that Jews have come to embrace and benefit from throughout the past century.
Contrary to what many Jews perceive, anti-Semitism in America is not a serious problem. The marked rise in anti-Semitism has been more of a foreign phenomenon to which America has not and thankfully will likely never fall victim. Living on a college campus, however, we see a different picture. With a divestment campaign that implicitly endorses terrorism against Jews and whose avowed goal is to abolish the Jewish state, it is clear why many Jewish students feel intimidated. Yet we must look beyond the confines of the radicalized presence on campus to see what most Americans truly think.
The first concern that both Jews and Gentiles raise concerning a Lieberman candidacy is one of pragmatism: Americans will never elect a Jew to national office. This argument is tenuous in light of the makeup of our polity. Jews have a strong presence in national politics. Eleven senators, 26 representatives and two governors are Jewish. Voters from diverse states such as Wisconsin, Hawaii and Virginia have all elected Jews to state or congressional office. If voters trust Jews in all levels of government, why would they suddenly stop when it comes to the presidential race? Furthermore, those who make this argument ignore the highly pertinent fact that Lieberman was the Democrats’ choice for vice president in 2000. The Gore campaign selected the one man, out of a large and formidable pool, whom they believed would make the most successful ticket. By choosing Lieberman, politically savvy Democratic Party leaders believed that like Gore in 1992, Lieberman had the potential to take the White House someday. Without question they weighed the potential risks of nominating a Jewish vice president, and his selection paid off. Many said that the ticket should have been reversed, and there was no indication whatsoever that voters were dissuaded by Lieberman’s religion. Lieberman himself has said that he did not experience one instance of anti-Semitism while running as a vice presidential candidate. In fact, Gore-Lieberman won the popular vote by over 500,000 votes cast, and received more votes than any other ticket in history except Reagan-Bush in 1984. Surely those voters realized the possibility of Lieberman ascending to the presidency, at least by 2008 when Gore’s term would have expired. In today’s politics, when image is everything in the desperate scramble for votes, Judaism did not matter at all to the Democratic Party in their assessment of Joe Lieberman’s chances in 2000, or more importantly, to the voters. It should not matter in 2004.
American Jews and other supporters of Israel also state that a Jewish president would have his hands tied in dealing with Israel. A Jewish president, this argument goes, would not be able to support Israel as strongly as a non-Jewish president for fear of being accused of displaced loyalties. John F. Kennedy faced similar accusations when he became the nation’s first Catholic president, some bigots arguing that he would be kissing the Pope’s ring. Yet Lieberman’s stance on Israel is nearly identical to that of every other national politician, including our current president. The simple fact is that presidential policy toward the Middle Eastern conflict has not changed much since the creation of Israel in 1948 (with the glaring exception of George Bush Sr.). In fact, since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, American support for Israel has increased with the realization that Israel’s enemies are our enemies. A Lieberman administration would follow a very similar policy toward Israel as the current Republican administration. American military and economic aid to Israel will not decrease, nor will our moral support. Americans widely endorse our nation’s pro-Israel stance, and there is little doubt that Lieberman will do anything more than provide a continuance of America’s support for the Jewish state.
Others, who claim to be concerned about our status in the Muslim world, say that electing a Jewish president would only harm our reputation in that area of the globe. In other words, we should not be the tolerant and freedom-loving nation we purport to be in order to appease racist and backwards religious fundamentalists abroad. This mode of thinking is as offensive as it is ignorant. Why should we mollify our Muslim aggressors? They believe Jews run the world anyway. Why not indulge their sick vision of reality and elect a Jewish president? We are not going to win this civilizational battle by cowing to Islamic terrorists. We are not going to win this battle by trying to please the Muslim “street.” Once we do, the terrorists have defeated us.
This outright denial of Lieberman’s candidacy by Jews is not only irrational, but shameful as well. Is not America supposed to be a nation where anyone, regardless of their race, class or religion, can rise to the highest heights? Is this not the very reason why Jews fled Europe in droves for the United States over the past century? American Jews have achieved leadership positions in countless fields and non-Jews in this country have demonstrated that they could not care less whether a political candidate is Jewish or not, time and again. American Jews must pause to realize and appreciate the acceptance they have received in America, a nation which has done more for Jews than any other. In my encounters, non-Jews have proven to be the most receptive to a Lieberman candidacy.
Joe Lieberman may or may not be the best choice for president. But the fact that he is Jewish should and will not be a factor in this campaign.
James Kirchick is a freshman in Pierson College.