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Chutzpah: What the Lieberman Choice Means

Norman Podhoretz

The first wave of reaction to U.S. Vice President Al Gore’s choice of Sen. Joseph Lieberman, a self-described Orthodox Jew, as his running mate was compounded in unequal parts of surprise, bemusement, dismay, elation and even rapture. Among Jews, the elation (“At last we have arrived!”) was somewhat dampened by trepidation (“Too much Jewish visibility provokes anti-Semitism” — or as a headline in the New York Post more colorfully described this feeling, “Oy veh!”). To someone like me, however, the nomination of Mr. Lieberman was bound to come primarily as a vindication of long-held convictions about the United States and the place of Jews in it.

To begin with, I am among those who believe that we Jews have found a truer home in America than in any other country of the diaspora in which the Jewish people have lived for the past 2,000 years. Furthermore, I have long seen as one significant proof of this belief the large number of Jews who have been elected to office at every level of U.S. government, and the commensurately large number who have also been nominated by presidents to the highest appointive slots.

Nor is this as new a phenomenon as some breathless commentators with short memories and little historical perspective seem to imagine. One has only to mention the names of Supreme Court justices like Louis Brandeis, Benjamin Cardozo and Felix Frankfurter, or exalted cabinet officers like Henry Morgenthau, Arthur Burns and Henry Kissinger, to remind oneself that, in the political realm at least, being Jewish in America ceased being a serious disability nearly a century ago.

To be sure, in other sectors of American society, it was different virtually until only yesterday. Paradoxically, there was a time when it was easier for a Jew to get elected to the Senate than to get into certain private clubs or resorts or law firms or an entire profession like engineering.

Still, it must be acknowledged that even in the political realm there was a tacit limit, with the line being drawn at the presidency. Hence there is indeed great significance in the fact that a Jew — and a religious Jew at that – should now have been put in a position to become president of the United States. Nor can it be denied that Mr. Gore has opened a new chapter in the story of the Jews in America — a story that redounds both to the glory of the country and to the glory of the Jewish people who have settled there.

But, inevitably, less-elevated as well as darker questions arise that must be faced squarely and candidly. The first is whether Mr. Lieberman’s presence on the Democratic presidential ticket will help or hurt Mr. Gore. My own guess is that it will be a wash.

To quote Milton Himmelfarb, one of the most profound students of Jewish political habits in America, “Jews live like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans.” When Mr. Himmelfarb made that justly famous quip some three or four decades ago, Episcopalians were the wealthiest — and the most reliably Republican — of American religio-ethnic groups, while Puerto Ricans, the poorest, were the most loyal of Democrats. Yet unlike every other originally Democratic ethnic group, especially if they were Catholic, Jews did not tend to turn Republican as they grew more


Mr. Himmelfarb’s observation remains true today. Since the era of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and with the lonely exception of Jimmy Carter running against Ronald Reagan in 1980 in a three-way race, the Democratic candidate for president has consistently won a majority — and usually a vast majority — of the American Jewish vote.

Given this history, which was shaped primarily by the ineradicable memory of opposition by conservative European parties to civil rights for Jews in the countries from which the American Jewish community largely stems, there is no reason to suppose that things would have been any different if Mr. Gore had gone for a non-Jewish running mate. On the other hand, it is likely that some Jews who might have been tempted to vote for George W. Bush will now support Mr. Gore out of an atavistic gratitude for elevating one of their own to unprecedented heights.

If this should turn out to be the case, it would involve a delicious irony. In the past, as the New York state Republican Party learned to its sorrow on several occasions, if a non-Jewish candidate was pitted against a Jew who happened to be the less liberal of the two, Jews usually voted their liberalism rather than their ethnic affinity. On that basis, Mr. Lieberman, being perhaps one of the least liberal members of his party, would normally be less appealing to Jewish voters.

Nevertheless, this time, with so powerful a precedent being set from the Jewish point of view, the old pattern will almost certainly be shattered. For once, Jews will probably be driven more by their ethnic than by their political religion (in other words, liberalism).

But will the converse come into play? Will some indeterminate number of voters decide not to vote for Mr. Gore because of Mr. Lieberman? To put it more bluntly, will Mr. Lieberman uncover a lingering hesitancy in the general electorate to accept a Jew as a possible president?

At this early point in the process, it is impossible to answer that question with complete confidence. Mr. Gore may by his choice of Mr. Lieberman lose about as many or more votes to such hesitancy among non-Jews as he will gain from Jews. But it is also possible that he may not suffer much of a loss at all. If polls taken by the National Opinion Research Center are accurate, the proportion of Americans who claim they would vote for a Jew for president has gone up from about 60% in 1958 to 90% today.

Even so, will Mr. Lieberman’s candidacy reveal that the anti-Semitism still lurking in the fever swamps and the gutters of American life is actually more pervasive than it seems to be?

I for one am convinced that the answer is no. Even when it was at its most widespread, anti-Semitism has never run as deep in America as it has in Europe. Clearly a hatred of Jews still flourishes among black radicals and their white cheerleaders on the left, and in the more fervent sectors of Pat Buchanan’s “amen corner” on the right. But in my opinion the virus is by now almost entirely confined to those quarantined quarters. If, God forbid, this judgment

is wrong, we will smell it out in the next few weeks and months.

In the meantime, what can be said with confidence even by an opponent of Mr. Gore is that, like Shakespeare’s Othello, he has done the state some service. For this he deserves great credit. But if this therefore constitutes a selfless political act on Mr. Gore’s part, it is anything but nonpolitical where Hillary Clinton is concerned.

To everyone’s surprise, Mrs. Clinton has not garnered the enthusiastic support she was almost universally expected to get from the Jewish community in New York. Possibly this curious lack of attraction is connected with the mercurially shifting calibration of her sympathies between Israelis and Palestinians. Whatever its source, it will almost certainly be overwhelmed by the heavy Jewish vote for the top of the ticket that Mr. Lieberman will deliver and that may well spill over into the New York Senate race.

My own speculation is that Mr. Gore, with a little help from Bill Clinton, had this particular political factor very much in mind in selecting Mr. Lieberman. (Of course Mr. Lieberman attacked Mr. Clinton over Monica Lewinsky, but I would further speculate that the president was willing to forgive the senator in order to pay Hillary back for forgiving him.) If Mr. Gore deserves credit for doing the state as a whole (that is, America) some service, he deserves no credit at all for the harm he may end up causing the state of New York in simultaneously doing some service to Mrs. Clinton’s (if I may use a word that seems appropriate in this context) chutzpah-drenched bid to represent it in the Senate.

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