Not Yet Ready for a Jewish President

Joseph Lieberman's bid for his party's nomination as its candidate for president of the United States in the 2004 elections is a milestone in the relations between the American public and the Jewish community in the U.S.

WASHINGTON - A little more than a year ago, when Senator Joseph Lieberman (Democrat, Connecticut) announced he would seek his party's nomination as its candidate for president of the United States in the 2004 elections, his confidants said they were concerned the American public wasn't yet ready to accept a Jewish president. Lieberman whipped out surveys he had commissioned that indicated only a very small percentage of the public thought the candidate's Jewishness was problematic. The vast majority saw no problem with a Jewish president. Heartened by the surveys, Lieberman launched an intensive campaign, only to discover that, whereas the general public in the United States was willing to accept a Jewish president with no difficulty, the Jewish community was far more reluctant.

Lieberman, who announced last Tuesday that he was abandoning his race for the nomination and the White House, did not get the support of the Jews. In the New Hampshire Democratic primary, the polls showed, both John Kerry and Howard Dean did better than Lieberman among Jewish voters. Lieberman won 23 percent of the Jewish vote in Arizona, but Kerry won 43 percent. In Delaware, Lieberman won nearly 30 percent of the Jewish votes, but again most Democratic Jewish voters there cast their ballot for Kerry.

To win election campaigns in the United States, you need more than votes; you also need a lot of money, and here Lieberman encountered a disappointing situation. American Jews are major donors to election campaigns, so much so that some estimates say they are responsible for a third to a half of all political donations, especially to the Democratic Party. Lieberman figured that in this area, at least, he was set, and that he would have no problem raising funds. That wasn't what happened. "Joe didn't get the support he deserved from the Jewish community," said Marvin Lender, Lieberman's fundraiser.

Last summer, Lieberman's election campaign held special fundraising events for Jews, in which the participants were asked to give $1,800 (based on chai, meaning life, which in numerology is 18) to the campaign chest. In the final analysis, most of the campaign funds came from Jews. However, Lieberman raised far less than his chief rivals, and did not have enough money to stay in the race.

These developments are especially surprising, because when Lieberman ran for vice-president in 2000, his candidacy generated tremendous support among the Jewish community, support that was translated into mobilization, votes and record sums in donations. Lieberman and his aides discovered, however, that when it comes to a Jewish candidate for the presidency, as opposed to the vice-presidency, the Jewish community becomes apprehensive.

One of the widespread arguments voiced by Jews against Lieberman was that the election of a Jew as president would only increase anti-Semitism. At present, the United States enjoys a low level of anti-Semitism, but what would happen if the Jewish president made controversial decisions or imposed harsh economic measures? In that case, according to the argument, the complaints would be aimed at all Jews.

Another contention was that Lieberman would be a bad president for Israel, because as a Jew he would make every effort to prove that he was not biased in Israel's favor. Lieberman's unequivocal declarations in support of Israel only partially persuaded the Jews who didn't want to back him.

From the liberal side of the political map came the view that Lieberman seemed to be too "religious," because he spoke openly about his belief in God and his strong religious feelings. Jews on the far left of the Democratic Party were apprehensive of a mix of religion and state. It was precisely among Christian circles that Lieberman's religious message, like that of President George Bush, struck a chord.

However, the explanation most frequently heard among Jews for their nonsupport of Lieberman was that his views were simply inconsistent with theirs and that they did not choose a candidate solely on the basis of his religion but according to a range of issues. However, according to Rabbi Irving Greenberg, a former director of the Museum of the Holocaust and currently director of a fund to heighten Jewish education, that argument is only an attempt to hide the fact that the decisive issue is fear of anti-Semitism. "The Jewish community made a mistake," Greenberg said. "His election wouldn't have reinforced anti-Semitism. On the contrary, a Lieberman victory would have been a crushing blow to anti-Semites everywhere."

Still, Lieberman's effort is a milestone in the relations between the American public and the Jewish community in the United States. Joe Lieberman succeeded in getting through a year on the campaign trail without for a moment playing down the fact that he is a religiously observant Orthodox Jew, and without suffering from religious discrimination. Even though Lieberman's campaign didn't succeed, the American public proved it is ready to see a believing Jew hold the highest job in the land. The American Jewish community isn't yet ready for that.