"Bad for the Jews, Bad for the Country"
Joseph Lieberman Has Strayed From the Best Aspects
of Jewish Tradition
by Rabbi Michael Lerner
Among the candidates considered by Al Gore for the vice-presidential
nomination, Joseph Lieberman was the most politically conservative.
While Bush supporters are claiming that Lieberman's voting record
shows a man closer to Bush than to Gore, and may be lamenting
the political capital Gore may thereby accumulate with conservative
voters, the rest of us have a deeper concern. Joseph Lieberman
is likely to accelerate the process in which the two major parties
seem to be merging into one pro-business, pro-wealthy, elitist,
and morally tone-deaf governing force. Joseph Lieberman will also
give greater prominence to the tendency in the Jewish world to
subordinate values and spiritual goals to self-interest and material
success. All the more ironic, then, that the media is responding
to his nomination by talking about his willingness to critique
Clinton on moral grounds or his Orthodoxy as proof of having a
In short, Lieberman's nomination is bad for the country and
bad for the Jews.
Lieberman joined with Bill Clinton and Al Gore to create the
Democratic Leadership Council precisely to transform the Democratic
Party from its previous New Deal roots as the champion of working
people, minorities, and the poor to a party that would cater to
the needs of Wall Street and to the upper middle class. And they've
done a great job. With Democrats on board, the gap between rich
and poor has accelerated in the Clinton/Gore years, environmental
protections have eroded when they conflicted with corporate interests,
and instead of using the end of the Cold War to dramatically reduce
the defense budget and redirect spending to rectify the history
of inequality and provide basic social services, health care,
and education, defense spending has been treated as sacrosanct,
and savings were found by eliminating welfare.
There were those who argued that all this was Clinton's doing,
and that Gore in his heart was a more progressive and caring person
who had to hide his true feelings in order to remain in Clinton's
good graces. In selecting Joseph Lieberman, Gore has unwittingly
given great impetus to the Naderites and others who argue that
the trajectory of American politics is to reduce even more the
differences between the two major parties. Before the American
people have a chance to register their desires, the party supposed
to be representing the only chance to restrict corporate irresponsibility
has already made its lunge to the right.
One reason why that's not good for the country is that the
elimination of real debate on fundamentals leads many people to
give up on the public sphere, refusing to vote, turning away from
the news, and generally being cynical about participation in any
aspect of democratic life. It's also not good for the Jews.
American Jews are among the most liberal voters in America,
more consistently supporting a progressive agenda than any other
voting bloc. There's an important reason for this--the Torah tradition
has a strong commitment to social-justice values and to caring
for "the other." Jews who became secular in America
carried those values with them, and they became the backbone of
the labor movement, the anti-war movement, the women's movement,
and other progressive social-change movements of the past hundred
But in the past 50 years, a strong conservative voice has
emerged in the Jewish world that has had a very different agenda.
Forged by the new possibilities of "making it" in America,
these more conservative Jewish voices have insisted that the best
interests of the Jewish people lie in identifying with America's
elites of wealth and power, finding a place within those elites,
and, just in case that didn't work out, building a militarily
strong Israel to which we might escape should the (in the conservative
view) ever-present danger of anti-Semitism reappear here. Cuddling
up to the powerful meant subordinating social justice and joining
in the celebration of the globalization of capital and the triumph
of the ethos of selfishness and materialism.
These same conservatives sought to build American ties to
Israel on a new basis--no longer as the exemplar of democratic
and human rights values that had been the view of many liberal
Jews, but rather as the strong military ally of the U.S., which
could fight against communist and post-communist threats to U.S.
interests. From their standpoint, the documentation of Israeli
torture of Palestinians, the denial of human rights, and the oppression
of another people were all irrelevant and uninteresting. Jewish
self-interest, from their standpoint, had nothing to do with the
triumph of a moral or spiritual reality, either in the U.S. or
in Israel. So while most American Jews were critical of Israeli
policy toward Palestinians, these conservatives gave knee-jerk
support to whatever government the Israelis produced (and to be
fair, I sat next to Hadassah Lieberman at the signing of the Oslo
Accords at the White House, and she was as willing to support
this as she and her husband had been to support previous hawkish
The sad truth is that Lieberman represents the tendency within
the Jewish world to abandon the moral and spiritual vision that
led generations of Jews to be the moral conscience of our society.
Rather than championing dramatic escalations in spending for social
purposes, and to end poverty and oppression, he will champion
defense spending. Rather than critiquing Israeli policy and attempting
to push Israel toward more significant compromises with the Palestinians,
he will exhibit the kind of contempt for the needs of the Palestinian
people that is already over-represented by Gore's top adviser
Martin Peretz (editor of The New Republic, and one of the most
consistently anti-Palestinian voices in American politics).
Some people have imagined that Lieberman's nomination will
generate anti-Semitism. I think that Gore should be praised for
not allowing that concern to influence him. But there's another
side to that, too. The typical anti-Semitic attack on Jews portrays
us as having disproportionate power and influence in the world.
This is a lie about Jews in general, but it's true about the sector
of Jews who Lieberman represents. Had Gore picked one of the many
Jews involved in the leadership of the causes for social justice
(Sen. Barbara Boxer, for example), he would have highlighted the
way that Jews are doing our best to heal and transform this world.
Instead, he chose one of the Jews whose power is used to accelerate
the interests of the elites, thus strengthening the distorted
image of Jews as uncaring and elitist. It's not that a Jew was
nominated; it is the kind of Jew that gives some of us concern.
Joseph Lieberman may be a committed Orthodox Jew in his personal
practice, but in his role as a public spokesperson he has gone
far away from the best aspects of the Jewish tradition. He has
none of that prophetic voice that leads Jews to criticize our
own Jewish community and Israel in the name of Torah values. He
has none of that Jewish sensitivity to the oppressed that would
place their needs above the needs of the wealthy. And yet this
is the man who will become the symbol of Jews to most Americans.
That's not good for the Jews.
But there's a deeper level still. America needs a fundamentally
new foundation for politics--a foundation that challenges the
selfishness and materialism that is our "bottom line"
at this historical moment. That new politics can be grounded in
the wisdom of the biblical tradition and its central teaching,
"not by bread alone shall human beings survive" (Deuteronomy
8:3). Lieberman and his ilk rap themselves in the Bible and are
the first to throw stones when people violate the sexual ethics
of the Bible. Yet the central vision of the Bible is one that
calls for a world in which we can recognize the Spirit of God
embodied in every human being and build a world consistent with
that vision. To do that, we would need a whole new definition
of productivity and efficiency, one that sees institutions and
social practices as valuable not only to the extent that they
maximize money and power but also to the extent that they maximize
love and caring, awe and wonder. Lieberman doesn't exist in that
discourse, and his nomination is one step further away from a
spiritual politics and from a world reconnecting to the message
of the Bible.
So it's not good for America either.
**Michael Lerner, a rabbi, is the editor of Tikkun magazine
and the author of numerous books, including "Jewish Renewal:
A Path to Healing and Transformation," "Jews and Blacks:
Let the Healing Begin," and "The Politics of Meaning:
Restoring Hope and Possibility in an Age of Cynicism." Rabbi
Lerner was a student of the eminent Jewish scholar and thinker
Abraham Joshua Heschel. He founded the Institute for Labor and
Mental Health, and for many years served as a psychotherapist
for middle-income working people. He is currently the rabbi of
Beyt Tikkun (The House of Love and Healing), a young synagogue
in San Francisco.