LOS ANGELES–Frankly, we were all a bit nervous about how Lieberman would do, with only a week to memorize his Torah portion. But guess what? Joey–as Hadassah calls him–did great.
Lieberman’s big bar mitzvah had a political purpose and an ethnic purpose. The political purpose was to assure the liberal base of the party, which dominates the convention hall, that he poses no threat to them, while at the same time reaching out to the swing voters who will decide the election. Al Gore has found this balancing act daunting, but Lieberman executed it deftly. On the major domestic issues where he stands accused of straying from liberal orthodoxy–affirmative action, education vouchers, and Social Security privatization–Lieberman provided a measure of reassurance to the audience without backtracking completely. On affirmative action he said, “I continue to say, when it comes to affirmative action, mend it, but please, don’t end it.” On education, he said, “We’re going to do one other thing that our Republican friends will not: We are going to treat the people who teach our children like the professionals they are.” This is music to the ears of public-school teachers.
At the same time, Lieberman extended a hand to independent voters watching at home. The first, very clever, touch was his warm reference to “my friend John McCain.” Another was a strong passage touting his and Gore’s support of the Persian Gulf War and disputing George W. Bush’s charge that Democrats have left a “hollow” military. Finally, Lieberman included a “values” passage that made reference to his complaints about degrading entertainment. “In America, there is a swelling sense that our standards of decency and civility have eroded,” he said to mild applause. “No parent should be forced to compete with popular culture to raise their children.” I expect that line played much better beyond Los Angeles.
The ethnic purpose of the speech was to cast his Jewishness in such a way that it becomes an asset and not a liability. Lieberman did this as he has for the past week, by foregrounding his background, wearing his identity on his sleeve rather than burying it. Lieberman presents himself not as a Democrat who happens to be Jewish, an accident of birth that shouldn’t matter, but as a proud, believing Jew, a strong identification that should matter. Lieberman seems not to have given a second thought to the idea that someone might not react well to his identity. And because he comes across as such a mensch, a warm, decent human being and not a plastic politician, his ethnic pride is infectious.
It is true that Lieberman has fine-tuned the presentation of his Jewishness somewhat. At his debut appearance last week, he gave a speech drenched in religiosity and Hebrew prayer. Tonight, he used no Hebrew and offered no prayers. Nor did he explicitly discuss his faith. The closest he came to doing so was to say that he and Gore have “shared private moments of prayer.” Instead, Lieberman sought to highlight the cultural experience of being Jewish in America, with a discussion of how welcome his immigrant grandmother felt in America, how his father worked all night on the bakery truck to provide for his family, and how his wife’s parents survived the Holocaust. “The fact that half a century later, their daughter would be standing on this stage is a testament to the continuing power of the American dream,” he said, movingly.
Lieberman’s drift from religious Judaism to cultural Judaism may be a reaction to the way his announcement speech was greeted. Though conservative Christians praised it and the general public seems to have liked it, there is much discomfort, especially among secular Jews, with Lieberman’s frequent invocations of God and religion. Many respond in this way as a matter of simple consistency: If one objects to members of the religious right bringing their faith into civic discourse, one must complain about a liberal Jew doing the same thing.
There is, however, a big difference. Joe Lieberman is a member of a religious minority. When he invokes his Jewish faith, he is expressing his own beliefs and explaining them to those who may not understand them. There is no implication that his observance ought to be shared by his audience, and hence no cause for concern on the part of any other religious group.
When a religious Christian express his faith in a public, political setting, none of this is a given. For one thing, Christianity is a proselytizing religion; it seeks converts. For some, it means a belief that, as George W. Bush once said, Jews aren’t eligible for entry into the kingdom of heaven. On the far right, there are people who do not accept the separation of church and state, who think America should be a Christian nation, and that Christian prayers belong in public classrooms. For this reason, it’s incumbent upon Christian politicians who want to invoke their god to also make clear that they don’t seek to impose their views. For many Jews in this country, Christian prejudice and discrimination are recent historical memories.
Lest they seem hypocritical, religious minorities should play by the same rules they apply to the majority. It’s not reasonable to insist that politicians keep their faith to themselves. That would make it virtually impossible for a Joe Lieberman–or a George W. Bush, or an Al Gore, for that matter–to explain to the country who he is. What is reasonable, however, to ask is that such expressions always come with a clear caveat: These are my views. I do not assume that they are yours.