I was there for Shapp '76. As a young reporter, I briefly covered the campaign of Pennsylvania Gov. Milton Shapp, who ran in a few early Democratic presidential primaries that year. Shapp was Jewish. Shapp was crushed. And although there was no apparent causal connection between the two, the country was clearly not ready then for a son of Abraham in high office.
Is the country ready now? Is the religious affiliation of one of the vice presidential candidates even a factor in a race as big and as multidimensional as this one? Or, if Gore-Lieberman loses, will we look back on the whole thing as something out of a Woody Allen movie? And as long as we're asking questions... is Lieberman's ascension, in the familiar tribal formulation, good for the Jews?
The answer to the first question is: We won't know if the country is ready for a Jewish vice president until Election Day, if then; people don't tell pollsters the truth about this kind of thing. Even so, the omens are favorable. Like a good Jewish boy, I called my rabbi for counsel (something I probably wouldn't have admitted in print to doing before last week). Rabbi Steven Kushner of Temple Ner Tamid made the best argument for the optimists: "People who wouldn't vote for a ticket with a Jew on it weren't voting for Gore anyway." The rabbi added that Jews reaching positions of political power is "no big deal anymore."
Probably not. Only 4 percent of American voters are Jewish, but there are currently 11 Jews in the Senate--more than one tenth of the total--many from Midwestern states with tiny Jewish populations (though in some of those states, voters didn't know the candidate was Jewish). And the bicoastal assumption that the South is a hotbed of anti-Semitism is not borne out by the experience of Jewish state and local candidates. In fact, the country has come a long way since 1916, when Woodrow Wilson's appointment of Louis Brandeis as the first Jewish justice of the Supreme Court caused an ugly confirmation fight.
The main change is cultural--the Seinfeldizing of America. You can get a bagel almost anywhere in the country nowadays (a good bagel is another question), including at that quintessentially American institution, McDonald's. Jewish entertainers are everywhere, and they don't hide their heritage as the old stars and their studio bosses did. Judaism is even hip with non-Jews: Madonna studies the Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), and the "kosher sex" rabbi counts Michael Jackson among his followers. (On second thought, maybe that's not such a recommendation.)
More relevant is the fact that the history of the Jews is much better known than it once was. The Holocaust Museum in Washington is hugely popular with non-Jews determined to learn about the 20th century's greatest crime, which will get even more attention as Hadassah Lieberman, the child of Holocaust survivors, tells her harrowing family story. Yiddish expressions, which seemed on the verge of extinction a generation ago, are increasingly part of everyday conversational shtik. George W. Bush told Tom Brokaw last month that he and his father had been "kibitzing" about the vice presidency, though his misplaced emphasis on the second syllable drew laughs from Jews.
In political terms, Lieberman will benefit from the fact that he joined the ticket when Gore was way down in the polls. That makes it unlikely that a loss in November would be blamed on him. And if Gore wins, Clean Joe Lieberman will be seen as Al Gore's air freshener, his inoculation against Clinton Sleaze Syndrome. There's an irony in those medical metaphors. Nazi propaganda harped on the dirty Jew, infecting Aryan purity. Now, an American Jew is seen as a disinfectant.
This quality in Lieberman is connected to his moral rectitude and criticism of President Clinton, not his Judaism. Even so, we may be living amid a new age of philo-Semitism. All of the smart Jewish lawyers, doctors and accountants out there could, by example, make their Christian clients and patients think better of Lieberman.
In homage to Gregory Peck's passing as a Jew in the 1947 classic "Gentleman's Agreement," I passed as a non-Jew in some conversations last week with non-Jews in both the North and the South and was surprised at what I heard. Most people in my very unscientific survey didn't care about the Jewish angle, or said Lieberman should be commended for his strong faith. Maybe they weren't telling a stranger about feelings of envy or resentment, but I didn't hear it in their voices. More than a few, perhaps influenced by Robert Rubin and Alan Greenspan, employed positive stereotypes. One said: "Jews are good at business, and the government is basically a business, so get him in there."
Anti-Semitism is a virus of history that lies dormant, then erupts, century after century. Even in this country, millions of people--including many under 40--received religious instruction that repeated the ancient lie that the Jews killed Jesus. This article, like any in a major publication that identifies the author as Jewish, will generate some disgusting anti-Semitic mail. But the real anti-Semites are mostly on the fringe. Internet hatemongers on the day of the announcement totaled less than a tenth of those who wanted to talk about Britney Spears.
By and large, I've been struck more by the positive reaction. Evangelical Christians have been full of praise for Lieberman. Even Jerry Falwell and Alan Dershowitz actually agreed with each other last week on "Rivera Live." Christian leaders would have been much less friendly had Lieberman been a secular Jew whom they could connect to the values of Hollywood and Wall Street. Instead, they're faced with a man who teamed with William Bennett in fighting the entertainment industry.
In a larger sense, the old animosities among religions seem to have been replaced by a broader divide between the religious and the irreligious. People of faith are drawn to each other, regardless of faith; nowadays, the only religious test for high office seems to be: atheists need not apply.
Traditional sources of anti-Semitism are softening. The old WASP establishment types, who wrote the book in this country on excluding Jews and other minorities, have long since opened most of their clubs and reconciled themselves to sharing power. Some blacks may grumble; anti-Semitism is alive in that community, as the crude radio comments last week by the head of the Dallas chapter of the NAACP suggest. He was promptly forced to resign. But most African-American leaders are genuinely enthusiastic about Lieberman. One of his biggest backers in the Gore camp was Donna Brazile, the campaign manager. Jesse Jackson made an important public point: "Each time a barrier falls for one person, the doors of opportunity open wider for every other American." Privately, despite being to the left of Lieberman on several issues, Jackson called the choice a "stroke of genius."
Ironically (or perhaps fittingly) it's within the Jewish community that the nomination is causing the greatest anxiety. The ratio of pride to pessimism tends to vary along generational lines. For me and other Jews I know under 50 or 60, the answer to the "Is it good for the Jews?" question tends to be yes. Even for Jewish Republicans, Lieberman is now a source of pride, like baseball slugger Hank Greenberg to our parents and grandparents. But those same older-generation Jews--who experienced far more anti-Semitism than their children--tend to be more concerned about the choice, fearing it will cause renewed anti-Semitism. Better to exercise power in low-profile, advisory roles, they have long thought. Viennese Jews before the war paraded their prominence, and look what happened to them.
Some Jews are unnerved by Lieberman's status as an Orthodox Jew ("serious Jew" is probably a better description, given the gradations of Orthodox). That challenges their "don't call attention" sensibility. To see names like Hadassah and Isadore (Lieberman's middle name) so prominent was startling in families where names were changed, ethnic edges softened, the Sabbath forgotten.
For nonobservant Jews and the larger Christian world, Lieberman will have to clarify that while he observes the Sabbath (Saturdays for Jews) by not working or using modern conveniences like cars or computers, there are well-recognized exceptions for matters of life and death and the good of the community. He votes in the Senate on Saturdays when necessary and as vice president would be fully able to handle Saturday emergencies. Jan. 20, 2001, is a Saturday. If the Democrats win, Lieberman will take the oath--and walk to the White House.
All this will take a little getting used to. The New York Times received dozens of calls from Jews objecting to Lieberman's being described in a banner headline as the "first Jew" to win a place on a national ticket, as if the paper could have called him the "first Jewish person" in the headline. (Would they have preferred the pseudo politically correct "Jewish American"?) Old sensitivities die hard.
But they are dying. Look at it this way: why are jokes about WASPs safe, and jokes about blacks offensive? Because it's kosher to joke about the powerful. Jews are in transition on this continuum. By last week, Jay Leno and David Letterman were telling Jewish jokes about Lieberman that would have caused consternation only a few years ago. That's progress.