Joe Lieberman, role model

He has managed to strike a unique balance between two very Jewish sensibilities: A compassionate regard for protecting the weak at home, with a hawkish realism abroad.

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January 31, 2011 23:43
3 minute read.
SENATOR JOE LIEBERMAN addresses a recent CUFI gath

joe lieberman311. (photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)

US Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut recently announced that he would not be running for a fifth term in 2012.

Some Jews on the Left will be happy to see him go.

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“My problem with Lieberman,” Letty Cottin Pogrebin, founding editor of Ms. Magazine, wrote recently in the Forward, “is embodied by the nickname his critics have given him: ‘Holy Joe.’ I think ‘holier-than-thou-Joe’ would be more precise.” Undoubtedly, American Jews of Pogrebin’s ideological slant resent the fact that perhaps the most visibly Jewish American politician (Lieberman’s 2000 Democratic vice presidency bid made him the first Jewish candidate on a major American political party presidential ticket) has the annoying tendency to land squarely on the side of the conservatives on certain issues.

Particularly discomfiting for Jewish liberals who see a high wall of separation between church and state as the best guarantor of Jews’ place in American society, has been Lieberman’s consistent call to give religious groups more of a role in the public square. “The Constitution promises freedom of religion, not freedom from religion,” Lieberman has said.

Then there is Lieberman’s hawkish foreign policy.

Unlike the vast majority of US Jews, he supported toppling Saddam Hussein by launching a war.

In July 2008, the senator from Connecticut ignored a petition organized by the dovish J Street group, signed by 40,000 people, that called on him not to show support for Pastor John Hagee by attending a conference of Christians United for Israel. Lieberman told the crowd, estimated by organizers at 4,500, “There has been a campaign to stop me, but the bond I feel to Pastor Hagee and to you is much stronger.” However, Lieberman’s conservatism is only one facet of his complex and courageously non-partisan politics. On many domestic issues Lieberman, a graduate of Yale Law School, seemed to fit Milton Himmelfarb’s stereotype of the American Jews who have “the economic status of the white Anglo- Saxon Episcopalians but vote more like low-income Hispanics”.

Lieberman provided the crucial 60th vote for President Barack Obama’s health care reform. Other left-wing legislation that received Lieberman’s support were the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which helps workers fight against pay discrimination; the controversial $787 billion economic stimulus bill, which was bitterly opposed by Republicans; and the $34b. unemployment extension bill.

Nor were Lieberman’s left-wing positions restricted to economics. Though his hawkish stance on Israel might have dovetailed with that of evangelical Christians, his opposition to barring people openly gay, lesbian, or bisexual from military service did not. Nor did his abortion policy, which, he promised during his short-lived 2004 presidential bid, would make them “safe, rare and legal.”

SINCE 1988, when he was first voted into the Senate, Lieberman has managed to strike a unique balance between two very Jewish sensibilities: a compassionate regard for protecting the weak at home, with a hawkish realism abroad.

When he first entered politics, the Republican party was perceived as a party dominated by WASPs who were either anti-Semitic or, at the very least, inclined to discriminate socially and economically against Jews and other ethnic minorities. As one of many Jewish activists who went south to Mississippi in the 1960s to fight for equality, Lieberman identified with the liberal wing of the Democratic party that spearheaded the civil rights movement. This compassion for the weak, for those who suffer discrimination, is rooted in the Jewish tradition to which Lieberman adheres as an observant Jew. Perhaps this is the reason he would like to see a greater role for religion in America’s public square as a value-giving cultural asset.

At the same time, Lieberman also reflects a decidedly hawkish Jewish strain.

The historical lessons of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia have taught Jews to advocate an aggressive US foreign policy that actively promotes freedom and democracy abroad. An integral part of this pro-freedom policy is the maintenance of a strong Israel.

To bring together these two Jewish ideals, Senator Lieberman succeeded in rising above a partisan politics that encourages conformity and towing the party line, and discourages independent thinking. In the process he paid a heavy political price, but retained his integrity and provided a role model for future politicians. He will be sorely missed.


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