Russell Feingold, the Democratic senator from Wisconsin, immediately raised his public profile here this past week when he stood up in Congress demanding that President George W. Bush be censured over his domestic eavesdropping program, which Feingold considers illegal.
His proposal - a congressional action that has only been used once, in 1834, to reprimand Andrew Jackson - sent reverberations through both the Democratic and Republican ranks, with Vice President Dick Cheney issuing an unusual rebuttal, calling the motion "outrageous."
It is hardly inconsequential that the senator's name is one of the three or four mentioned as possible candidates for president in 2008. And, though Feingold has not said whether or not he is going to run, he told The Jerusalem Post on Saturday night that there was one issue that wouldn't stand in his way: his Jewish identity.
"Even though I know people say it would be a big problem, I really believe that this country is ready to overcome these things, whether it has to do with African-American candidates, Latino candidates, women candidates or Jewish candidates," Feingold said. "Maybe that's na ve. But I have a faith that if people are confronted with an opportunity, whether it be me or somebody else, they are not going to make their judgment based on a person's religion."
Feingold, fresh from his appearance on the senate floor, received an award on Saturday night from a liberal Brooklyn synagogue, Kolot Chaiyenu. There he spoke to the Post about his Jewish upbringing.
Feingold grew up in a small town in Wisconsin, Janesville, which was not big enough to house a Jewish congregation, and so, he said, his parents drove one hour each way to Madison for 25 years to attend services and bring him to a religious school.
Feingold's sister, Dena, is a rabbi at Beth Hillel Temple in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and his grandfather Max, who first arrived in Janesville in 1917, later emigrated to Israel when his wife died in 1950, living in Kibbutz Yafit and Tivon. He also said he had a nephew who is a law clerk at the Israeli Supreme Court. He described what he called a "deep, personal connection to Israel."
Feingold has a history of voting against the grain. He was the only senator to oppose the Patriot Act, which he feared would hurt civil liberties, as well as being one of only seven Democrats who voted against the Iraq War resolution in 2002 and has continued to vociferously oppose the subsequent occupation, calling for a full withdrawal by December.
On Saturday, Feingold said that for him the censure was not just an important moral decision but a smart political move. He disdained other Democrats who have been afraid to take a stronger stance against the administration and who warned last week that Feingold's motion would play into the hands of Republican strategists, who would use it as a way to rally their own base around an embattled president.
"We have to have our core supporters excited," Feingold said. "The thing that will make them feel completely abandoned is if we don't stand up for civil liberties, if we don't take on the president when he is breaking the law, if we don't take on the disastrous mistakes made in Iraq. But this is the tendency - to try and keep the base of the party happy while essentially being very timid in the face of Bush's intimidation tactics."
Feingold was greeted with multiple standing ovations by the left-leaning members of Kolot Chaiyenu's congregation, which is non-denominational but has the religious trappings of Reconstructionist. The congregation was celebrating its 13th anniversary and Feingold's bar mitzva photograph - in which he appeared an awkward, bespectacled boy - appeared in the program for the event.
In his speech at the gala, he was unrelenting in his critique of the administration, his fist pumping in the air as he promised to "stand up" to what he referred to as Bush's "high crimes and misdemeanors."
Referring to the attacks of September 11, Feingold said, "I do think it was a history-changing event. I do think that stopping those who [commanded] that attack is absolutely the top priority of this country. We have got to stop them. But I also believe that, as important as that is, that the Bill of Rights and the Constitution were not repealed on 9/11."