Lieberman First National Jewish Candidate

ByPeter Dizikes

Aug. 8, 2000 -- Al Gore’s selection of Sen. Joseph Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, as his running mate takes the Democratic presidential ticket into uncharted waters.

Never before has a U.S. presidential candidate chosen a Jewish running mate. Gore’s selection of the Connecticut senator, which will be formally announced today, has sparked questions about whether enough of the American public is ready to elect a Jewish vice president.

Asked if he thought a Jewish candidate would face the prospect of anti-Semitism while campaigning, Gore told ABCNEWS last week, “I don’t think those old distinctions and categories matter these days, the way they did in the past.”

The vice president added: “I think we’ve grown as a nation … I think we’ve grown beyond that kind of attitude. I think that the day is coming when that’ll be completely irrelevant in all of our politics.”

Many Jews Are Optimistic

Many Jewish observers, inside and outside of Washington, expressed optimism about the reception Lieberman will get.

Rabbi Barry Freundel — the rabbi of the synagogue Lieberman attends in Washington’s Georgetown neighborhood — told ABCNEWS the pick represented a “breakthrough moment” in American politics.

“I’d like to hope we’ve gotten past the point where it matters,” says Freundel.

Moreover, says Freundel, Lieberman’s personality is not such that he naturally draws attention to his faith: “He doesn’t come at you with his religion on his sleeve.”

Mark Mellman, a prominent Democratic pollster who attends the same synagogue, calls Gore’s decision “a test for America” that he believes “we will pass with flying colors.”

Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, a major Jewish organization, said the choice of Lieberman was “a milestone in America’s political maturity.”

And Jeffrey Gurock, a professor of Jewish History at Yeshiva University in New York, a leading Orthodox university, said the Gore-Lieberman ticket would be “a litmus test for American views about Jews,” adding that he was “very optimistic” that anti-Semitism would not be a factor in the campaign.

Gurock also emphasizes that he does not expect the fact that Lieberman is Orthodox to have any impact on people’s perceptions of him.

“I think Americans will respect the fact that he has a high commitment to his faith,” Gurock adds.

Rendell Expresses Concern

But Ed Rendell, the former mayor of Philadelphia who is now chairman of the Democratic National Committee — and who is Jewish himself — raised concerns on Saturday about whether Lieberman’s faith might have a negative effect on some voters.

“I don’t think anyone can calculate the effect of having a Jew on the ticket,” Rendell told reporters, while giving what was otherwise a ringing endorsement of Lieberman as a candidate.

But Rendell added, “I’m not sure that the people who would vote against us because Joe is Jewish aren’t going to vote against us anyway.”

Gore campaign Chairman William Daley said on ABCNEWS’ This Week Sunday morning that he did not share Rendell’s concerns.

“I firmly believe we’re well beyond the issue of religion,” Daley said, invoking the name of another Democrat, John F. Kennedy, who broke down a barrier in 1960 by becoming the first Catholic to be elected president.

Democrats have already begun pointing out that Kennedy was also nominated by his party in Los Angeles, site of this year’s Democratic convention.

The Surveys Say …

A Gallup poll conducted last year showed that anti-Semitism would seem to be a minor factor in a presidential election. Asked whether they would vote for a Jewish candiate for president, 92 percent of voters said they would. Only 6 percent said they would not.

By contrast, a 1937 Gallup survey asking the same thing showed just 46 percent saying they would vote for a Jewish president, while 47 said they would not.

In 1983, an ABCNEWS poll showed 83 percent of respondents saying they would vote for a Jewish candidate for vice president.

Certainly, Lieberman himself has encountered little anti-Semitism in his senatorial races. In 1994, the last time he ran, Lieberman won 67 percent of the vote — and took 65 percent of the vote among white Protestants and 64 percent among white Catholics, although the latter group tends to vote Democratic anyway.

One thing Lieberman can count on is support from a Jewish community that tends to strongly support Democrats of any religious persuasion. In the 1996 presidential election, 78 percent of Jewish voters surveyed said they had voted for Bill Clinton, while just 16 percent supported Bob Dole and 3 percent voted for Ross Perot. Among ethnic groups, only blacks tend to vote more heavily for Democrats.

Unorthodox Politician

Reactions to his faith aside, questions remain about whether Lieberman’s Orthodox Jewish beliefs could restrict his ability to campaign and to govern on weekends.

Orthodox Jews are those who observe the most traditional practices of the religion, including daily worship, restrictive dietary practices, and strict adherence to the Sabbath, the day of rest that runs from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday.

This means Orthodox Jews are prohibited from working during those hours and from driving or using other mechanical and electronic devices.

In practice, Orthodox strictures are interpreted in a variety of ways, and as a politician, Lieberman has decided he can work during the Sabbath to promote “the respect and protectionof human life and well-being.”

According to Freundel, with whom he has discussed the matter, Lieberman draws a distinction between the actions he takes as a senator that can benefit others, such as voting on legislation, and those that would only benefit himself, such as campaigning.

“He was elected,” says Freundel, “and to fulfill the job of senator is his primary responsibility.” He also points out that according to Jewish law, acting for the public good can be a legitimate reason to break the Sabbath.

In the past, Lieberman has voted onlegislation and participated in important meetings on Saturdays, though he walks to Capitol Hill to do so. But he skipped the state nominating convention in Connecticut in 1988 — a campaign-related activity — because it fell on a Saturday.

Lieberman has given no indication that he would be willing to campaign during the major Jewish holidays — Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Sukkot — that fall in September and October, not far before Election Day.

If elected, Lieberman would then face questions about which vice-presidential duties he would be willing to fulfill during the Sabbath, including dealing with potential emergencies. Here too, the question of the public good would presumably be the main criterion for any decisions Lieberman would make about the Sabbath.

Moreover, adds Gurock, “most Orthodox Jews would probably understand and applaud” if Lieberman were clearly acting in the public interest, meaning that the senator should not have to worry about alienating members of his own religion.

“Jews of all stripes are feeling an immense sense of pride,” Gurock says.