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Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dream Coverage

The Hotline
September 15, 2000

Joe Lieberman got an early beat on the snowbirds this past weekend.

He visited Florida and hung out with the Jews. Nothing like a visit to working-class Jewish neighborhoods like sunny Bal Harbour (you know it's working-class when they spell it with a "u") to excite the secular press.

The Associated Press reported with mouth open, "Children stared in awe at Joseph Lieberman, and congregation members buzzed with excitement." The Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel wowed, "To his supporters, Lieberman's words invoked cheers and introspection."

[Political trivia fans: This may be the first time a candidate's supporter was energized to introspection.]

Why don't we just saddle up to the counter at Pumpernicks and munch on pickles and cole slaw with the senator from Connecticut? Maybe his time-share condo is available for any of the state's 6 percent Jewish electorate and the reporters who cover them.

According to the St. Petersburg Times, Lieberman's "emergence as the first Jewish politician on a mainstream national ticket has energized Jewish voters in South Florida." The Miami Herald's Tom Fiedler said on CNN, "The Democratic base here in southeast Florida particularly is in many ways driven by the Jewish community, and they have-they perceive Joseph Lieberman as being something akin to a rock star." Gloria Borger said it most succinctly on "Face the Nation": "Joe Lieberman helps an awful lot in Florida."

Yes he does, as the secular press keeps telling us.

But scratch the surface. Guess who's begging off the Lieberman frenzy?

You won't believe it: the Jewish press has suddenly hopped off the Lieberman bandwagon. Lieberman's getting criticized from within the mishpocha, from within the family.

And it all has to do with church and state.

Jewish criticism of Lieberman stems from the Anti-Defamation League, which last month scolded Lieberman for being too religious on the campaign trail. They said he was making "overt expressions" of his faith in his political speeches.

In the presidential campaign, the ADL's rap on the fingers was The Big Story for a couple of days. Perhaps you remember talking about it. But soon we moved on to the next Big Stories: the debate on debates, major-league assholes, uppity Bush supporters, the Cheney debacle, a night at the Oprah.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the next Big Story. In the Jewish community, particularly among the Jewish press, the ADL admonishment sparked a debate that's still raging.

Under the national radar screen, Lieberman is taking hits from Jews.

Here's what editorials in the Jewish press have been saying recently about Lieberman:

New York Jewish Week: "The irony here is that what has been particularly admirable about Lieberman's years in the U.S. Senate until now has been his decision to keep his religious beliefs to himself, whether or not those beliefs have motivated his public decisions. By veering from that path and basking in his new role as the Democrats' preacher-in-chief-surely the result of a party decision to narrow 'the God gap' with the Republicans-Lieberman turns personal faith into political sloganeering, which should offend him more than anyone."

The Forward: Lieberman "has flubbed that balancing act [between church and state]. He will have to do much better."

Detroit Jewish News: "The Anti-Defamation League got it just right ... when it politely but firmly told Democratic Vice Presidential candidate Joseph Lieberman to tone down his campaign focus on the need for religion in public policy."

Jewish Bulletin of Northern California: "Lieberman has taken his religious beliefs a bit too far onto the campaign trail. While many of us want our political leaders to be God-fearing, we don't want them to be proselytizers...Lieberman should know better than to mix politics and religion on a national stage. It's one thing to profess his own religious beliefs; it's quite another to foist them on others. The ADL was right on calling him on it."

New Jersey Jewish News: "We believe Lieberman's religious talk is good politics for the Democrats, but just as bad for the American polity as when it comes from the right. Beyond the ADL's criticism, we see substantive problems with Lieberman's remarks. Not every country where religion occupies a large place in its political life is faring that well"

Even Jewish columnists are having their doubts about Lieberman.

Writing for the Cox News Service, Howard Kleinberg observed that that there is "a fine line in this separation of church and state issue with which we have to deal. Like most Americans, I'm not certain where that line is drawn but I worry that Lieberman, by his constant reference to Biblical citations and blessings to God, is straddling that line quite precariously."

And on Monday, Nat Hentoff wrote in the Washington Times: "Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, has performed a national service by reminding Mr. Lieberman that making political appeals along religious lines is contrary to the American ideal." Lieberman, said Hentoff, is "oblivious to the divisiveness of imposing his code of Americanism and morality."

The ADL's polite shot at Lieberman probably won't cost the Democrats any votes. In fact, they might even gain a few votes from those people who enjoy a good Jew vs. Jew catfight, in addition to those religious Christians who enjoy a good Jew.

In fact, what the ADL says now has less to do with the upcoming election than with a long-standing feud between branches of Judaism in America. The secular vs. religious Jewish debates will continue long after the next president is chosen. And it's a debate that won't capture the attention of the broader general press.

Come November, we'll be treated to general irony in the general election. The assimilated greater Jewish community will continue to harbor long-standing internal fears of Lieberman's Orthodox branch of Judaism, all the while casting enthusiastic and inevitable votes for the Democratic ticket.

Still, it's healthy to see the Jewish press questioning Lieberman's religious motives.

Young evangelical Christians wear bracelets with the letters "WWJD" or "What Would Jesus Do." If the Gore-Lieberman ticket wins, those bracelets could very well mean, "What Would Joe Do."

Howard Mortman is senior columnist for The Hotline, the National Journal Group's daily briefing on politics.

© National Journal Group Inc. May not be reproduced without written permission.


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