by Chad Powers
Jewish Tribal Review
November 2001

The choice of senator Joseph Lieberman as the vice presidential candidate for the Democratic Party has afforded more than one mass media pundit the opportunity to congratulate the American political process for its progressive tolerance and full-fledged acceptance of ethnic and religious minorities. It is widely asserted that such a ground-breaking selection affirms the wishes and ideals of the American Constitution's founding fathers. Only stone-age racists and bigots, popular convention proclaims, would ever consider an Orthodox Jewish vice-president to be anything less than a welcome national leader. This is the popular view throughout America, everywhere heralded, everywhere celebrated: the country's most noble all-inclusive philosophies are being fulfilled.

Upon close inspection, however, the welcoming of Jewish Orthodoxy to a key role in the American Democratic process is profoundly troubling. For this essentially blind welcoming of traditional Judaism to the realms of American power highlights in disturbing degree an enormous fault line in our current political process: stupefying public ignorance. An ignorance that no one risks remedying. Why, one wonders, has no one publicly posed the most obvious question for the new candidate: By virtual of his faith, his religious allegiance, what does Joseph Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, stand for? What do Orthodox Jews believe, particularly in relationship to the American principles of human universalism, gender equality, and democracy? As Vice President of the United States (and possibly a future president), what would Mr. Lieberman, on religious grounds, think of his non-Jewish neighbor? When confronted, point by point, with the anti-universalistic teachings of Orthodox religious law, what could Lieberman possibly say?

The answer to these simple questions have breathtaking implications, particularly in the context of quite possibly the second most powerful elected official in our American government, a secular system that declares itself to be a democracy. And the answer to these simple questions, however Lieberman the politician would dissimulate them, would shock most Americans. For anyone who is willing to take the time to look into the subject of Jewish Orthodoxy (and the key to this is traditional Jewish religious law, called the halachah), it is easy to find that this brand of Judaism eschews many of the most fundamental principles of American democracy and human universalism. As American Jewish scholar Adam Garfinkle has noted, "The principle of individualist equality that flows from American sacred texts and the American experience cannot be reconciled with the hierarchical, communal principles that flow from halachah, Jewish religious law." [1]

Garfinkle speaks here about intra-Jewish communal principles, not universalist ones. Whatever the Jewish apologetic (and there are many), the idea that Jews are the Chosen People of God, which is the absolute premise of traditional (and hence, Orthodox) Judaism, cannot be reconfigured in any way to be a universalistic, egalitarian premise. The common euphemism these days in the Jewish scholarly world for this Judeo-centric chauvinism is that Judaism, in essence, is "particularist," a somehow noble virtue in today's multicultural society. And this Jewish "particularism" is always juxtaposed in discourse about the subject against its philosophical opposite: pan-human universalism. In recent years, more and more Jewish scholars, particularly from Israel, have stepped forward to argue that within Orthodox Judaism one in fact finds the anti-thesis of democratic values. And why is this so much a subject of concern today for the Jews of Israel? Because in the Jewish nation the traditions of modern, western democratic principles, born of the Enlightenment, are in colossal struggle against the laws of Jewish religious Orthodoxy, traditional principles that seek to recreate modern Israel into a complete theocracy. Not only are few Americans aware of the major political and theological battles going on this moment across the world for the heart and soul of modern Israel, few non-Jewish Americans have the slightest knowledge of the essences, nor the perimeters, of the contesting sides.

How are such American voters in any position to select their own best interests via the persona of a Vice President Lieberman and, by association, sanction the anti-democratic principles of Jewish Orthodoxy? The upcoming election that includes Lieberman on the Democratic ticket is a profound paradox. American democratic principles insure a "free speech" tolerance throughout the public fabric. It also sanctions what is today popularly called "multiculturalism." Ironically, however, voices within this tolerant, universalist frame may in fact give free voice to counter, intolerant belief systems. Orthodox Judaism is, at root, such a world view. And for Joseph Lieberman to seek to climb up the democratic hierarchy of public power and control without public discussion about the core beliefs of traditional Judaism is profoundly two-faced and disingenuous.

Let us look to the religious and secular heart of most of the world's Jews, Israel, for explication of the issue at hand. We may begin by noting that in today's Israel, often referred to as the only "democracy" in the Middle East, it is illegal for a Jew to marry a non-Jew. Why? Because Jewish religious Orthodox institutions control the civil realm of even the supposedly secular Israeli government. Jewish Orthodoxy dictates how the Jews of Israel may marry, where and how they are buried, child custody, and other civil matters. Jews are therefore forbidden to marry non-Jews, the way it has been for Orthodox Judaism for century upon century throughout the world.

Lieberman, during the heat of the political campaign in liberal, multi-cultural America, cannot speak freely about traditional Jewish exclusionism. He has gone on the public record as saying that intermarriage is not an issue for him as an Orthodox Jew. What else could Lieberman possibly say? Can we imagine a legitimate candidate for the American vice-presidency publicly proclaiming, in the same vein, for example, that people of European descent should not marry African-Americans?

Reaction to Lieberman's two-faced politicking was swift in the Orthodox community. Rabbi Avi Shafran, spokesman for the Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America, responded by noting that there is a "clear and irrevocable Torah prohibition" against Jews marrying non-Jews. Even in the less traditional Conservative Judaism movement, Rabbi Jerome Epstein noted that "I do believe our tradition is quite clear that Jews are expected to marry Jews." [2]

What's it like to be a woman under Jewish Orthodoxy? As Jewish author Lesley Hazelton wrote about her years living in Israel: "To call the laws of Orthodox Judaism (the only Judaism accepted in Israel) sexist is an understatement: they do not recognize woman's existence as a full human being ... Women are classified [in Orthodox tradition] with children, the mentally deficient, and insane and criminals, none of whom can testify in Rabbinical court." [3]

In 1994 Israel Shahak, a Holocaust survivor and the former director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, wrote a an entire volume about Orthodox Judaism, in this tenor: "An Orthodox Jew learns from his earliest youth, as part of his sacred studies, that Gentiles are compared to dogs, that it is a sin to praise them." [4] Every morning male Orthodox Jews are enjoined to say prayers thanking God that they were not born female, and not Gentile. Is a believer in such chauvinism the kind of person who should lead multicultural America, let alone a democracy?

Many secular Jews in Israel are profoundly worried about the growth Orthodox Judaism and its squeeze there upon democratic principles. "There are those among us," wrote Ran Kislev in a 1998 issue of the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, "warning against the dangers of Israel's transformation into a halachic state. They instill in us a fear of an ayatollah state, like Iran. They have missed the boat. We are not merely en route to an ayatollah state, we are already well in the midst of one." [5] In 1998, "Israel's leading orthodox rabbis" even proclaimed a religious ruling against the Internet in Jewish homes. [6] "Orthodoxy in Israel," wrote Israeli Uri Huppert in 1988, "is no longer a creed. It is a well established clerical rabbinical hierarchy and long political and administrative infrastructure affecting very strongly the most sensitive political issues." [7]

In other words, Orthodox Judaism is not just a religion. Any student of traditional Judaism knows that it also includes a strong concept of Jewish nationalism, with many activist, political currents. Jewish Orthodoxy can also lead to ultra-Orthodoxy, a meticulously literalist interpretation of old religious texts. The ultra-Orthodox, largely represented by hundreds of thousands of the so-called Hassids who are enormously politically empowered in modern Israel, are blatant in their Judeo-centrism, anti-Gentile chauvinism, and self-segregating exclusionism. The best known, and most popular religious form of Judaism in America is the Reform movement (again, Joseph Lieberman is not a Reform Jew, he is Orthodox). This movement, like the strand called Conservative Judaism, evolved out of traditional Jewish Orthodoxy in the nineteenth century and rejected many of Orthodoxy's most chauvinist, anti-universalist premises. Still, among Reform's secularly messianic claims is that the essences of democracy are to be found in seminal Jewish religious texts. Such claims by Reform Judaism are rejected in Israel by the controlling Jewish Orthodoxy. Such universalist assertions, as proclaimed by the leading rabbis (all Orthodox) of modern Israel's religious world, have nothing to do with Judaism. Even Gentile Americans who have married Jews, and converted to Judaism in a Reform temple, will be stunned to discover when they get off the plane in Orthodox-dominated Israel that in the Jewish state their conversion has been for naught because in the Jewish homeland they are not considered Jews. After all, in the Orthodox world view, being a Jew is fundamentally a genetic essence: a person who's mother was Jewish is a Jew, whether in later years they want to be one or not. Although it is possible, with great difficulty, to convert to Orthodox Judaism, converts are not invited and Orthodox Jews are always hard-pressed to explain away the core of traditional Jewish identity which is nakedly racial.

How then, could the Democratic party, known for its liberalism, its coalition of labor unions, civil rights groups, homosexual activists, environmentalists, women's rights groups, and left wing causists of all persuasions, find themselves following what is for all intents and purposes a Jewish fundamentalist who is religiously linked to ideas that run counter to the very premises of American democratic liberalism? As Charles Liebman and Steven Cohen have noted about traditional Judaism in Israel: "Many leftist secularists see Judaism as so inimical to liberal values that they have severed their own ties to it ... They view Judaism as so thoroughly conservative, nationalistic [i.e., Judeo-centric] and particularistic that it cannot be reformed. In this view the only hope for the Israeli liberal is the disestablishment of Judaism." [8]

Is it fathomable that the Democratic Party would have even remotely considered a Christian of a parallel New Testament world view? And if any major party dared to choose a Christian literalist as a vice presidential candidate, would not his or her beliefs (religious or otherwise) be subjected to the most astounding of microscopic scrutinies?

What we are witnessing throughout the American social and political fabric is a disturbing double standard, everywhere entrenched throughout American culture: one standard applied to those of Christian heritage, and another for Jews. This situation is long standing. As Jewish sociologist Nathan Glazer noted years ago, "It would be an interesting study to determine just ... how the Jewish group, which through most of the history of the United States has formed an insignificant percentage of the American people, has come to be granted the status of most favored religion." [9]

Lieberman's candidacy has of course raised concerns in the Jewish community of a resurfacing of anti-Semitism. Yet public fear of the tarnish of anti-Semitism upon possible Lieberman critics has in fact served to preserve this politician's religious world view from studied scrutiny and analysis. While the Christian Jerry Falwells and Pat Robertsons of the world are treated by the mass media with disdain and routinely discarded as symbols of a narrow-minded antiquity, Lieberman, protected by the institutionalized fortress of anti-anti-Semitism, floats in his own circle of critical immunity.

The Jewish concern for an eventual renewal of what is popularly known as "anti-Semitism" is not unfounded. Lieberman's high visibility, Orthodox or not, highlights also the presence of extraordinary Jewish power, not just in the American political system, but throughout American society. As much as half of all political contributions to the Democratic Party are believed to be from Jewish sources. Jewish heads of DNC fund-raising arms have been a norm for years. Seven of eleven of Bill Clinton's original National Security members were Jewish, as were both of his two appointees to the Supreme Court, and a long list of Jewish cabinet members, including one of his Directors of the CIA, and even Madeline Albright, who reportedly discovered her lost Jewish ancestry after she took the office of Secretary of State. Jewish political influence is so blatant that in 1997, Larry Grossman, director of AIPAC, the lobbying agency for Israel, merely moved over to become Chairman of the Democratic Party. Ira Foreman, director of the National Jewish Democratic organization, once told of a Jewish Clinton White House staff member "who balked at handling the White House Christmas decorations but was told he had to do it 'because, heck, everyone else here is Jewish too.'" [10]

Anyone seeking to find profoundly disproportionate "Jewish influence" (however one cares to define such a term) throughout the realms of American power will find it, from the heads of the largest mass media conglomerates (Sumner Redstone at Viacom/CBS, Michael Eisner at Disney/ABC, Gerald Levin at Time-Warner), five of the last eight official American poet laureates, four of seven CIA directorates (so says the Jerusalem Post), [11] the heads of most major American art museums, the heads of most major record companies, the heads of most New York major trade publishing firms, the Commissioner of the National Basketball Association, the CEO of MacDonalds, and on and on. Not an insignificant fact too, Jews collectively represent the wealthiest ethnic group in America.

Lieberman, as a Jew, of whatever persuasion, symbolizes a kind of hidden elephant that has at last been brought out for a trial evaluation by the American electorate. Democratic strategists have embarked upon an extraordinarily complicated, and daring move, trusting that Lieberman's singular image as a moral fundamentalist will counter voter disenchantment with Bill Clinton's sexual fiascoes. This strategy is also based on the solid presumption that Lieberman, by virtual of being Jewish (and by association a victim of the Holocaust, et al) will not be subjected to the normal public trashings of political candidates. For any critic to treat Lieberman anything less than delicately, after all, is to invite the very unwelcome accusation of anti-Semitism.

Democratic strategists also can count on the certainty that diverse liberal alignment with the Democratic Party will not, whatever its feelings about Lieberman's conservative moralism, in any way aid the Republican opposition. A vote for a member of a minority group is, however paradoxical, also attractive to those who wish to affirm their feelings of personal inter-ethnic tolerance and liberalism. Such a political gamble on Lieberman by the Democratic Party is profoundly anchored upon the powerful machinations of "political correctness": i.e., that no one of any public or media influence will dare to challenge a Jew merely for, as it would be configured, being a Jew. An investigation of traditional Jewish bigotry and ethnocentrism would happily be spun around by Lieberman and his advocates as a potent political weapon: the accusation of anti-Semitism.

In other words, the person positioned to very possibly be the next American vice president, and a future president, is, and will continue to be, summarily excused from detailed commentary upon the very essence of what he believes.

1. Garfinkle, Adam. The Two Religions of American Jews: A Provocation for the Sake of Heaven. Conservative Judaism, Winter 1996, p. 4

2. Jolkovsky, Benjamin. Sen. Lieberman: Intermarriage Is Kosher. The Jerusalem Post, September 20, 2000 2. Hazelton, Lesley. Israeli Women. The Reality Behind the Myths. Simon and Schuster, New York, 1977, p. 41

3. Kislev, Ran. The Impending Ayatollah State. Ha'aretz [Israeli newspaper], July 24, 1998

4. Shahak, Israel. Jewish History, Jewish Religion. The Weight of Three Thousand Years. Pluto Press, London, Boulder, Colorado, 1994

5. Philips, Alan. International Internet Threat to Israel ..., The Daily Telegraph [London], January 8, 2000, p. 18

6. Huppert, Uri. Back to the Ghetto. Zionism in Retreat. Prometheus Books, Buffalo, New York, 1988, p. 21

7. Liebman, Charles; Cohen, Steven. Two Worlds of Judaism: The Israeli and American Experience. Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1990

8. Eisen, Arnold. The Chosen People in America: A Study in Religious Ideology. Indiana University Press, 1983, p. 129

9. Rodan, Steve. Not Forgiven, Not Forgotten. Jerusalem Post, August 30, 1996, p. 20

10. Gross, Netty. The Kinship. The Jerusalem Post, May 25, 1998, p. 28-33


Jewish Tribal Review