Among the candidates considered by Al Gore for the vice-presidential nomination, Joseph Lieberman was the most politically conservative. While Bush supporters are claiming that Lieberman's voting record shows a man closer to Bush than to Gore, and may be lamenting the political capital Gore may thereby accumulate with conservative voters, the rest of us have a deeper concern. Joseph Lieberman is likely to accelerate the process in which the two major parties seem to be merging into one pro-business, pro-wealthy, elitist, and morally tone-deaf governing force.
Joseph Lieberman will also give greater prominence to the tendency in the Jewish world to subordinate values and spiritual goals to self-interest and material success. All the more ironic, then, that the media is responding to his nomination by talking about his willingness to critique Clinton on moral grounds or his Orthodoxy as proof of having a spiritual center.
In short, Lieberman's nomination is bad for the country and bad for the Jews.
Lieberman joined with Bill Clinton and Al Gore to create the Democratic Leadership Council precisely to transform the Democratic Party from its previous New Deal roots as the champion of working people, minorities, and the poor to a party that would cater to the needs of Wall Street and to the upper middle class. And they've done a great job. With Democrats on board, the gap between rich and poor has accelerated in the Clinton/Gore years, environmental protections have eroded when they conflicted with corporate interests, and instead of using the end of the Cold War to dramatically reduce the defense budget and redirect spending to rectify the history of inequality and provide basic social services, health care, and education, defense spending has been treated as sacrosanct, and savings were found by eliminating welfare.
There were those who argued that all this was Clinton's doing, and that Gore in his heart was a more progressive and caring person who had to hide his true feelings in order to remain in Clinton's good graces. In selecting Joseph Lieberman, Gore has unwittingly given great impetus to the Naderites and others who argue that the trajectory of American politics is to reduce even more the differences between the two major parties. Before the American people have a chance to register their desires, the party supposed to be representing the only chance to restrict corporate irresponsibility has already made its lunge to the right.
One reason why that's not good for the country is that the elimination of real debate on fundamentals leads many people to give up on the public sphere, refusing to vote, turning away from the news, and generally being cynical about participation in any aspect of democratic life.
It's also not good for the Jews.
American Jews are among the most liberal voters in America, more consistently supporting a progressive agenda than any other voting bloc. There's an important reason for this--the Torah tradition has a strong commitment to social-justice values and to caring for "the other." Jews who became secular in America carried those values with them, and they became the backbone of the labor movement, the anti-war movement, the women's movement, and other progressive social-change movements of the past hundred years.
But in the past 50 years, a strong conservative voice has emerged in the Jewish world that has had a very different agenda. Forged by the new possibilities of "making it" in America, these more conservative Jewish voices have insisted that the best interests of the Jewish people lie in identifying with America's elites of wealth and power, finding a place within those elites, and, just in case that didn't work out, building a militarily strong Israel to which we might escape should the (in the conservative view) ever-present danger of anti-Semitism reappear here. Cuddling up to the powerful meant subordinating social justice and joining in the celebration of the globalization of capital and the triumph of the ethos of selfishness and materialism.
These same conservatives sought to build American ties to Israel on a new basis--no longer as the exemplar of democratic and human rights values that had been the view of many liberal Jews, but rather as the strong military ally of the U.S., which could fight against communist and post-communist threats to U.S. interests. From their standpoint, the documentation of Israeli torture of Palestinians, the denial of human rights, and the oppression of another people were all irrelevant and uninteresting. Jewish self-interest, from their standpoint, had nothing to do with the triumph of a moral or spiritual reality, either in the U.S. or in Israel. So while most American Jews were critical of Israeli policy toward Palestinians, these conservatives gave knee-jerk support to whatever government the Israelis produced (and to be fair, I sat next to Hadassah Lieberman at the signing of the Oslo Accords at the White House, and she was as willing to support this as she and her husband had been to support previous hawkish Israeli governments).
The sad truth is that Lieberman represents the tendency within the Jewish world to abandon the moral and spiritual vision that led generations of Jews to be the moral conscience of our society. Rather than championing dramatic escalations in spending for social purposes, and to end poverty and oppression, he will champion defense spending. Rather than critiquing Israeli policy and attempting to push Israel toward more significant compromises with the Palestinians, he will exhibit the kind of contempt for the needs of the Palestinian people that is already over-represented by Gore's top adviser Martin Peretz (editor of The New Republic, and one of the most consistently anti-Palestinian voices in American politics).
Some people have imagined that Lieberman's nomination will generate anti-Semitism. I think that Gore should be praised for not allowing that concern to influence him. But there's another side to that, too. The typical anti-Semitic attack on Jews portrays us as having disproportionate power and influence in the world. This is a lie about Jews in general, but it's true about the sector of Jews who Lieberman represents. Had Gore picked one of the many Jews involved in the leadership of the causes for social justice (Sen. Barbara Boxer, for example), he would have highlighted the way that Jews are doing our best to heal and transform this world. Instead, he chose one of the Jews whose power is used to accelerate the interests of the elites, thus strengthening the distorted image of Jews as uncaring and elitist. It's not that a Jew was nominated; it is the kind of Jew that gives some of us concern.
Joseph Lieberman may be a committed Orthodox Jew in his personal practice, but in his role as a public spokesperson he has gone far away from the best aspects of the Jewish tradition. He has none of that prophetic voice that leads Jews to criticize our own Jewish community and Israel in the name of Torah values. He has none of that Jewish sensitivity to the oppressed that would place their needs above the needs of the wealthy. And yet this is the man who will become the symbol of Jews to most Americans.
That's not good for the Jews.
But there's a deeper level still. America needs a fundamentally new foundation for politics--a foundation that challenges the selfishness and materialism that is our "bottom line" at this historical moment. That new politics can be grounded in the wisdom of the biblical tradition and its central teaching, "not by bread alone shall human beings survive" (Deuteronomy 8:3). Lieberman and his ilk rap themselves in the Bible and are the first to throw stones when people violate the sexual ethics of the Bible. Yet the central vision of the Bible is one that calls for a world in which we can recognize the Spirit of God embodied in every human being and build a world consistent with that vision. To do that, we would need a whole new definition of productivity and efficiency, one that sees institutions and social practices as valuable not only to the extent that they maximize money and power but also to the extent that they maximize love and caring, awe and wonder. Lieberman doesn't exist in that discourse, and his nomination is one step further away from a spiritual politics and from a world reconnecting to the message of the Bible.
So it's not good for America either.
Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of TIKKUN:A Bimonthly Jewish Critique of Politics, Culture and Society and author of 'Spirit Matters: Global Healing and the Wisdom of the Soul' (Hampton Roads Publishing, 2000).
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