Politics & Policy

Where’s the Anti-Semitism?

Troubling aspects of the Lieberman VP story.

I have never experienced a single major instance of anti-Semitism in my life. Sure, occasionally some lonely guy — who probably blames the Jews for the fact he still lives in his parents’ basement — sends me a nasty e-mail full of anti-Semitic bile. But, to my knowledge, I’ve never been denied an opportunity, large or small, because of my religion — though I assume I can never be a Jesuit priest or Louis Farrakhan’s personal chef, which is fine by me (no offense to the Jesuits).

Perhaps, it’s because I have gone unscathed by this bigotry — and remember, I hang out with the supposedly bigoted right-wingers — that I find the selection of Joseph Lieberman, a man I respect greatly, and the accompanying hand-wringing about American anti-Semitism so fascinating.

Of course, I don’t base my views solely on my own personal experience. Anti-Semitism, according to any reasonable measure, is amazingly low in the United States. Indeed, to paraphrase the essayist Irving Kristol, the major threat to American Jews is not from gentiles who want to kill us, it’s from gentiles who want to marry us (Jewish intermarriage with non-Jews exceeds 50% in the U.S.). You can hardly say anti-Semitism is rampant in America when Episcopalian moms want their daughters to marry nice Jewish doctors.

You also can’t say that the doors to politics are closed to Jews. For example, only 2% of the U.S. population is Jewish — but there are currently eleven Jewish senators, and about 6% of U.S. Representatives are Jewish. But Senators and congressmen are, by definition, regional candidates. The President and Vice President are the only two officeholders elected by the entire country, and therefore they better reflect national sentiment. Here too, there’s been a lot of progress.

In 1937, Gallup asked voters if they could vote for a qualified Jewish presidential candidate, and 46% said yes. Last February the same question was asked, and 92% of those surveyed said yes. An overnight CNN/Gallup Poll revealed that 88% of respondents said Lieberman’s religion would make no difference in how they vote.

This is all great news. Which is why I find it so interesting that the only people who seem convinced there is substantial anti-Semitism out there are the people responsible for picking Lieberman in the first place. Al Gore’s spinners tout the “boldness” of picking a Jewish running mate.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Ed Rendell said in advance of the announcement that picking a Jewish VP would be a “bold and courageous” but too risky choice. Warren Christopher, who headed Gore’s VP-selection team, told the New York Times that when Lieberman’s religion came up in strategy sessions, Gore had a profile-in-courage moment and bravely “shut it down.” Lieberman himself said in his formal acceptance speech in Nashville that Gore was a man of “courage and character” for picking him. “Some might call it an act of chutzpah,” he said.

That’s all fine, I guess. But what’s a little offensive is the impression that the Gore campaign appears to want there to be more anti-Semitism out there. That way, picking Lieberman could be even more “courageous.” Indeed, it seems that’s been the plan all along. Immediately prior to Lieberman’s selection, Rendell warned reporters that it was too risky to pick a Jewish veep. “I don’t think anyone can calculate the effect of having a Jew on the ticket. If Joe Lieberman were Episcopalian it would be a slam dunk.”

But Rendell went on to say that people who won’t vote for Lieberman “only because he is Jewish” are Bush and Buchanan voters anyway. Rendell wants it both ways. On the one hand, he salutes Gore’s courage for picking a risky running mate (who happens to be vastly more respected than Gore himself), and then turns on a dime to say there’s no risk at all because anti-Semites don’t vote Democratic anyway.

This is wrong across the board. For example, according to the Anti-Defamation League, African-Americans — the most loyal Democratic voting bloc — are four times as likely as whites to hold strong anti-Semitic views. Conversely, the South, especially among Evangelical Christians, tends to be among the most pro-Jewish, pro-Israel, and pro-Republican regions in the country. The oldest synagogue in America is in South Carolina.

It would be tragic for America, the Democratic Party, and the Jews if the Gore campaign tries to exploit Lieberman’s religion too much (JFK became the first Catholic President by downplaying the importance of his religion, not by running on it). Recall that in 1996 the Clinton-Gore team exploited a fictitious spate of church burnings for their own personal political advantage. By hyping crimes that didn’t exist, they fostered racial division and fear while claiming to fight it. If Gore-Lieberman use the same tactic about anti-Semitism, it will be bad for all concerned.


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