Politics & Policy

Candidate Chutzpah

The rise of the Jewish bluebloods.

Jews make up two percent of the American population. At the moment, though, they make up more than 33 percent of the Democratic presidential candidates. Toss General Wesley Clark into the mix and the figure tops 42 percent. Who knew?

The Irish-sounding John Kerry was always quite Catholic, or so we thought. Even though the Massachusetts senator learned of his Jewish roots some 15 years ago, he only got around to trumpeting the news the other day that he’s more Jewish than he thought. First it was just a Jewish grandmother; now he’s discovered a Jewish grandfather as well. Suddenly, on the campaign trail in Florida, he could hardly talk about anything else.

Clark, the former NATO commander who is flirting with a presidential run, discovered his Jewish roots more than 20 years ago. But only in recent weeks did he reveal that he is descended from “generations of rabbis.”

Perhaps they are following in the footsteps of Hillary Clinton, a lifelong Methodist who chose an opportune moment — when she was running for the Senate in New York — to let slip that she had a Jewish step-grandfather and that her mother’s half-sister converted to Judaism. And Madeleine Albright, you may recall, discovered her Jewishness — with a little help from a nosy reporter — just months after her appointment as Secretary of State.

What’s going on here? Has Jewish ancestry been something of a dark secret for public figures, to be whispered among family members but not mentioned in polite company? And if so, how is it that politicians keep stumbling upon this information when it comes in handy, particularly at campaign time? Do they think it will make fundraising easier, or make them appear more sympathetic to Israel, or win them votes in certain precincts of Brooklyn and Miami Beach?

This slapping of foreheads — Oy vey, I never knew about Grandpa Irv — is starting to sound a bit hollow.

At the same time, the one presidential candidate who has never made any secret of his faith is being chided by some as being, well, too Jewish.

When Joe Lieberman calls himself an American who just happens to be a Jew, American Jews should be pleased that 1) Lieberman believes that Americans are Americans first and hyphenated citizens second, and 2) He is not of the self-hating variety.

Yet the former VP candidate has been barraged with questions about his loyalties and priorities. (Would he be too close to Israel? Would he have a White House Christmas tree? Would he serve matzoh balls at state dinners?)

Abe Foxman, the Anti-Defamation’s League’s national director, says that while American voters have “matured” to the point where they can accept a Jewish candidate, some Jewish leaders worry that such a candidate would be seen as a spokesman for the religion, and any misstep could give the faith a black eye. This is essentially saying, “Do we really need this tsuris? We don’t want Lieberman riling up any latent Jewish prejudice in America.”

Please. Can you imagine any other ethnic group suggesting that a black or a Latino should not run because, in essence, the neighbors might be offended? The very people who would normally cheer Lieberman on are too concerned about rocking the political boat.

Michael Dukakis was Greek. The Greek community rallied around him and was proud to see that their culture had become mainstream enough that a Greek candidate could be taken seriously for president. Lieberman should be viewed the same way, as a candidate who will rise or fall on his political skills and positions.

There might be plenty of reasons for voters (Jewish or otherwise) to oppose Lieberman. He has, after all, done an about-face on his previous stance on affirmative action and school choice. Having once had the courage to challenge his party, he is gearing up for the primaries by becoming a more, well, orthodox Democrat. But the one thing that should remain a source of moral strength is his ancestry.

After all, if being Jewish is such a bad thing, why are Kerry and company suddenly trying to get in on it?

Sheri Annis is a media and political consultant based in Washington D.C.