Jews against Lieberman?

Posted: May 06, 2003 12:00 AM

The candidacy of Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, the first Jew to run for president, is testing the limits of American tolerance in an unexpected way. So far, the only ethnic group to exhibit reluctance about supporting him explicitly because of his Jewishness is other Jews.

In the most flabbergasting wrinkle of the early campaign season, Lieberman's fund raising has been hampered by the reluctance of some Jews to donate to a Jewish candidate. "This is so illogical," says a close Lieberman friend. "How is it possible that Jews are the biggest problem? It is hurting Lieberman financially."

The paradox is a testament to a paranoid streak in part of the Jewish community still traumatized by the Holocaust. No other segment of the population appears to hold Lieberman's Jewishness against him, and he is running strong among Southern Christians.

The hesitance of Jewish donors was discussed at a meeting of Lieberman's national finance committee last Wednesday in Washington, D.C. "There's no doubt there has been an initial concern among some Jewish givers over whether America is ready for a Jewish president," says Lieberman fund-raiser and former Rep. Mel Levine. "The irony is you don't hear that outside the Jewish community at all."

Lieberman supporter and former Clinton official Lanny Davis says that at a Maryland Democratic Party event a few days ago, a Jewish state senator told him she wouldn't support Lieberman because she worried about a Jew running for president. "This is one of about 150 experiences I've had like this," says Davis. "I told her in my 35 years of being involved in Democratic presidential politics, I have never heard a person's religion mentioned as a reason for being for or against someone, until this election. It's shameful."

Some Catholics worried in 1960 that the candidacy of John F. Kennedy would stoke anti-Catholic bigotry. Thirty years later, in a much more tolerant America, some Jews have the same, implausible worry. Lieberman's wife, Hadassah, told the finance meeting that the campaign would be fine if it gets the core of traditional Jewish Democratic donors to "max out"-- give $2,000 per person -- and can't afford to worry about "the neurotics."

Lieberman supporters say the candidate will still obviously do well raising money from Jewish donors, but it is not the sort of lock that, say, 1988 Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis had over Greek donors. "I suspect," says a Lieberman fund-raiser wryly, "there were not many Greeks who didn't support Dukakis because he was Greek."

Lieberman's team has been addressing the worries with numbers from campaign pollster Mark Penn showing that more than 90 percent of people say they are willing to vote for a Jewish candidate, and that Lieberman's faith helped the Democratic ticket in 2000. "It gets raised less now than before," Levine says of the worry. "Initially, it got raised a lot."

If anyone doubts the tolerance of America, they should consider Lieberman's early strength in South Carolina and Oklahoma, driven by support from black Baptists and other Christians. They care more that Lieberman is a man of faith than that he is Jewish.

This is one reason that Lieberman, the Jewish candidate from the Northeast, has something of a Southern strategy. He probably can't win in Iowa or New Hampshire, but hopes to have strong showings in the Feb. 3 primaries in places like South Carolina, Oklahoma and Arizona.

Lieberman wants the Democrats to return to their roots as the party of Harry S. Truman: strong on defense, conservative on morals, but liberal on social and economic issues. Prevailing with this vision in an increasingly left-leaning party will be difficult enough without any nagging trouble in his fund-raising base.

The question that an embattled Jewish community used to ask of any development in American public life was: "Yes, but is it good for the Jews?" Any Jew who doubts the answer to that question when it comes to the prospect of a Lieberman presidency is living in another century, and perhaps on another planet.