A Yarmulke in the right

Posted: Jan 16, 2003 12:00 AM
Sen. Joe Lieberman has thrown his yarmulke in the ring. By seeking the Democratic nomination for president in 2004, he unites the Judeo with the Christian in the best and most ordinary sense. "I'm running as an American who happens to be Jewish, and not the other way around," he says. "This is all about putting our country first." His mom, an archetypal Jewish mother, sat at her kitchen table in his childhood home, behind dishes filled with rugelach, for anyone who wanted to sample a kosher cookie. If elected he would be the first Jewish president of the United States, which any Jewish mother would tell you beats a doctor-doctor (as opposed to a doctor-dentist), the prize of every Jewish mother (or mother-in-law). But getting a president-in-law may be more like pulling teeth. Joe Lieberman on foreign policy is the kind of Democrat that former Democrats who became Republicans with the demise of the "Scoop" Jackson wing of the party, could like. He believes in a strong defense, supports the president in his war against terrorism and recognizes the need to disarm (or eliminate) Saddam Hussein. Family values is not merely a phrase for him. He's a man of faith who does not wear his faith on his sleeve and as a seasoned candidate shouldn't embarrass us this go-around by overdoing the references to God in his campaign speeches. He pandered to Hollywood for big bucks when he ran as Al Gore's running mate, but suggests that he did that because of the man at the top of the ticket. This time, he says, "I will always know who I am and what I stand for." Besides, he's both Jewish father and grandfather now. Religion and politics make strange bedfellows but, like male and female, they can't be kept apart. The trick is keeping both happy and distinct. Not always easy. Apart from rabid anti-Semites, however, Joe Lieberman's religion is not likely to cause him trouble here. In fact, it might mostly upset the Jews who think the lower the Jewish profile the better. The Democrats couldn't find a religious Christian, says Jewish comedian (and sometime columnist) Jackie Mason, so they're thrilled to find a religious Jew. "We're witnessing the strange sight of Jews perceiving a Jewish candidate as a problem, while gentiles are celebrating him as their solution." The Lieberman candidacy is likely to dismay and perplex Muslims in countries dominated by their religion, where there is no tradition of separation of mosque and state, and who will inevitably view the Jewishness of the senator as simply more bad news about America. In the United States, the social contract comes from "we the people." Over time, "we the people" expanded into an increasingly motley crew, empowered as individuals regardless of race, religion or creed. What we believe to be good may be rooted in Judeo-Christian themes, but our foundations were put down with the rationality and respect for secular law that derives its authority from the people it governs. We draw on religious beliefs, but only to inform secular debate through political argument. This is elementary to our democratic system. By contrast, where it is the guiding force in Middle Eastern countries, Islam does not build on the will of 'we the people," but on the idea of submission to the will of Allah, and only as the revealed will of God as those in power interpret God's will. Roger Scruton, an English philosopher, makes a cogent and complex analysis of these differences in "The West and the Rest," recommended reading for anyone who wants to learn more about Islam as a source of inspiration for terrorists, as well as a caution against expecting a Palestinian state to transcend the bonds of Islam to express participatory citizenship. He rejects the fashionable view that the terrorist threat to America comes from America's support for Israel. "On the contrary," he says, "it is Israel's relation to America that makes Israel the target of militant Islam. When Israel became the target for the Islamic militants of Hezbollah, it was not in order to achieve some settlement favorable to the Palestinian people. It was in order to punish Israel as an outreach of the West." Israel, in this view, represents the corrupting values of the West in the Middle East, where the Islamists teach that the only law and the only loyalty should be to that of radical Islam. Jewish values corrupt, but Western values corrupt absolutely. Joe Lieberman's candidacy will add to the Islamist suspicion that his positions on Israel will be sectarian. But the Islamist terrorists will hate him less because he is a Jew than that he represents the democratic secular values of America. Joe Lieberman's reach for the presidency, no matter how you feel about his politics or even whether he makes it to the White House, is what's great about America.