Good for the Jews? I Think it’s Great, But Don’t Ask Mom

As far as my friends and I were concerned, it was the greatest Jewish news since Sandy Koufax sat out the World Series. “I’m happy as hell. It really causes you to become emotional about politics,” said lawyer Steve Friedman. “I haven’t talked about politics this much since I was in sixth grade and I was asked to debate ‘Should China be admitted into the U.N.?’,” said writer Patricia Marx-and that was just at noon Monday. As for me, tears came to my eyes when I saw little big-headed Lieberman on the screen, fists stuck up in the sky. His middle name is Isador! My grandfather’s was Isidor.

But when I heard the phone message from my mother, there was foreboding. “Well, we’re all stunned by the Lieberman news.” She sounded a little sad.

“I’m not sad, I’m concerned,” she said when I called her up. “I’m concerned about whether it will hurt Gore. I don’t know what it will bring down on him in terms of the uglies.”

My mother isn’t alone. “Calamity,” “catastrophe” were some of the words being bandied about quietly by Jews this week. One of my mother’s close friends’ response was, “Oy vey.”

Many Jews believe there is such a deep reservoir of unspoken anti-Semitism in the country that you don’t know what is going to be unleashed this fall. The Vice Presidency is so prominent that now everyone gets to talk about the Jews. As if no one noticed Jews before? They’re all over the establishment. Well, yes. But prominence is problematic. The Jews of Vienna were prideful of their prominence, and look what happened to them.

It’s not that young Jews believe anti-Semitism is gone. How else do you explain e-mails like “Lieberman is a nobody” and “Thank God for Bush” that appeared on the CNN show Talk Back Live on Monday following word of the Lieberman choice? But I’d argue that such comments originate from a relatively meaningless fringe of racists.

The fact is, few Jews of my generation have experienced anti-Semitism as a real obstacle in their lives, and early reports back up the optimists. That’s the real miracle of Vice President Gore’s choice, that the Vice President saw a political advantage in naming an Orthodox Jew, and that he will sway valued conservatives, independents and some Jewish Naderites, too-not me; I rooted against the Dodgers too.

Thus the Lieberman choice has opened a fascinating split in American attitudes. Even while the TV pundits shrug off the Jewish factor as no big deal, Jews privately think that the religious factor is giant, and many think it could be a giant negative.

“No one will say, ‘Don’t vote for him, he’s a Jew.’ But if these guys lose and the blame is parceled out, the pundits will see it as a strategic mistake,” one New York lawyer said darkly. “I worry about Jews being the fall guy. It’ll be ‘Put the blame on Mame,’ only ‘Mame’ is the Jewish boy,” said my Mom’s friend Roz. An editor friend said, “Well- The New York Times Web site says that 12 percent of the American people admit to having secret anti-Semitic feelings. O.K.-triple that number.”

Or there’s my mother’s scientist friend on the beach: “You just don’t know what these people are like in Louisiana.”

The Jews hold forth on the goyim!

We are now into the realm of the pessimistic Jewish soul, seasoned by generations of persecution. Notwithstanding their place in American life, many American Jews still regard themselves as outsiders. The Holocaust, the Rosenbergs, the Pat Buchanans-all are equally fresh visions in the Jewish American psyche.

This election is now a great test for America but an even bigger test for Jews. Just as the O.J. verdict exposed the different reality that black people live in, the Lieberman pick exposes the differing Jewish reality.

What if my mother’s friend is wrong about Louisiana? How do you explain the second-day news that the Lieberman pick gave Mr. Gore an instant and giant bounce in the CNN– USA Today –Gallup poll?

Maybe the only thing bigger than anti-Semitism is philo-Semitism.

“The issue is not whether anyone has an anti-Semitic bone in their body. That’s what the Jewish community is focusing on, and it’s wrong,” said a political friend. “We all have prejudicial feelings. The issue is whether we can get beyond them to the content of someone’s character, and I believe Americans can.”

The O.J. verdict subtly changed black opinion. In a sense, it embarrassed blacks. Now Jewish feelings about America are in the spotlight, and some of those feelings won’t survive.

Let me be specific. Many Jews have felt deeply threatened by George W. Bush. And notwithstanding all the Jews in his brain trust, you can understand it. He’s an avatar of the WASP aristocracy, having attained his position almost strictly on the basis of birth, not SATs; he’s an oil man whose President father kept his distance from Jews. He doesn’t seem to have a lot of Jewish friends.

For months, I’ve heard murmurings that Governor Bush is anti-Semitic. Jews cited his proclamation of Jesus Day in Texas earlier this year (clearly an infringement of state on church, but big deal). And earlier this month, Brooklyn Congressman Anthony Weiner, a loyalist of Senator Charles Schumer, broke the surface, in a sneaky way, when he held a telephone press conference with several Jewish publications to say that Governor Bush had ties to anti-Semitic figures. Like who? Well, according to the Jewish Press report on the phone call, Bush adviser Fred Malek, who under President Nixon tried to track down a “Jewish cabal” in the Bureau of Labor Statistics. How many years ago was that? (And Representative Weiner’s press conference was organized, the Jewish Press said, by the Democratic National Committee.)

That’s flimsy, and loathsome. While he’s at it, Representative Weiner ought to look for the Communists in the State Department.

But his attitude is widespread. Not long ago, I received an e-mail from a friend proclaiming, bottom line, Jews should not vote for Governor Bush because his parents forced him to break off his engagement to a Jewish woman in the late 60′s. ( First Son , the Bush biography by Bill Minutaglio, says that Houston socialite Cathryn Wolfman, daughter of a garmento, was possibly Jewish; the book hints at Bush family concern about the engagement, but says it petered out, apparently because Ms. Wolfman was on a more serious course than W.)

Guess what, that sword cuts both ways. If a parent’s objection to intermarriage in 1969 is going to keep someone out of high public office in 2000, there isn’t one Jew over legal age 35 who could now be President.

It didn’t stop in 1969. In a multicultural society, youthful love affairs are still being thwarted by Jewish Montagues as we speak.

In fact, there is a good possibility that the next Vice President of the United States will be someone who does not want his children to marry non-Jews. He wants to lead the people, he just doesn’t want his children to marry any of them .

The Orthodox Union, of which Senator Lieberman is a member (and which Hillary visits religiously), and conservative Jewish organizations put out statements on intermarriage that border on racist. It All Begins With a Date is the name of a book the conservatives promote. Mandell I. Ganchrow, the head of the Orthodox Union, has said that Jews who marry Christians are being swept out to sea.

When I asked Senator Lieberman’s office about his stand on intermarriage earlier this year, his spokesman said it was irrelevant. Others said these were religious views and deserve protection from political scrutiny (I believe Bob Jones University adopted that defense, too).

But these are not only religious attitudes, they are cultural. They infuse the Jewish experience of America, a mistrustful one. Is that mistrust warranted? Jews have been inside the American establishment now for a good 10 years, just no one has wanted to say it lest the bubble burst. Now the word is out. And what will happen to the Jewish suspicion of goyishe culture if Lieberman’s presence is met with a big ho-hum? How will Jewish identity be transformed?

That is what is most at stake here. Yes, Al Gore has changed American history, hooray. More than that, he will have changed the Jews.