Jews in Office Aren’t Always a Bargain

Like everyone else, I am extremely pleased by the selection of Joe Lieberman as Al Gore’s running mate; however, I’m afraid it is likely to be little more than a footnote in history. Worse, as Lieberman has already demonstrated, the fact that a politician is Jewish is no guarantee his policies will be to the community’s liking.

Why did I suggest Lieberman will be a mere footnote? Well, if you read the state by state polls, which are the ones that really matter, Gore appears in deep trouble, though, of course this can change if he gets a convention “bump” and does well in debates. Also, despite polls suggesting that everyone would be happy to vote for a Jew (people rarely will admit to bigotry), the truer picture of average American attitudes has probably been presented by the NAACP official in Texas who carped about Jews and their money. I hope that I am wrong, but I fear having a Jew on the ticket will hurt more than help.

Substantively, Lieberman has already flip-flopped on many of the views that made him popular. Within hours, for example, he’d already backed off on supporting moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. This is the reality of politics. Lieberman must now tow the Gore line and this will be true in the White House as well. Fortunately, Gore is very good on Israel and other issues of concern to Jews, but Lieberman’s contortions illustrate why having Jews in places of influence does not guarantee favorable policies.

The Clinton Administration offers the best case study of how little influence Jews often have. When Clinton was elected, Jews had reason for optimism because of the large numbers of Jews who were given key posts throughout the government. The last eight years should have produced an unprecedented expansion of programs of interest to Jews and a strengthening of U.S.-Israel relations. Make no mistake, the Clinton years have been good, but they still fell well below expectations. In terms of programs with Israel, especially, Clinton started out with the new and exciting Science & Technology Commission, but it never amounted to much and now does little or nothing. Cooperation in military and civilian areas has continued, but there have been no major new initiatives to take the relationship to a new level. Of course, in comparison with the Bush years, Clinton looks especially good, but much more could have been accomplished.

Part of the reason for the disappointing performance of the Clinton Administration is that all those Jews in the government did not go out of their way to strengthen U.S.-Israel ties. Of course there were some exceptions, but, overall, they behaved as officials who happened to be Jewish.

The place where Jews most clearly sublimate their beliefs and adopt the party line is the State Department where most of the key officials working on Middle East affairs are now Jewish. People who spent years in private life urging policies such as recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital now are the lead spokesmen for the Arabist formulations of yesteryear.

Politics is politics. You have true heroes like Stu Eizenstat who has spent years negotiating agreements for Holocaust-related compensation, but even he has had to compromise in some instances to avoid upsetting the diplomatic applecart with key nations. Eizenstat is a classic example of someone who understands public service and will fight hard for his views, and often try to influence policies as a Jew, but recognizes that others make the final decisions and they often go against him. It is tempting to quit when things don’t go your way, but he takes the view that it is better to stay and fight another day.

It may be that many Jewish officials in Clinton’s Administration have pushed for things that have been overruled. They may prevent bad decisions from being made. Some of this will only come out when historians look back on these years. Think of the stories we now know about friends and advisers who influenced Truman to recognize the Jewish state and Johnson to sell arms to Israel. Certainly having a Jew as Vice President, especially one with Lieberman’s integrity and views, would be an asset, but his influence as a Jew will ultimately be much less than Jews want and anti-Semites fear.