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Lieberman excommunicated by rabbi


Reply-To: H-NET History of Antisemitism List
Sender: H-NET History of Antisemitism List
From: Albert S. Lindemann
List Editor: Richard S Levy

Sunday, August 20, 2000

I completely concur that we must restrict our discussion of Lieberman to issues having implications for antisemitism. I think there are a great many such implications, some obvious, some less so. Let me address first the point made by Milton Goldin, that fear of being charged with antisemitism will inhibit a free discussion of Lieberman's record and candidacy -- certainly a disturbing notion, one with antisemitic implications. (It is of course related to the point that Milton made earlier that criticism of Jews by Jews themselves is often labeled "self-hating.")

According to an article in the Forward, published on Aug. 4, before Sen. Joseph Lieberman was tapped as the Democratic vice-presidential nominee, a curse is to be put on him by a prominent New York rabbi, Mordechai Friedman, host and producer of a t.v. program, "Judaism, The Series." The excommunication is to be pronounced today (August 20). Moreover, Rabbi Friedman has denounced Lieberman as a "moser" (informer to the Gentiles); according to Rabbi Friedman, citing Maimonides, "it is both a commandment and a mitzvah to kill an informer. In fact, the person who does so is meritorious."

This has a chilling resemblance to the charges against Rabin by ultra-Orthodox rabbis in Israel before his assassination. I am a little surprised that in the endless discussions of Lieberman's candidacy, no other newspaper (at least none that I have seen) has even mentioned Rabbi Friedman. Were a Christian minister, producing a t.v. program entitled "Christianity, The Series," to have made comparable statements, I think it is a fair assumption that he would be getting quite a bit of coverage, even if it were recognized that he was a sectarian without a large following

And if Farrakhan (again, a man with a small following) had made them, we would be seeing bold headlines. I agree with Milton Goldin that this apparent double standard could turn in antisemitic directions. The issue of how much of a following Friedman actually has is uncertain; a spokesperson for him, Rabbi Yerachmiel Ha Levy of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla, who directs activities in the South for followers of Friedman, reported to Forward reporters that Friedman

speaks for all of us, and I believe that most Orthodox rabbis agree with Rabbi Freedman but they're afraid to voice them on their own.

Not only are commentators chary of saying anything negative about Judaism (or what a given rabbi claims to be Judaism), polls are suggesting that more voters consider Lieberman's Jewishness to be actually a positive rather than a negative matter (though most simply say it makes no difference). In an Newsweek article by Jonathan Alter, entitled "Post Seinfeld America" (August 31, pp. 32) the point is made that a Jew in a prominent position of national politics is no longer "a big deal." Alter also notes the irony, the historical reversal, in the extent to which a Jew is now considered a "purifying" factor -- cleansing the Democratic Party of its association with Clintonite moral depravity -- whereas in the past the charge has been that Jews were themselves the polluters, that Jews undermined a nation.

Alter does not much pursue the implications of the title of his article. He notes that Seinfeld has sensitized non-Jewish Americans to Jewish issues, but I think he misses a much larger point, for in fact Americans have long been sensitized to Jewish issues; what the Seinfeld series came to epitomize is the extent to which Jews are no longer "other" in the consciousness of non-Jewish Americans. Jerry, Elaine, Kramer -- they all are "like us" (and, by the way, in a very ordinary, comfortable, and not particularly heroic or high moral sense). And indeed there is more that Alter neglected: The Seinfeld series regularly mocked Jewish oversensitivity -- Uncle Leo who suspected antisemitism when his hamburger was overcooked, or Jerry who was charged with being an "anti-dentite" when he made disparaging comments about dentists (his dentist informed him "you don't know how we have suffered").

What Rabbi Friedman's curse brings up is the possibility that Jews, especially Orthodox Jews, might be considered "other" after all (or perhaps, to use the omnipresent word by the under-30 crowd, "weird"). His curse, by the way, had to do with the fact that Lieberman (a "traitor" to the Jewish people) had signed a petition last year urging Clinton not to include a pardon for convicted spy Jonathan Pollard in any peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.

The Pollard case, which Norman Podhoretz in an OpEd piece after Pollard's arrest and conviction (nearly fifteen years ago), described as a "Zionist's nightmare" is more broadly a Jewish American's nightmare -- a revival of the Rosenberg case, with no doubt about Pollard's guilt. Will this case be coming up again for extensive discussion? And can those Jews agitating for his release really be "like us"? (Lieberman of course is not vulnerable on this issue -- except with other Jews -- but the issues surrounding the Pollard case almost inevitably will haunt any Jewish candidate, as will the Israeli connection, one that divides Americans, Jews and non-Jews, much more bitterly than in the past).

Presidential campaigns have a way of getting dirty and ruthless, especially in their last weeks. Can we expect that Lieberman's Judaism will permanently shield him from harsh criticism, fair or unfair -- especially if the Republicans fear they may lose? Are there any messy details to Lieberman's divorce? And what about the large sums of money that he has allegedly accepted from the Cuban exile community (and his votes in their favor)? It can only be expected that a man who has been presented as a moral paragon will be held to very high (if not impossible) standards.

And can we really be confident that Americans, now being massively instructed, as one rabbi put it, in "Judaism 101", will not recoil at certain aspects of Orthodox belief and practice? Such a recoil seems even more likely when presented by those who seek to embarrass Lieberman and undermine his candidacy -- preferably toward the end of the campaign, when adequate rebuttal or clarification will not be feasible. And just how many Friedman types -- to say nothing of Pollard types -- are there finally in America? Will that question now be asked more often and urgently? And has Lieberman dealt adequately with the myriad of problems that promise to arise from his observance of the Sabbath? Will the Secret Service approve his plans to the inauguration -- especially when a rabbi has said that killing him will be a mitzvah? And what would be the impact if Jewish assassins not only succeed in killing the prime minister of Israel but the United States vice-presidential candidate?

I am personally optimistic in most of these regards; Lieberman has after all been a senator for some time, and he has already faced many of these questions -- with very great success, it seems. More than that, he projects warmth and has a good sense of humor. That he does not wear a kippa in public (or his wife cover her hair) is in many ways symbolic of an Orthodoxy that is not particularly "visible" (except of course to those other Orthodox Jews who complain that modern Orthodoxy as practiced by the Liebermans is no Orthodoxy at all). And it seems that he has found in the doctrine of pikuakh nefesh a potentially open door, in that as a national leader, he can argue that protection of human life comes into play, at least potentially, in nearly everything he might do, any day of the week. And he shakes hands with women.

(Oops: a question from the "students" in Judaism 101: "What's that you say? Why wouldn't he shake hands with women?" Because touching a woman's hand might awaken lustful urges, just as seeing a woman's hair might. Or because the woman might be unclean, in her menstrual period. "Oh. [huh?]" "And what was that you were saying about a moser? And what, again, is a radef? And what did Rabbi Yosef Ovadia say about Holocaust victims? And explain again why Pollard sold secrets to the Israelis? And why can't Lieberman drink wine made by a Gentile? And what does the Talmud say about Jesus Christ? And will you go over again what you said about niddah, shekhita, mamzeroth, agunoth?)

How far any of this kind of questioning will reach a national audience is impossible to say, but one does wonder how much of "Judaism 101" can be suitably digested by the guys down at the local tavern -- what will they make of it all, especially as if filters down through the national media?

This could be a very interesting campaign (though I hope not in the sense of the old Chinese curse: "May you live in interesting times").

Albert S. Lindemann


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