On the cover this week ...
May 17, 2013
Lieberman is driven by faith
Woulda, coulda, shoulda been first Jewish vice-president.
From the time he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1988, Joseph Lieberman was known for his determination to keep Shabbat, even when it made serving in public life a challenge. In 2000, when Al Gore tapped him to be his vice-presidential running mate, Lieberman became probably the most high-profile observant Jew in American public life.
Among Lieberman’s several books is The Gift of Rest: Rediscovering the Beauty of the Sabbath, written with David Klinghoffer, which explores the importance of Shabbat. These reflections will form part of Lieberman’s presentation when he speaks on Sunday, June 2, in an event to mark the 10th anniversary at Congregation Schara Tzedeck of Rabbi Andrew Rosenblatt and Dr. Cirelle Rosenblatt.
“My religious observance and my faith have really been the foundation of my life so, in a real sense, it’s been the base from which I have been able to do everything else I’ve been able to do, including public service,” Lieberman told the Independent in a telephone interview last week. “It gives me perspective and context and hopefully some good values to guide me as I go along, but, in a broader sense, my experience as an observant Jew in American politics … makes the point of how wonderfully – not just tolerant, but accepting – the American people are.”
Lieberman said he has never experienced antisemitism in his political career. There was a sprinkling of antisemitic commentary on the Internet, he said, just after his nomination for vice-president, but his experience on the campaign trail was quite the opposite.
“If anything, the surprise was how warmly I was greeted,” said Lieberman, who retired from the Senate last January. “There was a secret service agent assigned to my campaign and he had worked other national campaigns and for other candidates over the years and he said, ‘You know, I’ve never heard as many people say, “God bless you,” to a candidate as say it to you, and I assume most of these people are not Jewish, and I think what they’re saying is that they respect your religious observance and they feel a connection to you, even though most of them are not Jewish and probably Christian.’ I think that was a very accurate and really inspiring insight.”
About such reactions, Lieberman added, “I always say to young people that I talk to, Jewish or not Jewish, that you’re lucky to be growing up in America – and I would say it’s true of Canada, from all that I know of Canada, too – at a time when, whatever your religion, you will not have to choose between observance of your religion and your secular career goals. Obviously, that has not always been the case,” he said. “As a matter of fact, for most of history it has not been the case. So, we’re a very lucky, and I might say blessed, generation.”
Lieberman explained how his religiosity impacted his work in a country with a firm yet amorphous dedication to separation of religion and state.
“I don’t call my rabbi to ask him how I should vote on something,” he said. “But when a person in elective office makes decisions, either on how to vote or on policies in different parts of the world, including the Middle East, it’s the result of many factors. Some of it has to do in my case with my own longtime reading of history and some of it has to do, of course, with the experiences I’ve had in life that are great teachers. But some of it does have to do with the values that I learned from my religion and, in some sense, the values and lessons that come out of the narrative of the Bible.”
The 2000 presidential victory by George W. Bush was ultimately decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, which ended the ballot counting in Florida that would have put Gore and Lieberman in the White House. Lieberman is sanguine about those events, but admitted some delight at recent comments by Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor that the Supreme Court should not have taken up and decided the case.
“That was very cathartic for me,” Lieberman said. “I was fascinated with her statement … but neither her comments, nor my feelings are going to change what happened at the end of the 2000 election.
“By my nature, and also by lessons I learned from my parents that life is not about yesterday, but about today and tomorrow, I went on and, thank God, I’ve had a very productive and happy 12 or 13 years since then. But, I will always feel grateful for the opportunity that Al Gore gave me to run for vice-president, grateful to the American people for the way they accepted my candidacy, and just very upset by the way it ended, with the Supreme Court decision of five-to-four, as opposed to actually counting the votes that were cast in Florida,” he said, adding with a laugh: “So in that sense, Justice O’Connor’s comments were, I guess, somewhat pleasing.”
Returning to the Senate, Lieberman was an early and strong proponent of the war in Iraq, a position that helped cost him the Democratic nomination for re-election as senator from Connecticut in 2006. He contested the general election as an independent and won, serving a final term before announcing that he would not run again in 2012. He remains firm in his views on Iraq, while admitting failures in the war’s execution.
“I believe still, as I look back, that we were right to go into Iraq, the U.S. was right to go into Iraq and that the region, the country, the world are better off without Saddam Hussein,” he said. “Some really serious mistakes were made after Saddam Hussein was thrown out of office, out of the presidency, which ended up costing America and Iraq dearly in loss of life and, in our case, expenditure of a lot of money. But, ultimately, I also feel that it would have had terrible effects on the country – that is, Iraq – and on our credibility as the leader of the world, for us to have left in defeat. So, I’m glad that we hung in there, that the surge was adopted by President Bush, implemented largely by Gen. [David] Petraeus. Frankly, I wish we had still left some more troops there, a small number, as a message to inhibit some of the people right now, led by al-Qaeda in Iraq, that are trying to create terrible sectarian strife and civil war in that country. Bottom line: our intentions were good, some of our implementation, operations, were bad but, ultimately, I think we had to stay until we could leave without suffering a terrible defeat.”
As the senator for Connecticut, Lieberman felt particularly keenly the pain of the families who lost loved ones in the Newtown school shooting that killed 20 children, seven adults plus the murderer, in December. And he has harsh words for his congressional colleagues on the issue of gun control.
“The U.S. has a lot to learn from Canada and a lot of other countries on this subject,” he said. “I think, so far, Congress has performed in a way that was, really, more than disappointing for me, it was both really both offensive and embarrassing. Usually in political debates, I try to understand the arguments of people on the other side from me, and very often I can understand them, although I disagree with them.”
In this case, he said, he cannot understand how anyone could oppose the extension of background checks that already apply to purchases through federally licensed firearms dealers to purchases of firearms at gun shows or via the Internet.
“Part of it is the NRA [National Rifle Association], which organizes, and some of the other gun rights advocacy groups,” Lieberman said. “Part of it is that a lot of members of Congress feel that it’s not just the NRA, but they feel there are a lot of people in their states or districts who really care about their right to own guns. And I understand that, and I’ve felt that, even here in Connecticut.”
However, he said, political leaders need to show courage. None of the proposals – from the failed attempt to ban the sale of automatic military assault weapons to the similarly failed efforts to extend the background check requirements for gun purchasers – would limit the constitutionally protected right to own guns.
“You have to have the courage to stand up,” he said. “Congress has the ability to draw lines. None of these will at all affect your right to continue to own the guns that you own, so it’s been a very disappointing reaction to Newtown at the federal level, Congress. I hope that a compromise is going to come soon, that people of both parties can support. I know that some of my former colleagues in the Senate are working on that. I hope they’re successful.”
Lieberman has never been to Vancouver, but will not see much of it, having to return home quickly after the event to see his 14-year-old granddaughter graduate from middle school. He said he is particularly pleased to join Schara Tzedeck in marking the 10th anniversary of the rabbi and his family.
“This Congregation Schara Tzedeck has a very impressive and proud history and I’m honored to be asked to be there on this special occasion,” said Lieberman.
Pat Johnson is a Vancouver writer and principal in PRsuasiveMedia.com.
VisionTV airs Martin Himel’s Jew Bashing.
“The politically correct formula for peace in the Middle East is Israel giving up occupied territory in return for peace with the Arab world. But that plan is ignoring the elephant in the Mideast living room – antisemitism is making a big comeback in the region. Jews are now responsible for every calamity, from disease in Pakistan to putting a spell on [Osama] bin Laden so that he’ll attack America.”
So begins the first episode of veteran journalist Martin Himel’s four-part documentary series Jew Bashing: The New Anti-Semitism, which aired May 6 on VisionTV. Himel’s introduction offers only a hint of what’s to come. For anyone who doubts that antisemitism is a serious problem, Himel takes viewers to the Middle East (Pakistan, Egypt, Iran and the Gaza Strip), Europe (France, Sweden and the United Kingdom), the United States and Canada. He not only interviews proud and open antisemites and racists, but his film team also capture with hidden cameras what has gone on in, for example, Amnesty International offices and during the Occupy AIPAC conference. Not one prone to panic or assume the worst, it was intense to watch such hatred and ignorance, and to see just how much of both exists.
Himel’s biography is extensive and impressive. As a foreign correspondent for more than 20 years and as a documentary filmmaker, he has reported from around the world, his work appearing on international news outlets too numerous to name. His film company Elsash Productions Ltd.’s credits include the documentaries Persecuted Christians, North Korea: Desperate or Deceptive, Angels with Broken Wings and Jenin: Massacring Truth, and television series Infidelity, Twist of Faith and Foreign Correspondent. On the usually taboo subjects of politics and religion, Himel is obviously not shy.
“Faith is a universal motif in our world,” Himel told the Independent about what draws him to such topics. “Wherever you go on the globe, people believe in something, someone, some concept. Faith drives politics, arts, even love relationships. I have explored the impact of faith on the sick in America, the oppressed Muslims in China, the spirit women in Thailand trying to defend their hill tribe. In our series on infidelity, we have explored the interplay of theological belief and infidelity – where do morals conflict with the dilemmas of love and loyalty.
“Certainly, belief also plays a role in the new antisemitism,” he continued. “Antisemites may not be active believers and may not necessarily look at God as the ultimate arbiter anymore, but the legacy of thousands of years of antisemitism fueled by theology leaves an impact to this day.”
What’s perhaps unique about the Jew Bashing series is that it goes beyond exposing the words of antisemitism, and shows in stark images antisemitic views being acted upon – in angry protest, in violence, in harassment – and its effects: fear, high security, etc.
“I have seen many documentaries on antisemitism,” explained Himel about how the idea for Jew Bashing came about. “Most are boring, highbrow, and show no antisemitism. They have analysis and victims of antisemitism.
“This spawned my idea of documenting and capturing antisemitism, showing it on camera, and let the hatred permeate. This project took two years. So far, we have versioned a four-part series for Canada. We have also created a one-hour version that has now broadcast in Israel on the main Channel 2 network.”
In Jew Bashing, some people interviewed are unabashedly antisemitic and racist, while others express their views openly only behind closed doors, in a meeting of like-minded people, for example. A faint-hearted reporter might be concerned about the reaction to the documentary by those whose hateful views were filmed covertly.
“I am not worried,” said Himel. “I have accurately portrayed these people. Their comments simply speak for themselves. They have not been taken out of context. We made sure of this.”
It is interesting in this respect, given the changes in technology, that anyone would think that something they say behind closed doors will not be broadcast to a wider audience. It is also interesting to see how so many people become righteously indignant and dismissive when asked politely to explain their views. Himel and his crew receive a violent reception more than once when filming a rally, and rocks are thrown at the car, breaking their back window and almost injuring one of the crew, when they try to enter a neighborhood that has been having problems with antisemitism.
“I worked for over 20 years as a foreign news television correspondent for CTV, Global and Fox television in the U.S.A. I have covered wars in the Mideast, the Balkans revolution, and upheaval in Romania and in South Africa, and managed to get into North Korea to do a documentary,” offered Himel when asked how investigative journalism has changed over the course of his career. “In the 1980s, before the Internet and before technical capabilities enhanced missiles and roadside bombs, conflicts were violent but more manageable to cover. Today, weapons are far more deadly and, with the Internet, combatants can know much more about a journalist than before. That can make him/her into a vulnerable target. On the other hand, with smartphones, there are tens of thousands of camerapeople in every conflict. Take the Syrian civil war – the most astounding visuals come from the people who live in the cities and simply point their smartphones at the turmoil and upload the videos online. This has changed everything with coverage. Nothing can be hidden anymore from public scrutiny.”
In Jew Bashing, Alan Dershowitz mentions fighting bad ideas with good ideas, but otherwise the series is mainly descriptive of the enormity of the problem rather than prescriptive regarding potential solutions.
“You have to manage antisemitism,” Himel told the Independent. “It cannot be eradicated. It is totally illogical. The best way to manage antisemitism is to expose it, and for people not to stand silent when they experience antisemitism. The concept of ‘don’t make waves,’ ‘this nonsense will pass,’ ‘these are only marginal idiots,’ has proven wrong. That is what they said about a funny little man with a moustache who mounted the failed Munich Putsch in the 1920s and was sent to jail. He ran an oddball group called the Nazis in cultured Germany. If you still don’t get it – that was Adolph Hitler.”
The second episode of Jew Bashing – dealing with antisemitism in Europe – aired May 13. Still to come are the episodes on the United States (May 20), in which Himel interviews some ardent antisemitic and racist webmasters, all of whom, perhaps coincidentally, live in small, predominantly white American towns; and on Canada (May 27), where Himel travels across the country, interviewing both antisemites and those who are trying to counter such views within the United Church, on the Internet and in Montreal and Vancouver, where antisemitism and anti-Zionism mix in attempts to shut down via protest retail stores that sell Israeli products.
Jew Bashing is part of a VisionTV focus on exposing extremism, which also includes other programming, including Persecuted Christians, The War on Faith: Religious Persecution Around the World, Facing Extremism and Jews and Money: Investigation of a Myth. For more information, visit visiontv.ca/jew-bashing.
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