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Easy diversity from Lieberman to Brookline 

Published in the Brookline TAB

August 24, 2000


Some Jewish Brookliners are worried about Joe Lieberman. That's true all across the country, for Jews of all affiliations. His impact on the presidential race remains unclear, but perhaps Lieberman's vice-presidential candidacy can help focus our attention on the nature of diversity right here at home.

A number of concerns have made their way into the media. Some Jews are distressed that the Orthodox Lieberman exposes to public view traditional Judaism's extensive departure from mainstream culture. Some squirm when Lieberman's many references to God sound just like those on the Christian right. And some fear the nation's highest-profile Jewish politician will set a standard for public observance that most American Jews rejected long ago.

Politically, the Connecticut Senator's pro-corporate views and conservative instincts are at least as retrograde as the born-again Al Gore's aim-for-the-middle timidity; his touted morality is more situational than consistent. Despite common stereotypes, there are politically progressive observant Jews who take social justice seriously; I'm just sorry Lieberman's not one of them.

Yet on an emotional level, I'm at least pleased that when the first Jewish national candidate talks about things Jewish he'll probably know what he's talking about.

Having an observant Jew in the public eye offers another benefit: a test of mainstream America's tolerance for diversity. Despite the many declarations that Lieberman's religion "is not an election issue," a lot of people will fail the test. Having lived in the relatively Jewless Midwest and South, I suspect Lieberman will cost Gore more votes than he attracts. Fringe-group anti-Semitism is already on the rise.

Still, the Lieberman diversity test is just a mid-level test. It is harder than the one a more assimilated Jew would offer. The public is used to Jews who have turned their religion into just another variant of the Great American Religion. Jewishness that doesn't go much further than Sunday morning bagels and looking-like-church temples wouldn't be much of a test at all.

But it's easier than the test offered by someone like Ralph Nader's running mate, Native American Winona LaDuke, whose racial and cultural departure from US norms has implications for public policy that Lieberman's Sabbath observance does not. Even Pat Buchanan's veep is an African American woman.

Despite all the hoopla and the risk of backlash, Gore's selection of Lieberman is a safe political move. He gets points for picking someone differing ethnically and religiously from the vast majority, thus letting Americans trumpet their growing maturity while spouting superficial affirmations of traditional values.

Beyond labels, though, Lieberman is reassuringly bland: an average-looking, intelligent, white male lawyer who doesn't even wear a yarmulke (a decision criticized by some Orthodox Jews who also think Lieberman finds too many excuses to work on Shabbos).

Importantly, Lieberman's moral and religious persona coincides with our era's dominant cultural norms--especially when people remember to call the United States a "Judeo-Christian country" rather than a Christian one (though not yet a Judeo-Christian-Muslim-Buddhist-Hindu one, even though Muslims already outnumber Jews, and Asian immigrants inexorably alter the religious balance).

Here in Brookline, a rare town where Jewishness is a political plus, the nomination offers food for thought.

Just as Lieberman's selection lets America claim too easily that it's now more tolerant, Brookline's claim to diversity remains more technically correct than politically meaningful. I've noted before the town's lack of Latinos and African Americans and our failure to ensure significant economic diversity.

Equally troubling, our many multicultural milestones--the languages, the foods, the many Asians and Russians--mask the degree to which Brookline's tone is set by a pretty homogeneous group.

From the Selectmen to the School Committee to the Transportation Board to the Advisory Committee, from Future Search to Town Meeting, from PAX to PIP to CARE, almost every town decision maker is a native-born, white, middle-aged or older well-off property owner, often Jewish. This unrepresentative uniformity affects priorities from development to parking to the Emerson Park summer concert music selections.

It's time we stopped taking credit for diversity without the political substance. Let's leave exaggerated claims to the Democratic ticket.

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