Easy diversity from Lieberman to Brookline
Published in the Brookline
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
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
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
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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