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entries tagged with: Joe Lieberman

 

Unseemly wrangling

 

In speech, Obama misses some Jewish priorities

WASHINGTON – Civility? Check. Clean energy? Check. Health care? Check. Immigration? Check. Education? You bet.

Isolating Iran? That’s in there.

Poverty, guns, reproductive rights? Israel? Ummm.…

President Obama’s State of the Union speech Tuesday night was as notable for what it excluded as what made it in.

News Analysis

Obama abjured the traditional checklist and delivered a speech centered on a grand theme, American renewal, after an election that left government splintered, with a Democratic White House and Senate and a Republican House of Representatives.

“What comes of this moment will be determined not by whether we can sit together tonight, but whether we can work together tomorrow,” the president said. “We will move forward together, or not at all, for the challenges we face are bigger than party and bigger than politics.”

That was a recipe for stirring rhetoric, but it left out the manna for groups that watch the speech to cheer on their special interests.

“What NCJW missed?” the National Council of Jewish Women tweeted on the Internet within seconds of the speech’s conclusion. “Mention of poor, middle class, reproductive rights, gun violence prevention — to name some.”

The absences were telling. Obama focused on areas where he might persuade the Republican-controlled House to join him. The missing pieces all portend clashes with the Republicans: There are increased demands to tighten regulations of automatic weapons in the wake of the shooting earlier this month in Tucson. Democrats want Obama to push back against a national Republican campaign to further restrict abortion rights. House Republicans have vowed to slash funding to the Palestinian Authority, a key element of Obama’s efforts to prop up moderates in the region.

Instead, Obama used the speech to emphasize bipartisan consensus issues, some of which are Jewish community priorities, too. He outlined a plan to boost education, including preparing 100,000 new teachers of science and technology and making a $10,000 tuition tax credit permanent. He called for 80 percent of electricity to be powered by “clean energy” by 2035 and for a million electric vehicles to be on the roads by 2015.

Obama did not entirely leave out liberal causes. He offered some compromise with the Republicans on health care, but he vowed to leave in place the coverage guarantees for people with preconditions, which became law with last year’s reform bill. Obama also pledged to revive his effort, failed in the last Congress, to create paths to citizenship for illegal immigrants who arrived in the United States as children.

He noted the success — spearheaded by Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) — in the final hours of the last Congress repealing the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” rule that kept gays from serving openly in the military.

Troops, he said, are “Christian and Hindu, Jewish and Muslim. And, yes, we know that some of them are gay. Starting this year, no American will be forbidden from serving the country they love because of who they love.”

The slew of brief Jewish organizational news releases late Tuesday and early Wednesday were reduced to praising the speech’s general tone. What they’re really waiting for are the details of the president’s budget, to be released at the beginning of February. The Jewish Federations of North America pleaded for special consideration for needs for the elderly.

“President Obama is right when he says we must be cautious of the deficit,” the Jewish Federations’ Washington director, William Daroff, said in a statement. “But there are certain social services that must be preserved now more than ever. Creating more crises for our seniors and poor is not the way to stop the crisis facing our nation.”

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs sought to highlight the issue of poverty.

“With the president’s budget forthcoming, we are anxious to see that he follows through on his call not to balance the budget on the backs of our most vulnerable,” the public policy umbrella group said in a statement. “President Obama must listen to his own advice and avoid a hatchet where a scalpel is called for.”

Obama reassured Americans that he would not touch Social Security except to “strengthen” it, which got him plaudits from B’nai B’rith International.

“The benefits to seniors are modest in the big picture, but a lifeline for too many individuals, and we must continue to provide benefits at fair levels,” B’nai B’rith said. “An across-the-board domestic spending freeze could have devastating results for many of our most vulnerable citizens.”

The Reform movement’s Religious Action Center set up a checklist on its website to comment on 10 signature issues as they came up in the speech. On at least five of them, including Israel, gun control, and Gulf Coast recovery, the RAC ended up regurgitating its past statements because they did not get a mention.

Israel was missing in his speech, but Obama noted his success in an area that pro-Israel groups consider key: isolating Iran.

“Because of a diplomatic effort to insist that Iran meet its obligations, the Iranian government now faces tougher and tighter sanctions than ever before,” he said.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, wanted to know what he planned to do going forward — and wondered why he didn’t mention other threats in the region.

“The president also did not mention the threat posed by Iran and Syria’s sponsorship of terrorism and efforts to undermine its neighbors, on the very day that the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis took a severe step to undermine Lebanon’s sovereignty,” she said in a statement.

Obama started by noting perhaps the most poignant element of the evening: The empty seat of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), recovering from being shot in the head in the Jan. 8 Tucson shooting that left six dead.

“As we mark this occasion, we are also mindful of the empty chair in this chamber, and pray for the health of our colleague and our friend Gabby Giffords,” Obama said.

TV stations cut later to a photo of Giffords’ husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, holding her hand in her Houston hospital room.

Marking the civil tone, lawmakers wore black and white ribbons, traditionally used to protest gun violence and in this case designated for the victims of the Tucson shooting.

Republicans and Democrats also sat together. Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), who since his freshman year in Congress in 1989 has arrived early to secure an aisle-side seat so he can be among the first to shake hands with the president, partnered this year with Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio.), who adopted the same habit in her freshman year, 2005.

The long hours spent watching out for their seats on the House floor have made the two buddies, despite ideological differences.

“In the wake of Tucson, and all the incivility, we want to make the place more civil, and we’ll be heated and passionate about it,” Engel told JTA before the speech.

Schmidt, grabbing Obama on his way out, made sure he signed her program for the evening and added: “Eliot needs one too! It’s bipartisan!”

JTA Wire Service

 
 

Joe Lieberman scaled political heights, but wants his legacy to be the Sabbath

Ron KampeasWorld
Published: 12 August 2011
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Sen. Joe Lieberman, right, shown visiting special operations forces in Afghanistan on July 4, says his strong Jewish faith leads him to forge an independent path, striking alliances with both parties. Sgt. Lizette Hart, U.S. Military Public Affairs, via Creative Commons

WASHINGTON – Call Joe Lieberman the unlikely evangelist.

The Independent senator from Connecticut — and the best-known Orthodox Jew in American politics — is probably more knowledgeable than most of his Jewish congressional colleagues about rabbinical interdictions against encouraging non-Jews to mimic Jewish ritual.

Yet here he is, about to release a book advising Christians and others not to drive to church, to welcome their Sabbath in the evening, to cut off the wired world, and to, umm, enjoy your significant other.

In a meeting with Lieberman in his Senate offices last week, before the Aug. 16 release date of his new book, “The Gift of Rest: Rediscovering the Beauty of the Sabbath,” he laughed at the term evangelical. But he also embraced it.

“In a way it is” evangelical, he said.

Not that he wanted to convert anyone, Lieberman emphasized.

“This gift, I wanted not only to share with Jews who are not experiencing it, who haven’t accepted it, but also in some measure to appeal to Christians to come back to their observance of their Sabbath on Sundays,” he said.

Lieberman does so in a surprisingly engaging read — surprisingly because books by politicians fronted by photos where they pose in studied, open-collared casualness are usually a recipe for a surfeit of encomia packed with feel-goodness but bereft of intellectual nourishment.

Instead, melding an unlikely array of tales ranging from 16th-century Safed to tension-soaked Republican and Democratic back rooms, Lieberman makes the case for a structured day of rest that offers freedom within iron walls.

The book also provides a glimpse into how religion shaped this most adamant of congressional centrists, whose stubborn hewing to his beliefs brought him within shouting distance of the vice presidency before propelling him toward the end of his political career (Lieberman announced in January that he will not seek re-election in 2012).

One potent example of Lieberman’s championing of freedom through restrictions is how the dictates of the holy day liberate him from his BlackBerry.

“Six days a week, I’m never without this little piece of plastic, chips, and wires that miraculously connect me to the rest of the world and that I hope makes me more efficient, but clearly consumes a lot of my time and attention,” he writes. “If there were no Sabbath law to keep me from sending and receiving e-mail all day as I normally do, do you think I would be able to resist the temptation on the Sabbath? Not a chance. Laws have this way of setting us free.”

As it turns out, this has been a book Lieberman has been considering for a while. He says the seeds of it reach as far back as his first run for state senator in 1970, when his Sabbath observance first created logistical problems for his campaign staff.

It emerged full force when Al Gore named him as his running mate in 2000. In Lacrosse, Wis., on a Saturday after the announcement, he found people coming out of their homes to greet him and wish him well as he walked to the local synagogue.

Conversations with Christians and their curiosity about his observance crystallized the idea for the book, he told JTA.

“This is something I thought about doing for a long time,” Lieberman said, “because the Sabbath has meant so much for me. It’s real been a foundation for my life.”

The book is published by Simon & Schuster’s Howard imprint in conjunction with OU Press. Lieberman co-wrote it with David Klinghoffer, a conservative (and Orthodox Jewish) columnist and author, and consulting with Rabbi Menachem Genack of Englewood, who runs the Orthodox Union’s kashrut division and with whom Lieberman takes a weekly telephone class.

Genack in an interview downplayed the book’s outreach to Christians.

“He really wants Jews to read it; he wants to bring the beauty of Shabbos to his own constituency,” Genack told JTA. “But that message and that beauty has a universal theme as well.”

Each chapter ends with a list of “simple beginnings” — practices that could launch a reader’s observance: “Turn off the TV, computer, cell phone, or all three”; light two candles; bless your children, “placing your hands on their head or shoulders”; and “consider choosing a congregation close enough that you can walk there and home again.”

In one chapter he describes God’s “brilliance” in mandating conjugal sex during the Sabbath.

Lieberman’s growth as an observant Jew and his frustrations and triumphs as a politician weave through the book. His Sabbath observance appears to be inextricable from his public career: He withdrew from observance at Yale University, writing in the book that he continued to lay tefillin because it was a private act, but Sabbath observance seemed too public for him.

It “interrupted the weekend social flow of college life,” he writes.

The death of his beloved maternal grandmother — his “Baba” — in 1967 returned him to the Sabbath observance of his upbringing. Within three years, at age 28 and with the campaigning skills of his Yale Law buddy Bill Clinton assisting him, he won his first elected office, Connecticut state senator.

“I began to see myself in the larger context of history,” Lieberman said. “I came back step by step to observance.”

In the book, he says his Sabbath observance “has made it easier for me to be different in my political life when being different is where my beliefs have taken me.”

His Jewish observance inevitably seeped into his public life, and he writes vividly of how it influenced his decision in 1998 to chastise Clinton from the Senate floor for the Monica Lewinsky episode. He recalls discussing with his family whether to be the first major Democrat to speak out. His four children said he should; Hadassah, his wife, was torn; his mother, who adored Clinton, urged him to keep silent.

In the end, his rebuke that the president’s behavior was “immoral” and “harmful” and “too consequential for us to walk away from” made history.

This break with the Democratic consensus helped lead Gore to choose him as a running mate in 2000; Lieberman represented a clean break with the scandals that had dogged Clinton.

Many of these episodes seem bittersweet. He writes of the celebratory Sabbath he shared with Al and Tipper Gore on Dec. 7, 2000, when the Florida Supreme Court ruled in favor of a recount that almost certainly would have propelled Gore to the presidency and Lieberman to the vice presidency. The Liebermans rushed to the Naval Observatory, the vice president’s residence, just in time for Shabbat candlelighting, and after dinner the two couples walked the mile or so back to the Lieberman home in Georgetown.

“It was a night when we felt at the door of history and also very close to these two fine people,” he writes, and stops there. It’s as if he can’t bring himself to the denouement: The door that history opened was not to occupancy of the Naval Observatory but to a profoundly divisive U.S. Supreme Court decision overruling the Florida court that would put George W. Bush in the White House.

It’s a fluke of the fates keenly felt by his friends; Genack corrects me when I call Lieberman “the first Jew on a major ticket.”

“He was the first Jew elected vice president,” he says. “He was elected vice president.”

The same bittersweet sense borne of lost opportunity informs another recounting in the book of a failed vice presidential bid. Staff for the McCain-Palin campaign urged Lieberman to give then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin a pep talk at a low point in the campaign, when she seemed unable to absorb the briefing material for her vice presidential debate with Joe Biden.

Lieberman talked of how the biblical Esther’s fate as a Jew differed from her destiny as a savior of Jews. The former was a covenant thrust upon her, while the latter was a covenant that handed her a choice. Palin, like Esther, now had a moment of choice: “The covenant of destiny is what we make of ourselves.”

Palin ate it up, he said.

How Lieberman concludes this tale, however, again suggests his frustration with history. The Republican candidate, his close friend Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), reportedly wanted to take Lieberman as a running mate, but the Republican establishment convinced McCain otherwise.

Lieberman recalls urging Palin to “use all the ability you have to take advantage of the moment and realize your destiny,” and then concludes, “And she did.”

Lieberman laughed when asked if what he meant was that losing was her destiny.

“I meant that she worked hard and did pretty well in the debate,” he said.

The book’s political content is hardly a settling of scores. If anything, it is what Israelis call a “heshbon nefesh,” an accounting of a soul.

Lieberman ends the Lewinsky episode by emphasizing that he did not vote for impeachment and regarded the former president as “capable of genuine goodness, even greatness.” He is effusive in his praise of Gore, although the former vice president shocked Lieberman by endorsing Howard Dean, Lieberman’s nemesis, in the 2004 election.

The book’s fond recollections of Democrats throughout — particularly Donna Brazile, Gore’s campaign manager — obscure his painful break with the party in 2006, when he lost his state’s primary election and ran for senator as an Independent. Oddly, that episode is not mentioned.

The decor in Lieberman’s Senate office is a testimony to the path he chose right through the center of America’s deeply partisan divide. Dominating the entry wall is an invitation to an 2006 event he once hosted marking the 1787 Connecticut Compromise that set up America’s bicameral parliament, and “compromise” defines the photos below it: One of Lieberman with George H.W. Bush, one with Bill Clinton, two each with George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

The magazine basket is topped with the conservative Weekly Standard; peeking out from beneath it is the liberal American Prospect.

Occasionally a regret seeps through: Describing the village-like atmosphere of his Washington synagogue, Lieberman notes in the book that he and a journalist he once regarded as a friend now barely exchange hellos and that another friend still chides him for voting to go to war with Iraq in 2002 — a war that most American Jews eventually came to oppose.

That’s not the only hint of the Joe Lieberman that has driven crazy many liberal American Jews who otherwise felt great pride in his rise. Lieberman praises John Hagee, the evangelical pastor who founded Christians United for Israel and whose excoriations of President Obama and other Democrats have turned off much of the Jewish establishment.

And there’s material to drive Jewish conservatives crazy. Explaining his Sabbath compromises, he says that voting for social welfare programs on Shabbat amounted to “pikuach nefesh,” saving of lives, which mandates violating Sabbath prohibitions.

Lieberman says he does not regret striking his own path down the middle.

“It’s certainly made me more productive as a senator,” he says.

Perhaps, but it was his closeness to Bush and his Iraq War advocacy that drove him out of contention for the presidential nomination in 2004. The legacy he now longs for, exemplified by this book, has supplanted the legacy that his independence cost him: first Jewish president.

“I feel that this book may be one of the most important things I do in my lifetime,” Lieberman said. “It’s from really inside me. I hope it affects people’s lives.”

JTA Wire Service

 
 
 
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