- The Washington Times - Friday, August 11, 2000

Forty years ago, Democrats met in Los Angeles to choose a presidential nominee whose religion was a controversial issue in American politics. They return next week to the same city with religion once again in the consciousness of America.

Al Gore's bold choice of Sen. Joseph Lieberman as his running mate puts religion front and center in American political life. As the first Jewish American on a national ticket, and an observant Jew at that, Mr. Lieberman's presence on the Democratic ticket provides the country with an opportunity to decide whether faith the kind of serious faith some have mocked in George W. Bush should a barrier to national office.

Forty years ago, when John F. Kennedy won the Democratic nomination, his Catholic faith was an issue of controversy. Kennedy tackled the question head on. In his acceptance speech in Los Angeles, he declared, "I hope that no American, considering the really critical issues facing this country, will waste his franchise by voting either for me or against me solely on account of my religious affiliation. It is not relevant."

In the end, Kennedy's faith was no barrier to winning the White House. Similarly, religion shouldn't be a barrier to Joe Lieberman becoming the next vice president.

Why? Because no other country has shined its countenance upon the Jewish people as has America. In the historical memories of millions of Jewish Americans, this country has been the haven from oppression. Jews have fled to these shores from czars, fuhrers, dictators, and others who have threatened our very existence. Every Jewish family has a story of a grandfather, grandmother, uncle or aunt who escaped to America one step ahead of a Cossack or apparachik.

When we arrived here, we did not just survive, but thrived, even in such unlikely places as Waco, Texas, my home town. Jewish America is a success story. In every sector of society, with the possible exception of professional football, the presidency and vice presidency, Jews have scaled the heights.

Yes, there have been ugly incidents of anti-Semitism. But what has been so remarkable about the Jewish experience in America has been the absence of anti-Jewish incidents compared to any other nation in which Jews have lived.

My own family experience has underscored to me the uniqueness of America for my fellow Jews. My grandfather came to America at the turn of the century from Poland. He worked in the needle trades in New York City and then got a hot tip that there were good times in Texas, where he spent the rest of his life. He and my family thrived in the "belt buckle" of the Baptist Bible belt.

My grandfather would probably be chagrined that his grandson would someday become the Jewish legislative director of the Christian Coalition. But that proves the point. If a Jew can become an official of the Christian Coalition, is it such a stretch that a Jew could become vice president of the United States? Talk about, "What's a nice Jewish boy doing in a place like that?"

I can recall, as a kid, sitting in my living room watching television as my parents debated whether a particular actor or political figure was Jewish. I thought my parents were mishuga because it seemed to me their religion was irrelevant. To me, the point was they were all Americans. Yet, my parents had the historical memory from their parents in the old country of how unique it was for Jews to be tolerated in highly visible positions in society.

Race still divides Americans. Religion rarely does. Perhaps, the memories of the Holocaust have restricted anti-Semitism to the fever swamps of American life. American GIs saw first-hand the result of anti-Jewish hatred when they liberated Nazi extermination camps. While there have been noted anti-Semites in our politics, they have been relegated to the fringes. Scores of Jews have been elected to every office from mayor to senator.

In the next weeks, the random anti-Semitic crank will undoubtedly attack Mr. Lieberman's religion. But I suspect his devout orthodox faith will actually attract many Americans who are looking to restore dignity to the White House. Consider the words of Mr. Lieberman in his recently published book, "In Praise of Public Life" "I think there is much more to this turn toward faith among presidential candidates than political strategy. I see it as a sincere reflection of the need the American people have to rebuild around themselves what has come to feel like a crumbling moral framework in the life of our nation."

These words reflect a sentiment that is widespread in American life. Indeed, the great paradox is that Mr. Lieberman's orthodox Jewish faith is potentially a great political strength, rather than a weakness, in a prosperous country that is seriously concerned about a coarsened culture.

As a precocious seven-year-old political junkie, I noticed my Catholic neighbors' pride when John Kennedy ran and became president in 1960. Now, I'm full of pride that a Jew could assume the second highest office in the land. It's the Jewish JFK moment.

Now even a Jewish mother can dream of boasting about "My son, the vice president!"

Marshall Wittmann is director of Senate relations at The Heritage Foundation.

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