The announcement of Joe Lieberman's candidacy for vice president has unleashed a torrent of joy. When the news first broke, American Jews breathlessly called one another to share the news. I was with some friends about to depart for the airport for an early morning plane when the phone rang. It was their daughter calling to tell us. We caught our breath and then let out a collective whoop.
Lieberman is not just any Jew. The prism through which his view of the world is refracted is a Jewish prism. Upon receiving the call from Al Gore, he recited the prayer for special occasions. When his wife, Hadassah Lieberman--herself the daughter of Holocaust survivors--praised this country for the opportunities it has given her and hailed the U.S. soldiers who rescued her mother after she was interned at Auschwitz and Dachau, I listened with tears in my eyes.
In the best of all possible worlds, rather than this deeply felt excitement, we should have greeted this news with a yawn. Most social barriers preventing Jews from moving into all segments of society have fallen. But this one still stood. When it came down for Lieberman, it came down for future generations of Jews, blacks, Latinos and others.
However, America's joy cannot be untempered, for his candidacy also has generated plain old garden variety anti-Semitism. Within minutes of the announcement, the Internet was flooded with anti-Semitic slurs and attacks.
The age-old canards about Jews controlling banks and the media, together with familiar charges about the "myth" of the Holocaust, were all heard. CNN and AOL, along with other message boards, banned some of them because of their vitriol. NAACP President Kweise Mfume correctly suspended the head of his Dallas chapter for expressing concern about Lieberman's candidacy because Jews' "interest primarily has to do with money."
These long-held stereotypes--expressions of hatred--are nothing new. What is new is the speed with which they were transmitted to millions, thanks to the Internet. Formerly they would have been shared only with a few other diehard anti-Semites and neo-Nazis. Now they were available to the world.
One could slough them off and say: In every generation, some rise up to spread their venom. Let us not give them the satisfaction of taking notice.
While it would be wrong to overreact and cast these people as something other than a small group of diabolical people who are consumed by hatred, it would be equally wrong to ignore them. I have just completed a five-year legal battle in England defending myself against libel charges brought by a man who is a confirmed Holocaust denier, racist and anti-Semite. Many people advised me to ignore him. After all, they reasoned, who takes his wacky views seriously?
Some people feared that this trial would give Holocaust deniers unprecedented publicity and would be a win-win situation for them. What they feared was that it would be a lose-lose for me and, by extension, for truth and memory and, particularly if they were Jews, for them.
I chose to fight for a variety of reasons. Because of the vagaries of British law, had I not fought him he would have won, i.e. his beliefs about the Holocaust, his anti-Semitism and his racism, would have been declared legitimate by the court. But that is not the main reason. One cannot fight every battle and confront every enemy. However, when this kind of enemy comes out of the woodwork and shows his true colors, one must respond.
AOL and CNN did the right thing. These kind of comments are the fuel that feeds the likes of a Buford O. Furrow Jr., who caused such pain and tragedy at the North Valley Jewish Community Center precisely one year ago. But the Furrows of this world, while causing great harm, are the minority. There are many well-educated, respectable people who quietly harbor anti-Semitic and racist sentiments. It is important that they understand that they live in a society that reacts to them with complete contempt.
Lieberman's selection as the Democratic vice presidential nominee has brought the reality of America more in line with the myths that have sustained this country since its founding. It has also given voice to ugly sentiments. Sadly, they too are part of America's reality. Let us celebrate the new reality even as we resolve to vigorously fight the other.