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CAMPAIGN 2000

In Israel, Pride Gives Way to Analysis of Lieberman Choice

Religion: Some doubt he would have as much political success in their homeland, where his brand of Orthodox Judaism is under attack from both the right and left.

August 16, 2000|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JERUSALEM — In a country where governments can fall over violation of the Sabbath, Israeli leaders know a thing or two about balancing Jewish observance and public life, a challenge that Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman also faces.

Israeli reporters remember the incident in which former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a secular Jew, was dining with his wife, Sara, at New York's Essex House during one of several trips to the U.S. A reporter approached to ask a question at the same time a waitress arrived bearing two helpings of shrimp salad.

"We didn't order that!" a flustered Netanyahu quickly railed at the befuddled waitress, who was dispatched back to the kitchen to produce a more acceptable kosher dish.

And everyone remembers the frantic meeting between Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Pope John Paul II on a Friday afternoon near the Sea of Galilee in March. Barak rushed through the formalities and a hasty chat with the pontiff before bounding off to an awaiting helicopter that delivered him to his in-laws' nearby home--two minutes before the beginning of Shabbat. Phew.

Israelis rejoiced when Vice President Al Gore chose Lieberman as his running mate. "Gore Picks 'One of Us' for VP," proclaimed the liberal Israeli daily Haaretz. "A Jew for the White House," opined the Jerusalem Post.

The initial burst of pride was followed by days of--what else--self-analysis about what the success of a Modern Orthodox Jew in America means for the faith and for Israeli Jews.

Some Israelis See U.S. as More Tolerant

In some quarters, there was no small amount of ruing the fact that the U.S. tolerance and spirit of pluralism that allows a Joe Lieberman to flourish does not exist here. His brand of Orthodoxy has not had much success in Israel, under attack from both the secular left and the powerful ultra-Orthodox far right.

"Lieberman is a true reflection of a community whose members believe that there is more than one way to be a Jew," Haaretz's Nitzan Horowitz wrote this week, "that 'real Jews' are not necessarily those who attack women praying in prayer shawls at the Western Wall.

"In America," he went on wistfully, "no one has a monopoly over Judaism and no type of Jew takes priority over any other."

Rabbi David Rosen, a Modern Orthodox Jew who heads the office in Israel of the Anti-Defamation League, said Lieberman represented precisely the kind of image of Judaism that ought to be promoted, respectful of both the laws of his God and the laws of man.

"The paradox is that the leaders of the ultra-Orthodox in Israel who are glowing at his nomination would not be delighted to have him here as a local politician because he'd be too liberal for them," Rosen said.

Lieberman's success gives an important boost to "enlightened Judaism's internal struggle with ultra-Orthodoxy," Rosen said, illustrated in Israel by the festering tensions between a Modern Orthodoxy committed to civil society and democracy, and an ultra-Orthodoxy that only nominally tolerates Western political values.

If Lieberman were a politician in Israel, Rosen said, he'd be an Avraham Burg or an Elyakim Rubinstein, kippa-wearing, religiously observant officials who are successful but who stand out as rare examples. Burg, who is speaker of the parliament, and especially Rubinstein, Israel's attorney general, frequently come under attack from the ultra-Orthodox for not being "Jewish enough" and for resisting efforts to impose a theocracy in the Jewish state.

Ultra-Orthodox leaders, especially in recent days, have not exactly served as paradigms of tolerance. Last week, the most powerful religious figure in Israel, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, branded Holocaust victims "sinners," Arabs "snakes" and Barak "brainless."

For secular Jews, the nomination of Lieberman also held surprises and forced reexamination of standard beliefs.

Those schooled in the traditional Zionist way of thinking, that only a Jewish homeland can make Jews safe, had to come to terms with the uniquely American experience, said David Clayman, the representative in Israel of the American Jewish Congress.

"Most Israelis subscribe to the theory that Jews are at risk in the diaspora," Clayman said. "This has rocked them back on their heels. They are agog that this kind of thing can happen. It's been an eye-opener for many Israelis."

Israeli newspaper, radio and television broadcasts have given daily coverage to Lieberman and his wife, Hadassah, ever since word of his nomination leaked out.

Israeli commentators celebrated the "friend in high places" that the Jewish state would have. Others cautioned that Lieberman, while consistently supportive of Israel, can't be expected to back the Jewish state automatically on every issue. Zeev Schiff, a military affairs specialist, reported that Lieberman personally warned Barak not to go ahead with the sale of AWACS-style jets to China.

Lieberman 'a Friend of Israel,' Barak Aide Says

Barak telephoned Lieberman earlier this week to congratulate him and update him on where the Middle East peace process stood, according to the prime minister's spokesman. Barak and Lieberman have met several times, including during the recently failed Camp David summit.

"He, like others in the American political arena, is a friend of Israel," said the spokesman, Gadi Baltiansky. "We consider him, and others, to be a friend."

But Palestinians reacted nervously to the Lieberman choice.

Noting that he once described Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat as the "villain" of the Middle East peace process, numerous Palestinian and Arab leaders expressed concern about the Democrat's presumptive nomination. They said they hope Lieberman won't distort Arab-American relations, which improved somewhat under President Clinton.

"I just hope the Democratic Party . . . will try to be evenhanded in the peace process," said Hanan Ashrawi, a frequent spokeswoman for the Palestinians.

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