BATON ROUGE, LA — When Joseph Lieberman was chosen by Al Gore to be his vice presidential running mate, I, like many Jews, felt a particularly Jewish blend of pride and wariness.
Undoubtedly it is something grand - as it was for the Irish, the Catholics, and the country in 1960 - for the first of any group to attain the status of president or even vice president. In a positive sense then, the selection of Mr. Lieberman seems confirmation that we have arrived and are fully accepted in American society: The last barrier is broken.
Jewish history has, however, too many cautionary tales of overconfidence that a society has truly opened all its doors and embraced us as fellow citizens. We have learned and earned a rightful sense of paranoia.
All the so-called golden ages of the Jews - such as those during the ministry of Joseph, the kingdom of the House of David, pre-reconquest Christian and Muslim Spain, medieval Poland, and late 19th-century Europe - were preceded by expulsions and massacres.
Anti-Semitism has had many faces. Powerful demagogues have made accusations that Jews are "power hungry" and "gold diggers." German fascists alleged, correctly, that most Communist leaders were Jews. Mainstream Jews retorted that those famous Jewish communists - like Marx, Trotsky, and Lazar Kaganovich - were in fact deracinated atheists who did much to destroy Jewish religion and persecute Jews.
The very wealthy and powerful Jewish financiers on the European stage, like Rothchilds and
Bleichroders, were also exceptions, not the rule. Most Jews were poor or middle class.
It's inevitable that in the smash-and-trash politics of today's America, Lieberman will be attacked in public by open Jew-haters and grumbled at in private by a more vast number of Americans of all colors and political stripes who will continue to harbor resentment against "powerful" Jews.
Nevertheless, Lieberman may actually deflect another charge of anti-Semitism, one in which Jews are portrayed as monolithically left wing.
This is a fallacy. For up until the 19th century, Jews were among the most conservative elements of society. Even before World War II, Jews could often be found following the black flag as much as the red.
Italian Jews, for example, were fascist party members at a disproportionately higher rate than other Italians. (The Chief Rabbi of Rome was a Black Shirt.) It was Jew-baiting by the right in Europe and America that turned most Jews into supporters of moderate and liberal causes.
It's also important to remember that Lieberman has been variously described as a moderate and even a social conservative on issues of media violence, the morality of public officials - like our wandering-eyed president - and partial birth abortions. The Connecticut senator is not a part of any left conspiracy.
The final, perhaps most justifiable, worry Jews should have about Lieberman is that the Gore campaign and the press did not treat him as a candidate who happened to be Jewish.
Rather his Jewishness was the story. The result is that for good and bad, the image of the entire Jewish people, diverse and disunited as we are, will be embodied in him.
It would have been a clearer sign of America's acceptance of Jews if Lieberman's Jewishness had been hardly mentioned at all. For the historically minded Jew, it's not an unalloyed cause for celebration that we will be judged by Joseph Lieberman's successes and failures to come.
This is a heavy burden for any man and a precarious future for any people.
*David D. Perlmutter is associate director of Louisiana State University's Kevin P. Reilly Sr. Center for Media & Public Affairs. His latest book is 'Policing the Media' (Sage, 2000).
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society