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Since the recent passing of Senator Joe Lieberman, many have testified to his humanity, decency, and integrity—his excellence as a person, an American, and a Jew. I remember him as gracious and friendly from the first time we met. It was 1992 and my first week working as a staffer for Senator John (“Jack”) Danforth (R-MO). Walking across the atrium of the Hart Senate building, I suddenly heard Lieberman’s unmistakable voice call out “Jeff Ballabon!” And there he was, striding toward me with a huge smile, hand extended. A little starstruck and completely dumbfounded, I asked him how he even knew my name. “Jack has been telling me for weeks that he hired an Orthodox Jewish lawyer from Yale.” (Both Danforth and Lieberman were Yale Law grads.) “He’s very proud of you, I think more about the Orthodox part than the Yale part. So I see someone here with a Senate badge and a yarmulke, I know it has to be Jeff Ballabon! Welcome! I’ve been looking forward to meeting you.”

From that day on, Lieberman was unstintingly friendly, warm, and supportive. He never stood on ceremony. He didn’t need to. He was respected because he deserved it, not because he demanded it. Unlike many public figures, the more time you spent with Joe Lieberman, the greater your admiration grew.

But I want to share a different kind of memory—not a testimonial to who Joe Lieberman was as a person, but to what he represented as a symbol, for a time the highest-profile American Jew, and one who was proudly committed to his faith as well as his people. It’s a story perhaps more about America than about Lieberman.

Years later, in 2000, I was working with the Bush campaign when I received a call from a Senate friend working with the Gore campaign. “I’m going to tell you something now,” he said. “Something I’m not supposed to share, and something that the campaign will deny ever happened, but it’s driving us crazy. Everyone’s asking me and I can’t figure it out, but I think you may have an explanation . . . so I have to ask.” 

At that point, Gore had not yet chosen a running mate. It was reported widely that there were several finalists, including Senators Evan Bayh, John Edwards, John Kerry, and Joe Lieberman.

“The Vice President [Gore] is leaning towards Lieberman,” my friend continued. “So we ran a national poll. We asked, ‘Would you vote for a Jew to be President or Vice President of the United States?’ And only 40-something percent said they would, which is an obvious problem. Then someone told us to try running the same poll again, but to add one word: ‘Would you vote for a religious Jew to be President or Vice President of the United States?’ So, we did and close to 80 percent said they would! Jeff, what the hell does that mean?”

So I explained what it meant; that it’s fair for Americans to observe that most Jewish politicians are leftists—that I would likely jump to the same default assumption barring other information—but that the image of a “religious” Jew immediately triggers the opposite associations for tens of millions of Christians: family-friendly, devout, tolerant of other people of faith, maybe even pro-life, etc. That the same Christian base the Democrats and ADL unfairly denounce as intolerant and anti-Semitic (the ADL used to attack Lieberman for being “too” religious in his public statements, by the way) is delighted and energized by the idea of an Orthodox Jew in public office. That as much as I really wanted to see Bush beat Gore (and as much as Joe Lieberman himself was to the left of that base on social issues), Lieberman could be a real asset with Christian America because of his committed Judaism, not despite it.

Years went by. The Democrats kept moving farther left, there suddenly was no room for Joe Lieberman in Democratic politics, and the country got more and more polarized. It was painful. And during the Obama presidency, it all became excruciatingly worse for people of faith, and perhaps for Jews most of all

About five years ago, following the 2018 election and the Democrats’ embrace of anti-Semitic progressive agitators like “The Squad” along with radical anti-Semitic influencers such as Linda Sarsour and movements like The Women’s March, DSA, and BLM, I called Sen. Lieberman to discuss a non-partisan/bipartisan idea that would keep both parties accountable to discourage anti-Semitism in their ranks. (People I raised it with at the RNC were eager to sign on, by the way; those connected to the DNC were not.) 

During the call, I referenced those polls the Gore campaign did back in 2000. “Wait—what are you talking about? What polls?” Lieberman asked me. So I told him. 

“They swore to me that they never polled that issue,” he said. “Well, they did,” I told him. I offered to connect him with my source, so he could verify. “Oh no,” he said, sounding amused. “I believe you. I assumed they must have and I asked more than once. It’s just they insisted that they hadn’t.”

I’ve always held political and policy views considerably to the right of Joe Lieberman's views. I worked hard in 2000 to help Bush win, not Gore. But I’m proud that such a great and good man was an avatar representing Jews to America and the world. And, though “religious Jews” may be a small minority of a small minority, I take solace in knowing that the vast majority of Americans stand with us. We need that support now more than ever. 

Jeff Ballabon writes from Jerusalem and New York.

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Image by David licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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