Paul Gross

America (and the Jewish People) need more Joe Liebermans

I do spend a lot of time on this now… trying to convince members of the US Congress that there’s a lot more satisfaction, even pleasure, from figuring out how to balance principle and pragmatism, than the constant tribal division and lack of accomplishment that seems to characterize Congress now.

So said Joe Lieberman, speaking at the 2022 Begin Symposium, where I had the pleasure of getting to know him a little, and moderating his panel discussion.

The writer interviewing Senator Lieberman at the Begin Symposium 2022. (Photograph from the Menachem Begin Heritage Center. Available for use.)

In a strange way, Lieberman was instrumental in the development of my interest in American politics.

I was interning at a British newspaper in the summer of 2000 and I was asked to research the potential running mates for Vice-President Al Gore, the Democratic nominee for President that November. I was intrigued by Senator Joe Lieberman; the very idea that an observant Orthodox Jew could be Vice-President of the United States. When he was ultimately chosen by Gore I became unusually invested in the success of their campaign (unusually invested for a British 21-year old with not much previous interest in American politics.) As it turned out, “my” guys lost, but not until a month after the election (for those who don’t know what I’m talking about, Google “hanging chads“!) But even so – or perhaps because of the unique drama of that election – I was hooked on US politics from that moment on.

Some 20 years before I would eventually meet the man himself in Israel, I became friends with his daughter, working closely with her on a Jewish Peoplehood project. And then, just a few years ago, his grand-daughter was assigned to work with me for a year as a Bat Sherut (a religious girl doing national service instead of the army). And so, by quirks of fate (or just the magic of Jewish geography) I somehow felt more familiar with this man I’d never met, but whose career and achievements had so fascinated me.

When I did eventually meet him, he was the very definition of a mensch. Gracious, kind, patient, funny, and encouraging. (“Paul, you made a real contribution. You should be proud of yourself,” he told me earnestly before getting into his taxi and saying goodbye at the end of the conference.)

As the quote I began with reveals, he was exactly the kind of politician that America (and not just America) so desperately needs today. He was a Democrat with Republican friends – in fact not just friends, admirers. He was the very definition of a moderate (he wrote a book entitled: “The Centrist Solution: How We Made Government Work and Can Make It Work Again”.) Ideologically, he was right up my street: A liberal patriot. Hawkish on security, but committed to civil rights, democracy and freedom. He put principles and country above party. In 2008, he backed his great friend, the Republican John McCain, for the presidency over Barack Obama. By all accounts he liked Obama personally and they got on well as fellow Senators. But, perhaps because he knew the young Illinois Senator well, he knew that an Obama White House would move the country away from the muscular liberalism that he so believed in (and that would likely have been pursued by Obama’s defeated rival for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton.)

Today, with the Democratic Party home to a small but increasingly influential “progressive” faction, that sees America and the West as an oppressive and imperialist force; and the Republican Party now led by a man who doesn’t even believe in liberal democracy or the value of the Western alliance, the passing of Lieberman is a greater loss to America now than ever.

And not just to America, but to the Jewish people. He was the man who proved that being an observant Orthodox Jew is no barrier to success at the highest levels of American public life. And that being a proud Zionist Jew does not only not preclude being a committed American patriot, the two are mutually reinforcing. He was the very embodiment of a US-Israel relationship based on shared liberal democratic values.

As an American public servant; as a Jewish leader; and – I know from my friends – as a family man, Joe Lieberman was exceptional.

יהי זכרו ברוך – May his memory be a blessing

About the Author
Before moving to Israel from the UK, Paul worked at the Embassy of Israel to the UK in the Public Affairs department, and as the Ambassador's speechwriter. He has a Masters degree in Middle East Politics from the University of London. He is currently a Senior Fellow at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem - though he writes this blog in a personal capacity. He has lectured to a variety of groups on Israeli history and politics and his articles have been published in a variety of media outlets in Israel, the UK, the US and Canada.
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