Much has been written in the progressive press about how Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman has betrayed, first, the party that elected him to the senate in the first place (and protected his seniority in the second place, when he got himself reelected to the senate as an independent); second, the Obama agenda that he supported as a candidate; and, third, the cause of universal health care and/or any health-care reform. Indeed, he is vulnerable on all of these counts.
But he is also guilty of a fourth betrayal. And it is this fourth betrayal that, in my view, accounts for much of the anger aimed at Lieberman, anger greater than that expressed at the Republican opposition, which has cynically voted as a bloc to block any health-care reform emanating from the Democrats. Lieberman’s fourth betrayal is the betrayal of his Jewish heritage.
It may quickly be pointed out that the neoconservative movement itself is populated mostly by Jews and that the so-called godfather of neo-conservatism, Irving Kristol, was himself a Jew. Therefore, some may think, it would seem illogical, irrational, and ahistorical to be angry at Lieberman for betraying his Jewishness by adopting a conservative stance. Maybe so. But in my (Jewish) judgment, it’s a fact.
And it’s a fact whether one regards Judaism as a religion or a culture. Whether one is Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform, whether one is a Zionist or an assimilationist, whether one is a Hasid or a heretic, what unites people of the Jewish faith, persuasion, or heritage is their internalization of the ethical imperative.
Whatever one’s politics, the threat of a fellow Jew to undermine all health-care reform if he does not get his way would seem to run counter to a people whose moral heritage includes wanting to take care of those less fortunate than themselves. (As Marissa Brostoff wrote in an earlier Tablet article, it all goes back to Maimonides, who in effect said that universal health care is an absolute necessity.)
Rabbi Jill Jacobs makes this clear in her new book, There Shall Be No Needy: Pursuing Social Justice Through Jewish Law and Tradition. “Jewish legal texts,” Jacobs writes, “impose on the community an obligation to provide financial and other resources for the ill.” No less a rabbinic authority than Shlomo Goren, chief Ashkenazi rabbi of Israel from 1973 to 1983, sounded a similar note when he argued during a doctors’ strike that “the government may not excuse itself from its responsibility toward the sick since the government is responsible for the health of the people, not the doctors.”
Cynics claim that Lieberman’s opposition to a competitive government-run health care option is prompted by all the private insurance companies in his home state, companies that have supported him through the years. But even if his principal objection is a matter of principle, his fellow Jews (and others) should wonder why not simply vote no rather than bring down the house (i.e., the Senate) and the whole health-care bill with it.
No wonder a people whose legacy is near-universal support for FDR’s New Deal are offended when one of their own invokes the public health insurance option as a pretext for undermining the principle of near-universal health care.
If Lieberman were a gentile, it would, for many Jews, be a mere political disagreement. But Lieberman being Lieberman, the feeling is that he should be ashamed of himself. And by the way, he should.