Liebermans support of Israel a big issue for Jews

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

new york | Like many Jewish voters in Connecticut, June Neal has taken a particular interest in this year’s U.S. Senate race, in which three-term incumbent Joseph Lieberman is facing his stiffest re-election fight since entering Congress in 1988.

Running as an independent after losing the Democratic primary to businessman Ned Lamont, Lieberman’s name will be on the bottom of the ballot Tuesday, Nov. 7 — and Neal plans to volunteer at a polling station on Election Day, helping voters locate the lever to pull for the senator.

A writer who describes herself as very involved in Jewish causes, Neal, 62, says she’s working for Lieberman because the race is so competitive and because his commitment to persevere in Iraq and his support for Israel are crucial to America’s national security.

“It would be tragic to lose a man who is so well respected on both sides of the political aisle, and who has such access to the White House,” Neal said. “It’s not often that you’ll get someone from the Democratic Party with such access to a Republican administration.”

As Election Day approaches, Jewish support for Lieberman, who in 2000 became the first Jew to run on a realistic national ticket, appears to be gathering momentum as he calls into question Lamont’s commitment to Israel.

Lieberman lashed out at his opponent, a first-time candidate, following Lamont’s appearances with the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, both of whom have rocky relationships with the Jewish community, and with Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), who refused to back a Senate resolution this summer condemning Hezbollah’s attack on Israel.

The Lamont campaign counters that Lieberman also has reached out to those figures.

Lieberman’s 18-year record in the Senate, which the pro-Israel community routinely describes as impeccable on Israel issues, has been a challenge for Lamont, who has argued that the Iraq war, which Lieberman supported, hurt Israel’s security and emboldened its enemies.

The National Jewish Democratic Council, which has endorsed neither candidate, says Lamont would be just as firm a supporter of Israel as is Lieberman.

But few in Connecticut, even among those who support Lamont, are buying it. Some point to particular statements indicating Lamont would place greater pressure on Israel to make concessions, while others simply feel the challenger won’t back Israel as strongly as he claims — but the bottom line is that Lieberman is widely seen as a better friend to the Jewish state.

Though no hard data exists, many believe that with Republicans and independents factored in for the general election, Lieberman will command the overwhelming majority of Jewish votes.

The latest poll from Douglas Schwartz, the state’s leading pollster, gives Lieberman a 17-point edge over Lamont.

A CBS/New York Times poll found that 61 percent of Jews supported Lieberman in the August primary. Mark Silk, director of the Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College in Hartford, calls that figure “a bit soft” considering Lieberman’s often-public displays of religious faith.

Silk’s analysis of survey data found that Lamont did exceptionally well in the primary among voters who describe themselves as having no religion, racking up a 3-to-1 advantage. Among voters who aren’t of Judeo-Christian background — a group that includes Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim voters — the margin was 2-to-1.

Lieberman’s position on intervening in the Terri Schiavo case, his sympathy for school vouchers and his outspokenness on so-called moral issues makes him something of an anomaly in generally liberal Connecticut, Silk said.

“For the secular wing of the Democratic Party, and the people who were not Jews and Christians, Lieberman looked more like a Republican than what they wanted,” he said.

Silk’s data appears to confirm a common view that more traditional Connecticut Jews, for whom Israel is of paramount importance, are far more likely to support Lieberman. Jews who identify less strongly with Jewish causes tend to side with Lamont.

Indeed, the Jewish vote appears to have split along the Israel axis.

For Jewish voters to whom being pro-Israel isn’t the main factor, Lamont’s position on Israel isn’t a major problem. In the primary, Lieberman’s record on Israel failed to deliver West Hartford and the Westville section of New Haven, home to two of the state’s largest Jewish communities.

Cheryl Greenberg, a history professor at Trinity, says she’s supporting Lamont not despite her religious faith but because of it. Though she concedes Lamont has not been sufficiently detailed about his foreign policy positions — and even describes her support for him as a “risk” — she’s forging ahead because of her profound opposition to Republican policies Lieberman has supported.

“When I prioritize my issues, at this point I have to say that Bush’s behavior, and the Republican Party that is standing behind him, is so reprehensible and antithetical to everything I think America ought to be,” Greenberg said.

Ben Harris

Ben Harris is a JTA correspondent.