Joseph Lieberman seems genuinely taken with the idea of participating in the First Israeli Congress on Judaism and Democracy 120 years after the first Zionist Congress took place in Basel, Switzerland.
The 75-year-old former US senator from Connecticut was in Tel Aviv as an honored guest Monday at a one-day conference. He was also a keynote speaker in Jerusalem at the event’s opening gala the night before.
Lieberman spoke with The Times of Israel on the sidelines of the Tel Aviv conference, where 600 leading Israeli and Diaspora political influencers came together in an action-oriented event to plan a future for Israel that would allow it to maintain both its Jewish and democratic characters. After a morning plenary session, participants broke up into smaller groups to deliberate on key issues in off-the-record discussions accompanied by mediators.
The event was sponsored by Israeli businessman Haim Taib, alongside his business partner Yosef Zarzavsky. Dr. Shahar Lifshitz of Bar-Ilan University and several other academics and business leaders were also involved in the conference’s genesis.
On Monday, Lieberman was an observer as well as a representative of American Jewry. In conversation with The Times of Israel, he noted that the passionate discourse and dissent characterizing the event was not dissimilar to the original Zionist Congress.
“Just as the Zionist Congress of the late 19th century was called together because of a concern about the future of Jews in Europe, the people who are organizing this event are essentially saying, not that they’re worried about anything as disastrous as the Shoah, but that they’re worried that the country will divide,” he said.
Having just walked out from a series of morning sessions on the division between Israel’s religious and secular, Lieberman seemed to relish the vigorous debate surrounding the topic.
Lieberman said that his own values and experiences as one of the most visible Orthodox Jewish politicians in America have led him to believe that democracy and individual liberties can only strengthen one another.
Before retiring from government in 2013, Lieberman was known as a steadfast supporter of Israel during his 24 years in the US Senate. Originally a member of the Democratic party, Lieberman was the vice-presidential candidate on the Al Gore ticket in 2000. In 2004, he ran an unsuccessful bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. He subsequently switched party affiliation in 2006, winning his Senate seat as an Independent.
Lieberman’s clarity of vision and purpose made him unafraid to cross party lines, allowing him to lean more conservatively on foreign affairs and liberally on domestic issues, he told The Times of Israel.
As Lieberman sees it, no matter what challenges the US or Israel might face today, the original values upon which both countries were founded insure that justice will triumph in both struggling democracies.
Perhaps this is why Lieberman came out of the morning’s tense plenary encouraged.
In a talk about an hour before this interview, Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (Jewish Home) defended her support of the controversial Jewish state bill which underlines the State of Israel’s Jewish nature but has been decried as weakening Israel’s democratic character.
“Constitutionally there is an advantage to the democratic side of Israel and we need to give the Supreme Court extra tools to elevate the Jewish values of Israel as well,” she said.
“We have to maintain the character of Israel as a Jewish country and that sometimes comes at the expense of equality,” Shaked said while noting that all of Israel’s citizens remain equal under the law.
Following Shaked, former Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (Zionist Union) offered her own fiery rebuke.
“The things that are happening in the Knesset today are not respectful or honorable. Those who are most aggressive and violent are able to push their agenda through,” she said.
“We also have basic laws that provide and enforce rights for everybody, and now we want an excuse to erase them?”
On the stark contrast in opinion, Lieberman said, “It was quite significant. It was good, it was honest. The only way to get to a better place is to have an open argument.”
“There is a comfortable connection between the values of Judaism and the values of democracy but that doesn’t mean that on the ground, in the reality of life here, that there aren’t controversies. We saw them this morning,” he said.
“As I said to [event founder and sponsor] Haim Taib, there will be moments when you will have reasons to be discouraged because you will feel that you’re not making progress. Don’t give up. It’s really important,” Lieberman said.
It was this optimism that defined Lieberman’s remarks in a sit-down interview with The Times of Israel in a conference room at the Intercontinental David Hotel during a break between plenary sessions.
The Senator was charming and relaxed, casually sharing stories ranging from his Texan roommate at Yale to growing up on John F. Kennedy’s speeches.
Lieberman also discussed his concerns over what he sees as growing tribalism in both the US and Israel, and why, informed by his own values, he’s confident Israel can find a compromise to it’s Jewish and democratic nature.
The following interview was edited for clarity.
One intriguing aspect of this political conference is that it was initiated by someone in the private sector. Both in the US and Israel, private citizens seem to be taking a more active role in trying to shape government. Where is this coming from, and what are some of the pros and cons of this shift?
It actually does relate to the beginning of the modern Zionist movement. Who was [Theodor] Herzl? He was a journalist, he was a writer. He wasn’t a rabbi or community leader in the traditional sense, but he acted because no one else was. It may be that that is exactly the case here. I didn’t know [the organizers] before this [event], but these are people outside of government who love and are concerned about the future of Israel and they decided to act. Just as the original Zionist Congress needed to influence government to achieve its goals, the same is true here.
This congress is being convened from outside of the government but ultimately the government has to both buy into the goal of reconciling Judaism and democracy and the religious and secular, and ultimately adopt laws that make that so.
Now, part of it also speaks to a larger problem in democracies worldwide today that they’re not being productive, they’re not functioning. I describe it as tribalism — you certainly see it in the United States — parties are so divided from one another. It was a great fear stemming from George Washington that future generations of Americans would put their loyalty to their party faction ahead of their country.
It’s the same danger here in a different way, that people put loyalty to their religious group or secular group ahead of loyalty to the country. In both cases, unity — not uniformity — is a precondition to national strength and liberty.
How do you see your role at this congress as a Jewish American and political leader?
A part of it, clearly, is to say as someone who is a part of the Diaspora that Israel is increasingly becoming the center of the Jewish world. America has been that [center] for a period of time.
This also means that what happens [in Israel] matters to Jews in the Diaspora, and [conversely], the opinions and actions of Jews in the Diaspora affect what happens here — we are tied together.
So in the most concrete way, if a law is adopted on marriage or on who is a Jew in Israel, that says to a lot of Jews in America. You’re not equal in Israel. [These Jews] are going to be less devoted to Israel. That has consequences for the [country’s] future.
[Author’s note: Lieberman is referencing Israel’s controversial conversion bill defining who is considered to be Jewish according to the state.]
You mentioned that Israeli decision-making impacts American Jews. Increasingly, young American Jews, on one hand, are looking to connect with Israel, but on the other, see a problem with the direction in which the country is headed. What do you say to American Jews who are looking to engage with Israel but have real concerns?
Well, it’s not easy because we’re not citizens, we have an unusual status. There’s no doubt that the situation you described is a real one, that people in America are devoted to Israel, want to make the case for Israel, against BDS [the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement], and yet there are things going on in Israel that offend them. Because they’re not citizens of Israel, they have a limited capacity to alter events. On the other hand, writing articles in newspapers or on social media is a way to express this.
If you were only now graduating from Yale in 2018 and hoping to make an impact, as a young Jewish American looking at the political landscape in both the US and Israel, what would you be doing?
There is no question that we are all products of the age in which we grew up. I ended up in politics growing up in the age of president [John F.] Kennedy. For my generation, he summoned many of us into public service. He said a lot of things that correlated with my religious upbringing.
Also in the air and on the ground was a compelling movement that touched both my Jewish and democratic values, which was the civil rights movement. I got involved and went to the South for a while. The personal values that I got from my family, from my rabbis, and the model of Kennedy and then, the cause of civil rights and, at that time, anti-communism, motivated me to get into politics.
It’s much more complicated for people today, I’m afraid. I hope that if I was graduating from Yale this year, I would be, if not motivated by the current leaders in the US, motivated by leaders from history.
Getting out of high school and into college, I read a lot of history, and I formed some very strong conclusions about the power of leaders to affect life for better or worse.
With President [Donald] Trump, I agree with him on some things and disagree with him on other things. He may inspire some people but he also may negatively inspire people. In other words, a certain number of people may say, we can do better. I hope that’s true.
What was the greatest opportunity and challenge for you as an Orthodox Jew in the public sector?
I was lucky to come around during the time that I did. I stood on the shoulders of those who came before me, and I had the support from my family who urged me, “Be who you are.” That you don’t have to assimilate or homogenize in America.
There were times when early in my career I would say to someone, I’m sorry, it’s the Sabbath, I can’t come to your political picnic. When they realized that I was doing it consistently and for religious reasons, they accepted it.
I never found that my religious observance was an obstacle to my success in politics, and it did give me a chance to educate a lot of non-Jews, and maybe some Jews, on what it meant to be an observant Jew.
The Orthodox Jewish community in the US continues to shift farther right, seemingly embracing Donald Trump and his platform. Does this concern you? What is the future of progressivism and Orthodoxy in America?
I tend to be generally conservative on foreign policy in American terms and generally liberal on domestic policy, and to me, that’s always been consistent with my Judaism — my Orthodox Judaism. There is an increasing tribalism in American politics that now threatens the attitude towards Israel in America. Because Trump is so pro-Israel, a certain number of Democrats who really despise him will stand back a bit more.
They’re not anti-Israel, but they stand back.
That’s not healthy. In my 24 years in the Senate, I watched the place become increasingly more partisan with few exceptions. Where there continued to be bi-partisanship was on the US-Israel relationship. That’s still true in Congress but it is now being threatened.
There is an increasing tribalism in American politics
Now on the question of Orthodoxy, it is now trending more towards the Republican party and for Trump. The community is more conservative, as is the Republican party. There’s been a real shift in both parties. The Democratic party remains pro-Israel but the Republican party is intensely pro-Israel. Part of it is the influence of Christian evangelicals within the Republican party, so that has had an effect.
In my opinion, Jews always do better in the context of non-partisanship. In other words, when the Jewish community is not identified with one party over another.