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A Question for Lieberman

This article orginally appeared in, and is reprinted with permission of The Jerusalem Report.   Visit www.jrep.com.

A few years back I wrote a novel called "The Project" about the first Jewish president of the United States (not a commercial success, the book can now be found about as easily as a copy of the Cappadocian Tablets). The story's protagonist was Dewey Goldberg, an assimilated pol from the suburbs of Detroit. Goldberg's political enemies, including the prime minister of Israel, tried (and failed) to discredit him by making his Jewishness seem weird to voters in the heartland. Now along comes Senator Joe Lieberman and turns my premise on its head.

Lieberman is, by the standards of his party, a true exotic‹an Orthodox fundamentalist full of religious fervor and public piety. His campaign sermonizing, especially his statement that only true believers can be moral, has made him the darling of the Christian right. Abe Foxman may not like Holy Joe's mix of religion and politics, but there's no indication that voters have a problem with it.

I once met a delicatessen owner in Jackson, Mississippi, who told me that many of his customers demand only kosher products. "They think 'kosher' means 'better,'" he explained. So far, that seems to be the general American reaction to Lieberman. As he presents it, Orthodoxy is simply a benign doctrine of family values and pluralistic principles, more or less what Lieberman's hero, George Washington, would have practiced if he had come from Minsk instead of Mt. Vernon.

The American press, afraid of being accused of anti-Semitism, has been slow to examine this version. Typical was an editorial in the New York Times that warned the vice-presidential candidate about crossing the line between state and religion, but refrained from raising questions regarding Lieberman's particular brand.

Orthodox Judaism's basic texts are unmistakably fundamentalist, and not very democratic. They teach that Jews are God's chosen people, ban marriage to gentiles, insist that the Bible is God's Divine word and exclude women from clerical office and segregate them in the synagogue.

Lieberman himself hasn't championed the Orthodox hardliners, but his affiliations in Israel are, nonetheless, troubling. He is, for example, the honorary chairman of Shuvu‹Return‹an educational network affiliated with the theocratic Agudat Israel party's school system.

Far more troubling is Lieberman's connection to Shaare Zedek, an Orthodox hospital in Jerusalem. Until recently Hadassah Lieberman, the senator's wife, was a paid consultant to the hospital. This past May, only a couple of months before the Democratic Convention, she brought him to a hospital fund-raiser at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. Lieberman told the assembled potential donors that he is a "longtime admirer" of Shaare Zedek and urged them to contribute generously.

In praising the hospital, Lieberman did not mention its dirty little secret: Its fertility clinic discriminates against mixed couples. Alone among Israeli hospitals, Shaare Zedek refuses to perform in-vitro fertilization on a Christian woman if her partner is a Jew, or on a Jewish women with a gentile husband. If, for example, Al Gore's daughter Karenna and her husband, Drew Schiff, were to seek treatment, they'd be turned away. It is a policy the head of the Israeli Association of Gynecology has denounced as "awful" and "unethical."

Hadassah Lieberman claims she knew nothing about the fertility clinic and its discriminatory behavior. But less than three years ago, while she was on the payroll, an article on the subject (written by me) appeared in this magazine and sparked a controversy. It isn't very likely that Ms. Lieberman, or any senior staffer, missed it.

In any event, she knows now, and so does her husband, but they don't think an explanation is called for. Lieberman's spokeswoman brushes the matter off as a "non-issue." But Lieberman himself has put his religion front and center, and the time is coming when he won't be able to slide by the details with bromides about morality and Borsht Belt shtick. His fundamentalism, like any candidate's, raises serious questions. One is why he supports, and admires, a hospital that practices religious bigotry.

Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws.

Zeev Chafets, who served as director of Israel's government press office under Menachem Begin, is the author of A Match Made in Heaven, about American evangelical support for Israel.

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