Joe Lieberman represented the state of Connecticut in the U.S. Senate from 1989 to 2013, first as a Democrat and then, in his last term, as an independent. During his storied political career, Lieberman was the nominee for vice-president in the 2000 election as Al Gore’s running mate, making him the first Jewish politician from a major party on a presidential ticket. An observant Jew, Lieberman will be the headline speaker at a May 28 event in Toronto sponsored by Chabad on Bayview, where he will speak about “Courage and Conviction.”
Tell me about your speaking engagement.
I will undoubtedly talk first about my admiration for Chabad and the Lubavitcher rebbe. I will discuss the movement and what the rebbe stood for, which is unity inside the Jewish world and the conviction and the courage to take our Jewish faith and values out into the broader community.
I think the Lubavitcher rebbe himself was very much in the world of today. He studied at great universities in Europe. He was an engineer. Throughout his life, he was very interested in what was happening in the world, in science and medicine and the arts and politics.
I had the opportunity to visit with him. He really encouraged me to be involved in the broader life of the community in America and to carry my Jewish values with me with conviction and courage.
You and Sen. John McCain were close friends, even though you were political opponents. That sort of collegiality between Democrats and Republicans doesn’t seem to exist anymore. Is that perception accurate and, if it is, what is behind it?
Unfortunately, I believe the perception of increasing polarization – not only between the parties, but between the elected officials within the parties – is all too true.
That’s not to say that there are not some friendships, let’s say in the Senate between Democrats and Republicans, or that there aren’t some co-sponsorships of legislation. But it doesn’t happen as it did before and it all too infrequently results in the adoption of significant legislation. In a democracy like ours, like yours, you can’t really achieve major change from the government unless there is good faith negotiation and principled compromise.
And that requires the sort of trust and friendship that Sen. McCain and I were blessed to have. That’s a real loss and we have to find a way to regain that, or the government will not be helping the people solve the problems that the country has.
Do you think politics are becoming more polarized, more angry, more confrontational in Congress and more generally around the country?
Yes. There is something, I believe, of a break between what happens at the local and state level in the United States and what happens at the federal level. I think the problems of partisanship are at their worst at the federal level in Washington, but they exist at the state and local levels, too.
I find as I go around America that there still exists in communities the kind of unity and sense that we are all in this together. The people in their personal and communal lives are doing much better at this than the politicians.
We have to close that gap for the good of the country. We have to take some of the ethos of community from the local level and move it into our political life and into out governmental life.
Looking at the recent congressional election, the Democrats have introduced people like Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. And, of course, there’s Bernie Sanders. They seem to be pushing the party to the left. Is that perception accurate?
The perception that the Democratic party is moving left is generally accurate. Because I’m more of a centrist, that concerns me.
It is more complicated in this sense. Let’s take the House of Representatives. I believe there were 62 new Democrats elected and that’s why the Democrats regained a majority. Most attention has been focused on two of those 62, namely Ocasio-Cortez and Omar. They are not at all representative of the new Democrats in the House. The new Democrats in the House are more likely to be centrists. This shouldn’t be shocking. The Democrats regained a majority in the House by winning districts that were either swing districts, not partisan one way or the other, or Republican districts.
A really leftist Democrat, like Ocasio-Cortez or Omar, had no chance of getting elected in those districts.
As a centrist, I take heart from that.
The constituency of activists in the Democratic party is definitely moving left. But we’ll see who comes out of the primaries and who gets nominated. That will say a lot about where the heart and soul of the party is.
Congresswoman Omar made several anti-Semitic remarks, yet the party failed to condemn her explicitly. Speaker Nancy Pelosi even seemed to try to provide context for the statements and downplay them. Does that concern you and is there a danger that if the party doesn’t tackle this problem, it will risk becoming like the British Labour party?
Yes, there’s a real danger of that. I worry about that a lot. I hope and pray the party comes back to where it was when I joined it a long time ago when President John F. Kennedy was its leading figure. In the 1990s, I played an active role in the campaign of President Bill Clinton. He brought the Democratic party to where it should be, and needs to be again if we are going to win national elections.
Yes, I thought that Congresswoman Omar’s comments about Israel and about Jews were anti-Semitic. They were the most explicitly anti-Semitic comments I can remember from a member of Congress in my lifetime.
I thought the Democratic party in its reaction to that moment of moral crisis was grossly inadequate. It was a moment to stand up and clearly say that Congresswoman Omar went way over the line of acceptable congressional behaviour. I’ve been in caucus and probably people said, “She’s new, give her a chance,” or others more to the left rushed to her side to defend her, right or wrong, but the net effect for the Democratic members of the House was a moral failure to condemn overt anti-
I know members of the Democratic caucus are not anti-Semites, but the fact that they failed say what they really believed in that resolution was very troubling to me.
How is this going to affect the Jewish community’s support of the Democratic party?
It’s hard to say. The Jewish community historically has been tied to the Democratic party.
The fact is that there are a lot of Jews in America for whom Israel is not a priority. Their priority is social values, social justice issues. And as long as the Democratic party remains the more liberal party, they will remain and be more likely to support Democratic candidates, particularly in the era of President Donald Trump, who, although he is very pro-Israel, is quite conservative on social issues like immigration and abortion rights and the like.
What’s happened lately with violent acts of anti-Semitism and the statements by Congresswoman Omar, followed by the failure of the Democrats in the House to condemn her, may encourage more American Jews to vote Republican in the next election. It’s hard to say. It depends who the Democrats nominate, but I do think the general trend line in the Jewish community is toward the Republican party, but still a majority of Jewish-Americans support the Democratic party.
President Trump has been accused of being anti-Semitic, or at least of sending dog whistles to anti-Semites and racists. How do you see it?
I’ve met President Trump, but I can’t claim to be his friend or to know him that well. But everything I know about him, and people who know him well say, he is absolutely not anti-Semitic.
He said some things that I think were unfortunate, particularly after the Charlottesville demonstrations, and that comment about people on both sides. I think I know what he was trying to say, which was not to excuse the racism and anti-Semitism that was grotesquely on display there. But he raised doubts about himself for that reason. In my opinion, it’s just not fair to go from that to believing that President Trump is anti-Semitic. He’s in some ways pro-Semitic, and he’s certainly pro-Israel.
This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity