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A Yid in Politics – An Exclusive Q&A with Senator Joe Lieberman

Hon. Joseph Lieberman was a U.S. senator from Connecticut for twenty-four years. At the end of his service in January 2013, he was Chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee and a senior member of the Armed Services Committee. In 2000, he was the Democratic candidate for Vice President of the United States. Now senior counsel at the law firm of Kasowitz, Benson, Torres LLP in New York and Chairman of United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), Senator Lieberman is the author of seven books on history, government, law, and religion, including: The Gift of Rest: Rediscovering the Beauty of the Sabbath. He is married to Hadassah Freilich Lieberman. They have four children and eleven grandchildren. Last month Ari Hirsch from The Country Vues magazine had the honor to interview Senator Lieberman.

Where did you get your Jewish education? Did you go to any Yeshivas growing up?

A: I was born in Stamford Connecticut and educated by my rabbi, Rabbi Joseph Ehrenkranz. Great teacher- he built the largest Orthodox shul in town. I went to the Talmud Torah two days a week: after public school and on Sunday. It was not a great experience, truthfully. There was no day school back then in Stamford. So when I got to high school age, Rabbi Ehrenkranz tried to convince my parents and me to send me to MTA- he had in his mind that maybe I would want to be a rabbi. My parents were not ready to send me there and I was not ready to go there. When I was in college, I stopped observing some mitzvot, but no matter what else I was doing I would put on tefillin and davened shacharis. Afterwards, I returned to Orthodox Judaism, and I began to read, study and take classes.

Who’s your religious mentor? Who do you ask religious questions to?

A: At different times in my career, I would ask different Rabbis. I’ve asked Rabbi Ehrenkranz, I’ve asked Rabbi Albert Feldman of the Westville Synagogue in New Haven, but he’s retired now. Today I would ask Rabbi Menachem Genack, of the OU, who has become a friend and a teacher to me. It happens to be that his son Yitzy is now the Rabbi of the Riverdale Jewish Center shul where I daven. Was there ever a specific time in your political career that you remember something happening on Shabbos that you couldn’t participate in and you said, oh, I wish I could have, but you know, just because of Shabbos, I can’t participate in it? A: There were times. Certainly in the beginning of my career. With the advice of my Rabbis, I have learned that there’s a difference between participating in political events and fulfilling a governmental responsibility. And this is based on various opinions given by Rabbis in Israel about the military intelligence and what people in government can and can not do. Here’s an example: We would often have to vote on Shabbos when I was a state senator and sometimes they would push it off to Saturday night or the following Monday. But several times during my time in the Senate, probably 40 to 50 times over 24 years, I would walk from my home to the Senate to vote. Fortunately, it is a very antiquated system in the House and they call your name and you just say yes or no. So that was the most observant kind of voting possible. Another example: In 1978, there was a state senator majority leader in Connecticut. The Lieutenant Governor Democratic challenger was challenging the governor for the nomination for governor. So there was an opening for Lieutenant Governor. I was one of probably eight or nine candidates, but the convention was always on Shabbos in Connecticut, so I couldn’t go. I had a lot of support and I came in second but there are still a lot of people who say that I probably could have gotten that nomination had I been there. But life was pretty good for me. I ran for Congress two years later and I lost. But then I ran for attorney general. I won and I got re-elected. It was a wonderful six years. I loved being attorney general. And then I had this extraordinary honor and privilege of being elected to the Senate in 1988, which I did for 24 years. And then I even got a chance to run for vice president! I dreamed of being a senator. I never dreamed of being vice president or president. But thank G-d for the opportunity. So what I’m saying is yes, I could look back at a day like that in 1978 and say that had I been there, I would’ve been nominated. But I have no angst about it- It was Shabbos and I made a promise to myself. I’m at peace with it.

Did you ever experience anti-semitism while you were in political office either from other politicians or people from around the country, especially when you were running for Vice President?

A: I never confronted any anti-semitism in Connecticut, and by that I mean outright antisemitism. That was phenomenal. I got elected state senator five times. I got elected attorney general twice and I got elected to the US Senate four times. Obviously, I’m not saying there is no antisemitism in Connecticut, but I’m confident it’s a very small group. I think that we’ve reached the stage in our history as a country where anti-semitism is not acceptable. Certainly, it wasn’t in my time. As a senator, every now and then I would get hate mail, where people would get angry about something. And sometimes there would be something anti-semitic in it. I would turn it over to the Capitol police, which was what we were advised to do. And then when I ran for Vice President, people told me that there was a little bit of a flareup of anti-semitism in the first couple of days on the Internet. But again, I will tell you that I saw no antisemitism. In fact, I would say it was the opposite! I had one secret service agent who was with me during the 2000 campaign who had done about three other national campaigns before. He said, “I’ve never been on a campaign where as many people say to the candidate, ‘God bless you.’” His theory was that they respected the fact that not only was I Jewish, but that I was a religious Jew. It was quite remarkable. I’ll tell you one funny story. I’m pretty sure it was right after I got nominated. It was in Iowa and there was a big crowd and I looked out and I thought I saw five or six signs in Yiddish. So I said to the governor of Iowa, “Are those signs in Yiddish?” And he told me that there was a kosher meat plant nearby so they probably came over from there!

When you were in political office, did you ever have to vote for something that was neged halacha (against Jewish law)? A: I didn’t think so, but I’m sure there are people who thought so. There are times I voted for legislation to protect people who were discriminated against based on their sexual orientation, so maybe they would say that was contrary to halacha. I always felt that halacha affected my own behavior in that regard, but that it was also consistent with Jewish values that we should protect people from being discriminated because we are all created b’tzelem Elokim. I can’t think of a case where I felt torn by halacha, where I had to vote against what I was thinking.

How would you grade President Trump so far as the President of United States?

A: My feelings are mixed, so I don’t know what I would give him if I had to give him a grade. I personally voted for Hillary to be direct about it. One of the challenges with President Trump, which I try to discipline myself to do, is to take him based on the positions he takes on issues, both domestic and foreign, not to form my opinion too much based on his tweets, what he says about other people, and his personal behavior. But that’s difficult because leaders are held on a higher standard. Like the Kohanim are held to a higher standard by virtue of the fact that they are leaders. Generally speaking, I have been pleased with his foreign policy. I think he’s reasserted American strength. I was worried, and a lot of people were worried during the campaign, that he would pull us in to a new kind isolationism that I don’t think works for us. We have to be careful about being too involved with the rest of the world, but there’s a middle point that’s appropriate. He hasn’t been an isolationist at all, he’s been actively involved with foreign policy. I think he’s handled the Middle East very well. I think he’s now in a moment of unusual opportunity with Korea. I believe in trade, but I believe in fair trade. I’m not offended when he rails about the extent to which the Chinese for instance, are not treating us fairly, but I think he’s got to be careful not to actually let this get into a real trade war. It needs to end with a negotiation that gives us more favorable trade terms with, for instance, China and even our allies in Europe. So, I’m kind of mixed. I’m an environmentalist so I don’t like that he pulled us out of the climate change treaty. Generally speaking, I thought that the tax bill was a good idea, but it does add to our debt which is now going to go over twenty trillion dollars and our kids are going have to pay for it. In the short term, it has had a positive affect on the economy, which is quite good. So it’s mixed.

Why do you think it took so long for a U.S. president to move the U.S. embassy to Yerushalayim?

A: I was very active in the adoption of the law in 1995, which mandated that the U.S. recognize Jerusalem as the true capital of Israel and that the embassy be moved to Yerushalayim. I was working closely with the Majority Leader at that time, Bob Dole, and with Pat Moynihan of New York. 1995 was two years after the Oslo Accords and there was much hope for peace in the Middle East. The Clinton administration took the position that adopting that bill at that point was premature and it would diminish the hopes for peace. Of course we argued that it just was not true. Israel was the only country in the world where America didn’t have an embassy in the city that the country designates as its capital. It was going to go to a piece of land 

in West Jerusalem that was owned by Israel since 1948, so there was no way that even in a two-state solution that land would go to Palestine. President Clinton said he would veto it and the negotiations started, which gave him and his successors the right to waive it to suspend the effectiveness of the act every six months. And for 22 years, almost 23, Presidents Clinton, Bush and Obama suspended the act. And the basic premise was that it would affect the peace process, that the Arab world would react, that the Arab street would rise up, etc. That was until December of last year when President Trump to his credit, said this is the law and it’s the right thing to do. He also had a confidence that there would not be that extreme a reaction as people were calculating. Truthfully, the Arab world has reacted with concern, but they’re much more focused on the threat of Iran, which is Israel’s concern, as well. I give President Trump a lot of credit that he made this decision, which really should have been made a long time ago. Essentially we were allowing the fears of other people’s predictions to stop us, the world’s superpower and strongest nation, from doing what we thought was right and what our law required us to do. That was a weak position to be in, so I’m grateful that President Trump turned it around. Did you ever ask President Bill Clinton or any other U.S. President to pardon Jonathan Pollard?

A: No, I didn’t. I had a rule, and this was very controversial. People in the community were upset about it. I had a rule from the beginning, not related to Pollard but to criminal cases where they asked me if I would intervene in a case, file a letter with a judge, or even ask for a pardon, but I really did not feel that was my role. I’m a legislator. They weren’t asking me because they needed another lawyer. They had very good lawyers. They were asking me because they were hoping I would influence the judge and that was not appropriate. So, I didn’t do that. After I got out of office, I did sign a few letters with the Attorney General asking Pollard to be released because I was no longer bound by the Senate. I had concluded that Pollard had violated the law and seriously, but by the time I was out of the Senate in 2012/2013, it seemed to me that he had served a long enough term, to put it mildly, and on humanitarian grounds he should be released. So, I’m glad he was. What’s your biggest regret in politics? Any regrets?

A: I don’t have regrets, that’s not in my nature, but there are things I worked on that I wish I had completed. I really believe that climate change is a problem. I worked for eight to ten years with various co-sponsors, usually Republicans, because I figured if I didn’t have a Republican cosponsor I wouldn’t have a chance. And the second, which I worked on in the last five years, which I still continue to be concerned about, was to do something to improve our defenses against cyber attacks. And we’re doing better, but not well enough. About 85 percent of our critical infrastructure, such as electric utility grids, the financial computer systems, etc. is owned privately, and so it’s not the government in charge. We have to figure out a way to give them incentives and the kind of pushes they need to do more to protect cyber space because it’s very vulnerable to enemy attack. Please tell everyone about your new book “The Journey from Freedom to Matan Torah” and about your relationship with your co-author Rabbi Ari Kahn.

A: The book is really about the importance of law, Jewish life, and history, The larger point is that what happened at Har Sinai was a critical step in the history of civilization and played a significant role in the adoption of systems of law, particularly in western civilization, but also in other civilizations. The Torah’s story of the journey of Bnai Yisrael from slavery in Mitzrayim to receiving the law on Har Sinai is a really an important message from Hashem, which is that freedom is your birthright, our birthright. That’s why Hashem reentered the history to liberate us from slavery in Egypt. But if there’s no law, ultimately people descend to chaos, violence, and immorality and perhaps even self-destruction. So we need the law to make us better than we’d otherwise be. The other sub-theme here is about the holiday of Shavuot, which is greatly under-appreciated, certainly in the Jewish world. It follows and is directly connected to Pesach, which is of course the most widely celebrated Jewish holiday. Jews who observe Pesach don’t observe Shavuot, don’t even know about it, and don’t count the omer. They are missing the second half of the performance. You’re leaving the theater before it’s over! Yes, of course the exodus is critically important. It’s very important, but it was for a purpose, not just to be let loose from slavery, but to go to Har Sinai, to get our national mission statement, the Torah, and then to go to Eretz Yisrael. For non-Jewish readers, I hope it reminds them of, or informs them of, what I believe is the critical role of the revelation on Har Sinai, which is how Hashem’s giving of the law has impacted the development of law and civilization, particularly in the western world, but more broadly, as well.

In regards to my collaboration with Rabbi Ari Kahn, my teacher, my friend and publisher, Rabbi Menachem Genack of the OU suggested that since I wanted to collaborate with someone, Rabbi Ari Kahn would be the person. I didn’t know him, but once I met him I liked him very much. I read his books and we had a very collaborative, productive relationship. I’m grateful to him. To me, Rabbi Kahn is a rising star in the world of Jewish scholarship.