Ever since George W. Bush spoke at an ultrareligious, ultraconservative, separatist school in South Carolina last spring, senate candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton has blasted him for it.
‘I don’t think it’s an attack to say Governor Bush went to Bob Jones University. Governor Bush supports the republican platform and supreme court nominees who are dedicated to doing away with a woman’s right to choose,’ she told The New York Times earlier this month. ‘I don’t think it’s negative or an attack to say here are the facts and let people make their own judgment.”
And now there’s another panderer in the political zoo. Hillary, in a desperate hunt for Jewish support, rushed up to the tiny village of New Square in Rockland County early last week, right after corporate Democrat Joe Lieberman became the first Jew on a national ticket, to do her own sucking up to an ultrareligious, ultraconservative, separatist school. But this one was operated not by fundamentalist Christians but by fundamentalist Jews who belong to the Skverer sect of Hasidim.
For progressive Democrats, especially those of the Hebrew persuasion, the anointing of Lieberman may be little more than another kick in the guts—another abandonment of the New Deal liberalism that once was a hallmark of their party.
For Hillary, who professes to defend public schools and who has portrayed herself as a feminist, a trip to New Square required a series of right turns. Men and women usually can’t sit together in New Square, so Hillary spoke to the women and girls of the village. Al Gore traveled to New Square in February, where he spoke to the men and boys of a village where vouchers—not public schools—are loved and women know their place.
Left unmentioned in press accounts of the two Democratic politicians’ visits to New Square—which they hope will bring them money and votes from Jews in general—is the village’s recent history of public corruption: Last October, three Orthodox Jews from New Square and a fourth man from Brooklyn were sentenced to prison and ordered to pay nearly $32 million to the federal government for ripping off millions of dollars in Pell grant student financial aid. The men kept some of the money for themselves, The New York Times reported at the time, and gave the rest to residents of New Square and to the town’s yeshiva.
And it’s not as if the scandal is over. Another suspect in the scam, New Square founder Chaim Berger, fled to Israel, where a judge ruled this past March that he could be extradited back to New York.
In an article earlier this year in the Jewish journal Moment, author Joseph Berger bemoaned what he called “holy hypocrites,” outwardly pious and righteous Jews engaged in chicanery like the New Square scam. As he describes it, “Hundreds of the village’s young men were paid a total of $10 million of federal government tuition and housing assistance for doing something they would have done anyway, studying Talmud.”
Michael Lerner, the maverick rabbi who edits the progressive Jewish magazine Tikkun and was once a spiritual guru to Hillary, was one of the few voices early last week on talking-head TV to try to put the brakes on his fellow Jews’ celebration of Lieberman’s spot on the Democratic national ticket. He credited the American public’s growing acceptance of Jews for making it possible. But to Lerner, the selection of Lieberman is “bad on many, many levels. He moves the entire political discourse further to the right. And this switch to the right is put forward as ‘tolerance.’ ”
Lieberman and Lerner, both observant Jews, seem to be reading different Torahs.
“It’s ridiculous to me,” Lerner told the Voice, “that Lieberman is projected as a moral leader, because that represents the triumph of the religious right’s concept of ethics and morality—that it concerns only sexual behavior. Biblical ethics and morality had 90 percent to do with social justice. Jeremiah railed against society not because of illicit sex acts but because it wasn’t taking care of the poor, the homeless, the oppressed.”
And Jeremiah’s words were particularly relevant last week to Jews around the world. Last Wednesday was Tisha B’Av, the deepest day of mourning for Jews. It’s when Jeremiah’s words in the Book of Lamentations are read to congregants. Lerner said that his own Tisha B’Av sermon warned about the dangers of idolatry, of worshiping the status quo. And he said that some of his congregants were angry with him afterward for not celebrating Gore’s choice of Lieberman. “I get the ‘self-hating Jew’ response,” he said. Lerner has a hard time, he said, with the Jewish establishment, especially the outwardly observant, “cuddling up to the wealthy rather than identifying with those who are beaten down.”
When Lerner, now a Californian, used to worship at an uptown Manhattan shul, he recalled, the men he would pray with would think nothing of heading down to Wall Street after services “to figure out ways to accelerate their money, without regard to the consequences to society.” But real Jewish values, said Lerner, “commit us to building a better society, not maximizing money and power.” One of the most corporate Democrats in Congress and a critic of pop culture morals, Lieberman has no problem with the morality of being the number one recipient of campaign funds from the insurance industry. Pious? Observant? He’s not a bad guy, said Lerner, but his record speaks for itself. “He’s the major champion of defense spending escalation,” said Lerner. “That is the opposite of the Jewish tradition. ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’ is as much a command as the Kashrut [the Jewish dietary laws].”
At one time, Lerner thought he had the ear of erstwhile progressive Hillary Clinton. She’s left him in the dust of the campaign trail, however. The man who was once derided by Rush Limbaugh as Hillary’s “official rabbi” made clear that he’s no longer her spiritual mentor.
He did recall, however, Hillary telling him years ago that she and Bill kept copies of Tikkun in their White House bathroom.
“She clearly identified as more progressive,” Lerner recalled. “But even then she was telling me how scared she was that ‘no one in the public arena is supporting us.’ I would tell her, ‘But he’s the president! You can lead by example.’ They didn’t understand that. She has an internal moral compass, but she doesn’t have a political moral compass. As a public person, she will go in the direction that will be popular.” He added, “I’ve seen her move in many different directions, depending on where the wind is blowing. You can move toward your beliefs or your interests. She has consistently moved toward her interests.”
Which don’t include being called “pro-Palestinian”—which occurred as recently as last year—or being accused of calling a former campaign aide a “fucking Jew bastard.”