It was a moving scene: An Orthodox Jew, who clearly never imagined that some day he would break a major barrier his people faced, speaking from the heart with genuine excitement and gratitude for being selected as the Democratic candidate for vice president of the United States.
The message about the wonders of the American dream, about the increasing inclusiveness of the American political system resonated well enough with many Americans to propel the Gore-Lieberman team up in the polls. So why are many Arab and Muslim Americans apprehensive about the selection of the outstanding Sen. Joseph Lieberman as Al Gore’s running mate?
One cannot simply dismiss these apprehensions on the grounds of anti-Jewish sentiment, since they are prevalent even among many egalitarian and enlightened Arab and Muslim Americans. The answers lie instead in the profound fear of those who feel excluded: The American foreign policy establishment is as absent of Arab and Muslim Americans as it once was of Jewish Americans.
Does a candidate’s ethnic or religious background matter for policy? Certainly not, if the question implies disloyalty to American interests. Time and again minorities, Jews and Arabs included, have suffered the unfortunate accusations of “dual loyalty” even though they have proven throughout that, as officials, they always put American interests first.
But to say that one’s views, values, background, friends, do not have a consequence for the way they frame policy, choose priorities and interpret interests would be news—unfortunate news—to many of us who campaign for one candidate or another assuming that, despite the obvious checks and balances of the American political system, people still make a difference.
In fact, the most exciting part of the Lieberman appointment is not that he is breaking new barriers. Instead, it’s his attractive personal attributes, including his strong faith, which have won him praise among Republicans and Democrats alike.
Indeed, back in the 1950s and 1960s, many Jewish Americans felt frustrated by the foreign policy establishment not merely because they were excluded (especially when it came to Middle East policy), but because this exclusion seemed consequential.
Many believed that those making decisions on Middle East policy were “Arabists” who were well informed about Arab interests and sensitivities without having equal sensitivities to Israeli interests and needs. According to this view, this absence of those knowledgeable about Israeli needs and interests prevented the choice of policy options that would have been more beneficial to American interests.
The good news is that American Jews have long since shattered that foreign policy barrier, with many today in leading Middle East policy positions. Their performance has been clear: For none has Jewishness been the critical factor in the making policy, and among all, the diversity of views is quite evident. But few among American Jews or in Israel are now concerned that policy makers in Washington are insensitive to Israel, and, as a consequence, U.S. policy toward Israel has been more successful—for the mutual benefit of both.
But this same picture accentuates the feelings among Arab and Muslim Americans that their exclusion from the process makes it less likely that American officials have a full appreciation of Arab and Muslim sensitivities on important policy question such as Jerusalem, thus weakening the effectiveness of American foreign policy. Inclusion is the best remedy.
The triumph of the Lieberman selection is in the end also a personal triumph of an extraordinary man whose own strengths and accomplishments were so large that he prevailed despite the barriers he faced.
This triumph of a devout American Jew should be employed to open the gates for other excluded minorities, including Muslim and Arab Americans. At issue is not only the “American dream” but tangible benefits to American foreign policy.