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Jewish World ReviewNov. 6, 2000 / 8 Mar-Cheshvan, 5761

Nat Hentoff

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Joe Lieberman's excommunication -- TOWARD THE END of the presidential campaign, a rabbinical court in Brooklyn excommunicated Joseph Lieberman for causing "grave scandal" to the Jewish religion by "falsifying to the American people the teachings of the Torah against partial birth abortion" as well as by claiming that Jews can marry non-Jews without violating the tenets of Orthodox Judaism. Another count was his "legitimizing homosexuality," which the Torah "strongly condemns."

The story was broken by Brent Bozell's Cybercast News Service, and another rabbi -- not on the court -- estimated that maybe 150,000 Jews around the country would take Lieberman's banishment seriously. No more than that.

For Jews, there is no pope -- no one authoritative seat of judgment that can cast any Jew into outer darkness. I did feel some empathy with Lieberman, however, because in 1982, I too was excommunicated by a much more marginal court of assizes -- three rabbis in a motel in Tewksbury, Mass. My name was intoned and denounced, and a candle was snuffed out, extinguishing my spiritual identity. Or so those rabbis thought.

Since then, I have not been refused entrance to any synagogue.

My cardinal sin was an article I'd written condemning the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Ariel Sharon, leading the troops, lied to Prime Minister Menachem Begin and the Knesset by pledging that he would only go a certain distance and not engage in a full-scale invasion. There were civilian casualties, and photographs in American newspapers and on television showed some Lebanese children missing arms or legs. Abba Eban, who was vital to the eventual recognition of the Jewish state, denounced that invasion.

I never heard from the three rabbis again, although I tried to reach them to demand a hearing on the basis of the American tradition of due process. But, as I later realized, like the rabbinical court that ousted Lieberman, these verdicts have no standing in American law.

However, I do believe that Lieberman has once again removed himself from being taken seriously as an authority on the American Constitution.

On Oct. 24, in a speech at the University of Notre Dame, Lieberman once more charged the critics of his apparent attempts to turn this nation into a theocracy as seeming "to have forgotten that the Constitution promises freedom of religion -- not freedom from religion."

Article Six of the Constitution of the United States, in which G-d is not once mentioned, states unequivocally: "No religious test shall ever be required as Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States."

Therefore, atheists such as I are freed by the Constitution from being required to adhere to any religion at all in order to be full citizens of this country. Lieberman is a graduate of Yale Law School, and he may have a case for a refund of his tuition if he can prove that his constitutional law professor actually instructed him that there is "no freedom from religion" in this nation.

Lieberman has already diminished himself as a man of principle -- his religious exhortations aside -- by abandoning so many of the positions he has held. Among them: his criticism of affirmative action and his support for vouchers to private schools, including religious schools.

In his blind ambition, he also disavowed his support for allowing recipients of Social Security to privately invest some of those funds. And he reversed his previous threat to censor Hollywood and television products as, during the campaign, he accepted lavish campaign funds from the very sources he had often indicted as corrupters of our culture.

But his most extraordinary act was his desire to meet with Louis Farrakhan, whom he says he "respects."

Not since Father Charles Coughlin has there been so prominent and poisonous an anti-Semite in America as Farrakhan. Recently, Farrakhan has again said that he would welcome a meeting with Jews to demonstrate his true ecumenicism. But he also keeps speaking -- as he did recently on NBC's "Meet the Press" -- of Jewish control of black media. Jews, he says, have "the money to fund black organizations, to fund black newspapers, to fund black magazines so that it quiets our voice."

No one has quieted the press's reporting of the self-inflicted diminishment of Joseph Lieberman. Rabbi Marc Schneir, active in promoting black-Jewish relations, told New York's The Jewish Week: "There are certain lines we don't cross, and I think meeting with Farrakhan is crossing the line."

Lieberman has by now crossed so many lines that it will be a major challenge to his faith to enable him to redeem himself.

JWR contributor Nat Hentoff is a First Amendment authority and author of numerous books. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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07/26/99: Lady Hillary and the press

© 2000, NEA