Remarks as Delivered by Senator Joe Lieberman to the American Jewish Committee
Upon Receiving the Congressional Leadership Award
May 2, 2001

Thank you, Al Moses.  Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.  That was, I suppose, just the neutral, dispassionate introduction I would expect from a friend.  I do not take it for granted.  I appreciate it deeply.  And I must say that as you were talking, and in a lot of ways, I’d rather have that introduction than a building named after me.  Particularly coming from you.

I love that the award has written on it a quote from Spinoza that “the true aim of government is liberty” – and how beautiful an idea and how appropriate for this occasion.  I’m honored to be given this award.  I understand that the selection process was drawn out about because of confusion in the AJC’s Palm Beach chapter about the ballot.  But at least here, Pat Buchanan was not on the ballot.

I can’t control myself from a little Jewish humor.  Someone said to me, “You know, you actually won the election in Florida if you tally the votes you got with Al Gore with the votes you got with Pat Buchanan. Just think about a Lieberman-Buchanan ticket.  And then this fellow went on to create some slogans for a Lieberman-Buchanan ticket. One of them: A ticket only a mother could love.  And, another one was, “Lieberman-Buchanan: Immigrants – Gotta love them, gotta hate them.”  And finally, “Lieberman-Buchanan – building a bridge to the 14th century.”

But, look, I think my mother had, as always, a response to this, which was: Al Gore and you won the election, you just didn’t get to take office.  It’s very comforting.

Anyway, thank you so much, Al, and thank you, ladies and gentlemen for this award.  I want to speak for just a few moments about my experiences last year as a way to relate that to the work of the American Jewish Committee and some of its leaders like Al Moses, Bruce [Ramer], and your incoming President, Harold [Tanner].

I understand that the extraordinary opportunity that I was given last year did not occur in a vacuum. It did not happen out of nothing.  As the old expression goes, “I stood on the shoulders of those who had gone before me.” In some senses those were shoulders of people like Al Smith, of whom there’s a compelling biography that is recently out, who had the courage to run as the first Roman Catholic candidate for President in 1928, and suffered terrible abuse and discrimination as a result of his religion.  And another more optimistic sense: John F. Kennedy’s successful run.  I was 18 that year; he was my hero in many ways.  That, in addition to my parents and rabbis’ instructions on tikkun olam, led me into politics.  As did others, like Dr. King, who raised the consciousness of the American people about civil rights and equality.  And the whole civil rights movement. 

In a direct sense, I’m profoundly grateful for the generations of Jewish Americans who preceded me, not just in America’s political life, but in America’s community life, business, professions, science, sports, entertainment, culture, etc., who created over time the kind of acceptance and commitment to America – this mutual relationship that was a precondition to the barrier that not I, but Al Gore, broke last year.  In this work, individuals in this group, like Al Moses, who’s had this extraordinary career, as a great citizen, as international diplomat, as an advocate for the best American and Jewish values in our country, those kinds of acts, are what I’m talking about that led to the opportunity that I had. 

The American Jewish Committee has played a central and critical role in giving me shoulders to stand on over what I gather now is over 95 years, in fighting for the security of the Jewish community in America and around the world.  But I speak now of America.  In advocating the principles and policies that were not only good for the equality of Jewish Americans but betterment of the entire American community, the American family.  So I know the gratitude that I should have for what happened to me. 

I must say that, last year, Hadassah and I both felt that though we were in some sense out there ourselves, we were not alone – that people were really with us.  All those that had preceded and all those that were with us last year, and we are very grateful for that.  Wasn’t Hadassah tremendous last year?  Talk about her name.  Two stories about Hadassah’s name.  One, is I began to say to her, because I would go into these political rallies and she wasn’t there, she was somewhere else in the country, and people were holding up signs saying, “Hadassah.”  And I say, you know, you’ve come to a point where many people in the world have, where you’re known by your first name.  I said, “Sweetheart, you’re right up there with Madonna.”

The other one says a lot about, in a broader sense: After the election, on a Sunday, after basketball practice, and we went to the local Dunkin Donuts.  And we sat way in the back, just to have a cup of coffee, and a gentleman came to the counter and he looked at me, an African American man who told us that he was a policeman, spoke to us about how sorry he was that we lost, and he turned around and said, “How are you, Hadassah?”  And we spoke for a moment, and he left, and she began to tear up. And I said, “What are you crying about?” And she said, “You know it just struck me, my entire life growing up in Massachusetts, going to college, people called me Hassada.  And here is this man that I never met before who comes up and calls me by my correct pronunciation, Hadassah.”  So, there’s a lot embraced in that story and a lot that we have to be grateful for.

I’m going to say a few words today from a text that the AJC, quite appropriately, and Al Moses particularly, engendered in the “What Being Jewish Means to Me” series.  This one was in The New York Times on Dec. 6, 1992.  It doesn’t seem like that long ago, does it?  You and I have aged a bit, Al.  I want to assure you of that.  “Being Jewish in America also means feeling a special love for this country which has provided such unprecedented freedom and opportunity to the millions who have come and lived here.  My parents raised me to believe that I did not have to mute my religious faith or ethnic identity to be a good American.  On the contrary, America invites all its people to be what they are and believe what they wish.  In truth, it is from our individual diversity and shared faith in God that we Americans draw our greatest strength and hope.”

Dear friends, I truly and powerfully experienced that reality last year.  At the beginning, after I was selected, there was an understandable focus on my religion because it was different and new.  We went through a marvelous couple of weeks when I had the chance to watch television and read the newspapers, I watched these fascinating discussions and questions about: “What can he do on Shabbat?”  “What can’t he do on Shabbat?”  People were very respectful and understanding.  But at the end of the campaign, there was hardly a mention of my religion.  Which is exactly the way we hoped it would be and really is in the best spirit of the American people.  I must say that at the outset there was a bit of a flurry over some antisemitic remarks on the Internet.  One gentleman, who had been in the NAACP in Texas, made a comment that was unfortunate. And the national chairman of the NAACP, Kwasi Mfume, immediately dismissed him for it.  I think that in the simple power of numbers that expresses how truly open and accepting and warm and respectful and tolerant America is at this point in our history.  So God bless America.

The other part of this that really touched us was the way in which other groups in our country who are still aspiring to a sense of full equality were empowered and encouraged by my candidacy.  Beyond what we expected.  The very first day I was chosen, Jesse Jackson called me, was very positive, and said, “Remember that in America when a barrier falls for one group, the doors of opportunity open wider for every single American.” And that was the feeling that I got as I went through the country.  My favorite short expressions of this ideal and emotion was at a rally of Latino citizens when a woman in the front row brought a sign that had two words on it, “Viva Chutzpah.” 

And in terms of the future – and I share this with you, because I know there is so much of the AJC ethic and ideal – about a month ago I gave a speech here at George Washington University on the economy. Afterward I had the opportunity to meet with a group of students.  And one of them, an adorable young woman, Indian American, came up to me and said, “You know, I have dreamed about going into politics but I’ve always wondered if it was possible because my parents were born in India.  And when you were chosen I got so excited that I put across my screen saver on my computer the sentence, ‘If Joe Lieberman can do it, I can do it.’” 

You know that says it all, and it leads me to take on to myself whatever opportunities I have in the future to be in public service.  To make real that promise of equality for every single American.   I’m working now in Congress on negotiations on an education bill – to increase funding for schools in America.  And what is that about?  It’s about the basic idea that is so fundamental to the Jewish experience and incorporated right there in the Declaration of Independence: the self-evident truth, that every person is endowed by our Creator with those equal rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  And in our country and in our age, the age of information technology and high-technology, you’re not going to really experience those rights unless you have a first-class education. 

I try to do the same in my work to protect the environment and in my work in international relations.  I know that you had the families of the three Israeli soldiers that are being held as a result of Hezbollah action, and I think it’s critical that we remember in our foreign policy what we find it easier sometimes to remember in our domestic policy, which is that America is at its best when we are true to our ideals.  That our foreign policy is at its best when it is more than a balance of power and realpolitik. That we are a unique nation that has always been defined not so much be geographic borders, but by the values that animated those who founded our country and wrote the principal documents that still guide us.

To me that means in our time being engaged in the world on behalf of freedom and against despotism and against tyranny and against those who would attempt to conduct our foreign policy or theirs or attempt to pressure our foreign policy by the acts of terrorism and lawlessness that are tragically exemplified in the worse sense in the capture and holding of these dear people.

In my AJC statement in The Times that day, in response to what being Jewish means to me, I said it helps me answer those questions – who am I and what am I doing here?  I said in the AJC piece, we are given a purpose individually and as a community, we are given a destiny which I think is to do justice and to protect, indeed to perfect, the human community and the natural environment.

I’ve had extraordinary opportunities in my time to do just that.  One of them was last year, to take some of those cases and arguments and causes to a national audience.  I am so grateful that my constituents in Connecticut voted for me legally not once, but twice, and gave me the opportunity to continue to serve in the Senate.  And in accepting this leadership award from the AJC, I’m joining the very distinguished company of my colleagues who have been honored with it.

I express my gratitude for all this organization has done, continues to do, and will do, to be true, not only to the Jewish ethical tradition, but to help America be true to its finest ideals. And I accept the award with the understanding that it’s a kind of recognition of past service – but it’s an invocation to stay the course and continue to do what I can to be true to those ideals that we share.

Back to Top