If A Jew Ran for President



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A Cautionary Tale from Peru

By Eve Kushner

"A Jew can't govern America. A pure American, native to here, has to assume the presidency." Does that viewpoint sound familiar? What about these comments:

  • My parents would be very proud that a Jew had arrived at the point of running for president.

  • We should support him in everything he does, because ... the image he reflects is the image of the Jews.

  • The whole community is afraid that he'll do a bad job and that 91 years after our grandparents arrived, he'll fail, erasing the positive image that the community has worked to achieve.

Wherever it now says "Jew" in these quotations, it originally said "Japanese." And wherever it reads "America" or "American," it initially said "Peru" or "Peruvian." People of Japanese descent in Peru made these statements when one of their own, Alberto Fujimori, ran for president in 1989.

The Peruvian nikkei (expatriate Japanese and their descendants) reacted to his candidacy with great ambivalence. And if their words resonate, it's because American Jews responded much the same way to Joe Lieberman's vice-presidential bid, as the following comments show:

  • On some deep level, it tells all Jews we're full citizens of this country.

  • America is simply not ready for a Jewish vice president, not to mention a president.

  • I so wish my father were alive to see this. I can see the smile on his face, the tears running down his face, the pure joy and amazement he would be feeling.

  • I think [Jewish] people always worry about someone Jewish being in such a visible and exposed position, because they're worried it will reflect back on the whole people....

Perhaps it's not surprising that these sentiments mimic the nikkei's ambivalence, because the two communities occupy similar positions in their nations. Arriving as immigrants only a century ago (in terms of the main waves of immigration), both groups have suffered societywide discrimination. Now more established, they still occupy uncertain positions in their nations. Consequently, when a group member has ventured into high-profile politics, the community has fallen into some disarray, with many feeling threatened and critics publicly distancing themselves from the politician.

The groups do face different situations, because Fujimori won three presidential elections before falling from grace, accused of crimes ranging from human rights violations to embezzlement. In November 2000 he pretended to fly to Malaysia on business but surfaced in Tokyo and faxed his resignation to Peru. He has settled in Japan for now.

Fujimori's political involvement also sparked attacks on his community in a way that Lieberman's bid did not. Ever since Fujimori declared his candidacy in 1989, and especially since he fled the country, Peruvians have assaulted the nikkei physically and verbally. Although most nikkei have never had close ties to Fujimori, their attackers see them as extensions of the ex-president, much as Americans have indiscriminately targeted Middle Easterners and Sikhs since September 11, 2001.

Because there has never been a Jewish president, the tribe can only imagine the nikkei's experience. But someday a Jew may run for the highest office. Remarkably, the 2000 elections featured three Jewish vice-presidential candidates, including Winona LaDuke (whose mother is Jewish) with the Green Party and Nat Goldhaber with the anti-Buchanan segment of the Reform Party. Before a Jew announces presidential ambitions, the Jewish community should know how Fujimori's political career affected the nikkei.

But aren't Japanese-Peruvians and American Jews vastly dissimilar? Well, yes, in many ways. For starters, Jews differ from other Americans on the basis of religious identity and ethnicity, whereas the nikkei stand out racially. Their surnames and eye shape distinguish them from 97 percent of Peruvians, who are Andean, Caucasian, or both. Except for Hasidim and yarmulke-wearing men, Jews can more easily "pass" in mainstream America, identifiable by surname and appearance only to those in the know.

Cultural and historical differences also abound. Naturally contentious, Jews question everything and frequently splinter into factions. By contrast, the Japanese have traditionally emphasized harmony and group unity above individualism. Moreover, Jews have lived as the minority in other countries for millennia, often excluded and resented, whereas the Japanese remained isolated from the world for centuries.

But American Jews and the Peruvian nikkei have somewhat parallel histories in their host nations. Just as masses of Jews flocked to U.S. shores about a century ago, particularly between 1880 and 1924, the Japanese first migrated to Peru in 1899 and arrived in throngs for three decades. Jews, seeking relief from European oppression and poverty, intended to remain in the United States. The Japanese longed to escape staggering unemployment in their overcrowded archipelago and avidly signed labor contracts to work Peruvian sugar plantations. But unlike the Jews, the Japanese hoped to go home wealthy in a few years.

Unfortunately, Peruvian farm life involved overwork, abuse, and disease, so the Japanese headed to cities. On nearly every corner in Lima they established convenience stores, flower shops, and barbershops, much as Jewish immigrants sold cigars, candy, and fruit from small stores in American cities. If the Japanese had too little capital to open shops, they worked from ubiquitous, shoddy bazaars, just as impoverished Jews peddled wares in American streets.

Japanese business success prompted a nativist response; Peruvians complained about monopolies and unfair competition, and journalists wrote daily diatribes about the "Japanese infiltration." Meanwhile, Japanese immigration continued. By 1936, the 23,000 Japanese represented 45 percent of Peru's foreign population. Densely clustered in Lima, they seemed even more numerous than they were, as did Jews teeming in U.S. ghettoes to the disgust of some Gentiles.

Peruvians resented the community more as World War II neared and the United States mounted a campaign against anyone of Japanese descent. Seeking hemispheric unity in fighting totalitarian regimes, the United States asked Latin American governments to root out supposed civilian subversives. Peru allowed the FBI to spread anti-Japanese propaganda there.

In May 1940 anti-Japanese sentiment exploded in Lima. For two days Peruvians sacked, looted, and burned more than 600 Japanese homes and businesses, killing 10 Japanese and injuring dozens. In full view of the police, who never intervened, looters carted off windows, floor planks, wallpaper, tiles, and even toilets. This Kristallnacht scarred the psyches of the Japanese community, creating a terror that lingers to this day.

In response to Japan's 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, the Peruvian government froze the immigrants' assets and prohibited patronization of their businesses. The United States and Peru then agreed to deport the Japanese to U.S. territory. Starting in 1942, Peruvian officials rounded up Japanese, stuffed them into the bowels of rancid boats, shaved their heads, and sprayed them with DDT. Altogether 1,771 detainees went to barbed-wire-enclosed concentration camps in Texas. This unthinkably familiar scenario should send shivers down Jews' spines.

After the war, most deportees moved to Japan or stayed in the United States, because Peru readmitted only 79. But ten thousand Japanese still lived in Peru and chose to remain there, rather than relocating to a devastated Japan. Recognizing that their conspicuous self-ghettoization had fueled anti-Japanese sentiment, they tried to blend in better, encouraging their kids to assimilate and accepting other Peruvians into their clubs and schools.

As Jews moved from cities to suburbs in the postwar era, they, too, sought to fit in with mainstream Americans. Living among white Protestants for the first time, rather than among other Jews or fellow ethnics such as Italians, Jews craved their neighbors' approval and attempted to hide their ethnicity. They wanted their children to identify as Jews and to know the essential aspects of their heritage but only if this Jewishness didn't hamper their integration into society.

Successful assimilation has imperiled both the Jews and the nikkei. Intermarriage is so widespread that community associations fret about whom they consider to be true members and how much they want to welcome intermarried spouses into the fold. Cultural transmission remains problematic, and only a fraction of each population participates in community organizations or events.

To protect themselves in sometimes hostile climates, the nikkei and the Jews have stressed academic achievement, their children often the top students in their classes. Each community has made great strides in the business world and white-collar professions, producing a disproportionate number of superstars for their relatively tiny groups (Jews at 2 percent of the population, the nikkei at one-fifth of 1 percent).

And yet the Jews and nikkei wonder how much they really belong in their nations and whether they can ever achieve full acceptance. Uncertain of the answers, both communities have kept low profiles. In the political sphere they've taken this cautiousness to different levels; whereas Jews have been mayors, governors, representatives, senators, and presidential advisers, only a handful of nikkei served in Congress before Fujimori's presidency. Their lack of involvement was so conspicuous that Peruvians accused them of caring little about the country's welfare, only about their own advancement.

When Fujimori vaulted into the spotlight with his first presidential campaign, the nikkei lost their comforting wallflower status. To be sure, they rejoiced that a Japanese-Peruvian had attained such prominence. One commented, "I feel gratified.... This is the biggest event we've had. It's an achievement, an example.... My parents would be very proud that a nikkei had arrived at the point of running for president."

Similarly, when Gore chose Lieberman, some Jews expressed elation, saying, "God, I wish my parents were alive to see this day." Many Jews interpreted the nomination as a sign that other Americans had taken the "final step toward accepting us" and that, having "come of age" in the country, Jews could trust that they fully belonged. Because Lieberman didn't simply happen to be Jewish but was such an openly religious Jew, the tribe seemed that much more clearly accepted.

Fujimori's candidacy had the opposite effect on some nikkei; they believed they weren't entitled to wield such national power. When historian Amelia Morimoto interviewed about 100 Japanese-Peruvians in spring 1990, 25 percent thought it premature to have a nikkei presidential candidate. One said that a "pure Peruvian, native to here" had to be president. Another reasoned that a third- or fourth-generation nikkei could run, but not Fujimori, the son of immigrants. By contrast, the tribe generally felt ready to see a Jew hold such a high office and didn't make comparable statements about Lieberman.

But Jews and nikkei shared common ground in fearing a backlash from their compatriots. Certain that there would be one, many nikkei resented that Fujimori had made the whole community so visible. A standoffish dean of Peru's agricultural university, he hadn't actively associated with nikkei organizations, so they'd never even heard of him. He'd come out of nowhere and put them all at risk of anti-Japanese rioting. The least popular of five candidates, Fujimori barely stood a chance, so the community treated his campaign as a joke. But in a strange development, he and novelist Mario Vargas Llosa received the most votes. Facing a runoff, Fujimori suddenly posed a serious threat to the nikkei.

Jews didn't blame Lieberman for joining the race but worried that his visibility would awaken dormant antisemitism. As cautionary reminders, they cited past eruptions of anti-Jewish passions: "If history taught us anything, it's not to get too complacent," said Ben Younger at a New York roundtable of influential Jews. "Viennese Jews before the war paraded their prominence, and look what happened to them," wrote a Newsweek correspondent, summing up the thoughts of older Jews. An editorial in the Jewish Bulletin of Northern California acknowledged common fears: "They will say Jews have too much power, have gone too far."

Jews also doubted that the country as a whole would support Lieberman, though he might capture certain regions. Even if we've won disproportionate numbers of congressional seats, some Jews argued, there's a vast difference between electing a Jewish congressperson and having a Jewish VP.

Both Jews and nikkei fell to analyzing their compatriots' prejudices. Some Japanese-Peruvians asserted that the rich, educated sector harbored the greatest racism, whereas others viewed poor Peruvians as most embittered about nikkei success. Jews parsed various types of antisemitism, from the blatant hatred that crackpots express on the Internet to the more restrained type that excludes Jews from country clubs to the still more closeted kind that affects people mainly in voting booths. Which would most damage Lieberman's chances?

And what if he won? Then, Jews said, antisemitism might assail the whole community, especially if he made any mistakes as VP. Pessimistic Jews also figured that Americans would resent Lieberman's overt Judaism and see him as a Jew first, a politician second. In office he would surely come under attack for dual loyalties to the United States and Israel.

With these concerns the Jews sounded much like the nikkei, some of whom vowed to leave Peru to avoid inevitable problems if Fujimori triumphed. Many fearful nikkei even marched in favor of his opponent. Parading in front of Vargas Llosa's house, they criticized Fujimori's high-profile behavior as pushy and un-Japanese. The Peruvian-Japanese Association of Peru published a statement in several newspapers, declaring that the community wasn't united behind Fujimori and reaffirming the nikkei's strong Peruvian identity.

The Jewish community didn't disintegrate quite that much, but as Lieberman repeatedly mentioned God in speeches, seeming to cozy up to the Religious Right with such rhetoric, many Jews became uncomfortable. The Jewish Bulletin of Northern California revealingly titled an article, "Jews Debate: Is Lieberman Over the Top on Religion?" One can hardly imagine Christian organizations disputing that matter after hearing Bill Clinton refer to his Baptist faith or George W. Bush designate Jesus his favorite philosopher. Jewish infighting climaxed when Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, requested that Lieberman refrain from using religious language while stumping. If non-Jews had had any plans to critique Lieberman's Jewishness, the tribe beat them to the punch.

Indeed, despite all the Jewish hand-wringing about how others would receive Lieberman, his candidacy provoked few attacks from non-Jews. According to the ADL's website, the nomination sparked a smattering of vitriol on the Internet, with messages playing into "classical anti-Semitic stereotypes and canards, including conspiracy theories...." Hate acts against American Jews increased 4 percent in 2000, reversing a 25 percent drop since 1994, but the ADL linked the rise to heightened Mideast violence after the erosion of the peace process, not to Lieberman. Furthermore, Louis Farrakhan made inflammatory statements about Lieberman's favoring Israel over the United States, and NAACP leader Lee Alcorn voiced antisemitic comments on a radio show. As unpleasant as these isolated incidents may have been, they don't begin to confirm Jewish fears of generalized hostility or assaults.

Similarly anticipating attacks, the Peruvian-Japanese Association of Peru disseminated bulletins to nikkei about desirable conduct: In the months before the runoff they should avoid confrontations and remember that an individual's actions would reflect on the whole community. During election week they should stay out of public places, avoid traveling alone, and have neighbors watch out for them.

But unlike the Jews, the nikkei proved accurate in their fears; an anti-Japanese sentiment infected Lima, home to 70 percent of nikkei. "No Japanese will govern Peru," said widely displayed signs. Some upscale eateries refused to serve Japanese-Peruvians, and people stoned their businesses and homes. The opposition campaign circulated a flyer ridiculing Fujimori's Japanese ancestry.

Just as U.S. Jews tend to act with restraint in the face of antisemitism, nikkei organizations barely protested these racist actions. Fujimori's then-wife, Susana Higuchi, later assailed the community for its silence during the elections, saying, "The nikkei are passive. There are few nikkei who fight.... During Vargas Llosa's campaign, the colony squelched itself."

Despite such anti-Japanese sentiment, Fujimori gained considerable popular support. Capitalizing on positive stereotypes of the Japanese as honorable and industrious, he adopted the slogan, "Honesty, Technology, Work." As one famous journalist wrote, "Choosing Fujimori was the same as choosing Sony, Toyota, or Mitsubishi.... Japanese products were good. They lasted a lifetime. And you got value for your money." Next to the corrupt politicians that Peru had known too well, Fujimori represented a refreshingly clean slate and won the runoff handily.

With Jews similarly seen as honest, smart, and industrious, Gore likely hoped squeaky-clean Lieberman would redeem the besmirched Democratic Party. When one journalist asked non-Jews about Lieberman, several mentioned positive stereotypes, possibly thinking of Alan Greenspan or Robert Rubin. One said, "Jews are good at business, and the government is basically a business, so get him in there." Ultimately, though, Lieberman's Jewishness barely affected the vote.

When his bid ended, Jews could stop worrying, but Fujimori's 1990 victory only agitated the nikkei further. Soon after the election, one community member described the tense mood: "There's ... pride that a Japanese is president, even if no one wants to say so. But we're also afraid that if his government doesn't work out, they're going to attack us." Thousands of fearful nikkei fled to Japan; although fewer than 1,000 Japanese-Peruvians lived there in 1988, more than 31,000 did by 1992.

Unexpectedly, those who stayed in Peru enjoyed unprecedented admiration during Fujimori's presidency, benefiting from a Peruvian wave of enthusiasm for anything Japanese. Gradually relinquishing their fears, some nikkei viewed his victory as symbolizing their acceptance into society. Fujimori easily won reelection in 1995 and triumphed again after a rigged election in 2000.

But anti-Japanese sentiment surfaced throughout the 1990s, including an assault on the nikkei cultural center, a car bomb that exploded next to the Japanese embassy, and the murder of three visitors from Japan. Kidnappings and assassinations of prominent nikkei made the community feel that much more vulnerable.

When Fujimori's scandalized government collapsed in 2000 and Peru held new presidential elections in spring 2001, some politicians and the tabloid press implicated all nikkei in the alleged misdeeds of Fujimori's government. Alejandro Toledo, now president, repeatedly referred to the "Oriental Mafia" and to the "criminal Japanese and his accomplices." The result, says nikkei journalist Percy Takayama, has been verbal assaults on those with Asian features (including Chinese-Peruvians), offensive graffiti on nikkei-owned businesses, and even physical attacks. As one young Japanese-Peruvian stood in line at a Lima bank, a mob of retirees beat him up, yelling that Fujimori had made their pensions less secure. Takayama himself has been the target of abuse. Several times when he has approached a Lima newspaper kiosk, people gathered to scan the tabloid headlines have yelled, "Japanese should go back to their country!" Others have shouted that the Japanese have robbed the country blind. Takayama recently tried to buy something at a store, only to have the clerk say, "I don't wait on criminals."

The harassment of the nikkei dwarfs the antisemitic upwelling associated with Lieberman's candidacy. Clearly, American Jews don't face the same levels of hatred as Japanese-Peruvians. Given that Lieberman's nomination rattled the tribe more than it affected most other Americans, something irrational obviously propelled Jewish fears.

Jews suffer from a deep sense of insecurity. Indeed, several rabbis said as much in assessing the situation. "Lieberman is like a Rorschach test" to gauge "how secure" American Jews really are, said Rabbi Daniel Pressman of Saratoga, California. Likewise, Rabbi Alan Lew in San Francisco commented, "The fearful response of so many Jews to the Lieberman nomination seems to indicate that perhaps we were whistling in the graveyard; that perhaps we don't feel as secure here as we thought we did; that perhaps the fear of latent anti-Semitism lies much closer to the surface of our lives than we have imagined."

Jews felt insecure on multiple levels, dreading derogatory comments and assaults but also ceaselessly wondering, "Do others think we're acceptable?" As Lew said, "That so many Jews have expressed reservations reveals their discomfort with their own Jewishness. Jews who are a little frightened or ashamed of who they are see Lieberman as too Jewish-someone whose open and obvious Jewishness will call attention to their own Jewishness in a way that makes them uncomfortable."

Revealingly, the education director of a Reform temple said she wanted Lieberman's visibility to "strengthen people's pride about their heritage," helping them value their Judaism, "rather than seeing it as a detriment." Another religious school director hoped the nomination would make it "really cool to be Jewish," implying that it's currently uncool. Apparently, many people do view their Jewishness as socially unacceptable; otherwise they wouldn't fear that Lieberman would expose this quality in them.

But what exactly did he threaten to expose? In Jews' minds, what's inherently shameful about being Jewish? Is it simply that Jews are not Christian and are therefore different from the majority population? Yes, it seems to boil down to that. All minorities internalize a majority population's self-serving belief that it is "normal" and that others are deviant. In absorbing this propaganda, Jews have suffered damage to their core identity.

If a Jew ever runs for president, members of the tribe will have to confront their own antisemitism. What was the noxious feeling that bubbled up for them when Lieberman paraded around all that Jewishness? What truly motivated the infighting?

Jews will also need to consider how they function as a group. Can community members become comfortable enough with themselves to tolerate such a visible Jew? Can the non-Orthodox support only secular Jews?

Furthermore, the community should reexamine its relationship to the larger U.S. population. Do Jews consider themselves visitors whom other Americans will merely tolerate up to a point? A 1999 Gallup poll showed that 92 percent of Americans would vote for a Jewish presidential candidate, so fear obviously fuels Jews' pessimism more than any measure of reality.

To take another approach, do Jews benefit from feeling that they'll never quite belong? This separateness corresponds nicely with Jews' sense of themselves as "chosen." If Jews fit in, will they lose their elitist standing? Jumping into the melting pot also means relinquishing the community's status as a continually persecuted group, and Jewish identity has become awfully dependent on that sense of victimhood.

If a Jew runs for president, worried community members will need to separate reasonable fears from unreasonable ones, which is no simple task. Paranoia looks silly until something like a terrorist attack occurs. Then any prior insouciance appears foolish. Community members can't control the antisemitism that a Jew's presidential bid can unleash, but they should at least try to distinguish their own shame from legitimate concerns about group safety.

Considering the nikkei's situation can give Jews some objectivity about the matter. Americans would never stone Levitz furniture stores or deny Steven Spielberg a table at Spago. This stark contrast should provide Jews with a reassuring upper boundary; things could never get that bad here. Then how bad could they become?

You can't win the lottery without playing; if a Jew never runs for president with a major party, community members will fulfill their own prophecy of always feeling like outsiders. If a Jew does campaign and is elected, the community will have to work on soaking in all that national acceptance. Some Americans will never like the idea of a Jewish president, but Jews can't do much about that. The meatier task for Jews is to see whether they can accept themselves.


from the May 2002 Edition of the Jewish Magazine




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