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January 15, 2003



When Joseph I. Lieberman ran for U.S. vice president in 2000, I expected that anti-Semitism would not be a serious hurdle.

After all, if nine years of the TV sitcom "Seinfeld" could not provoke an anti-Semitic rampage, nothing could. In fact, a Jew was elected vice president, depending on your perception of our political system. Democrats Al Gore and Lieberman won the popular election by a half-million votes, but they lost the Supreme Court's interpretation of the electoral college vote.

Since Lieberman announced his candidacy for president on Monday, people are naturally wondering if anti-Semitism and the crisis in Israel will play a significant role in the 2004 election.

Actually, it already played a significant role in 2000 and could very well have decided the end result. We may possibly be able to thank the Arab-American vote in Florida, where the electoral margin between Gore and George W. Bush, a Republican, was 537 votes and Ralph Nader took 100,000 votes.

It was reported but not widely known that some Arab-Americans organized for Bush's election. In particular, Bush actively sought and received the endorsement of Arab organizations in Michigan, a swing state where 400,000 Arabs live - mostly in the southeast section. They endorsed Bush in mid-October, a short time after the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians began on Sept. 29, 2000.

Most of Bush's backers did not say it outright, but it appeared that under the circumstances they might have feared the prospect of a Jew in the White House.

A Reuters account from that time recounts that members of an organization called the Arab American Political Action Committee endorsed Bush because he has courted the Arab vote and has shown a flexibility on Middle East issues. They pointed to Bush's mention of two issues during a previous presidential debate, secret evidence and racial profiling.

A flexibility on Middle East issues? What does that mean? Some did say they were concerrned about Lieberman's faith.

Osama Siblani, publisher of the Arab American News in Dearborn, was at least honest enough to tell Reuters, "Lieberman's culture and religion are embedded. Lieberman is already committed to Israel in his soul."

Long after the election, Ziad Igbara of Clifton, N.J., expressed regret to a New York Times reporter that he supported Bush. In a July 29, 2002, Times report, Igbara said he voted for Bush and registered Arab-Americans for Bush.

"The race was so close," he was quoted as saying. "Probably if we didn't vote for him, it would have gone to Gore and Lieberman. But we have to keep voting. By electing our representatives to Congress, this is how we change things."

There are multiple ironies in this. Bush lost Michigan and New Jersey, anyway, so under our system - with the electoral college - their efforts counted for nothing. However, Bush became president anyway and is widely regarded as a strong supporter of Israel whereas many Arab voters feel betrayed by him.

All the same, let's move south. If enough Arab voters in Florida thought along the same lines as their brethren in Michigan and New Jersey, they probably drove the final nail into the Gore-Lieberman coffin. First, Nader got 100,000 votes, much of which probably drew enough votes from Gore to decide the election right there. Nader may well have attracted Arab votes because his family is from Lebanon.

However, the final official margin had Bush leading Gore by 537 votes. It would have only taken 270 Arab-American voters to make the difference.

This is a very likely scenario. If they organized in two states, they probably worked for Bush in even larger states with substantial Arab Florida. This does not mean, of course, that most or all Arabs supported Bush.

Israel was never highly visible as an issue during the 2000 election. Of course, both Gore and Bush routinely declared their expected support for Israel, but neither side ever got much more specific than that.

The only difference I could discern among the four candidates for president and vice president was that only one worships as a Jew. Really, why else would some Arab-Americans have opposed Gore and Lieberman?