Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Israel and Presidential Elections: Finding the Center in Jewish America

Voting day - Debaird

Every four years, Americans undertake a seemingly impossible task. Armed with the information we glean from presidential candidates’ banners, television ads, sound bites, our personal research and whatever information we may have filtered out of the latest report of a candidate's alleged actions, we head to the polls to elect the new president of the United States. 

For American Jewish voters, the task is even more daunting. For many, the security of Israel – a hot topic these days – is always at the top of their voter’s tip sheet. Even my father, and his father, devout secular Jews who despised political rhetoric and boycotted most electoral debates, voted with an eye toward ensuring Israel’s safety. For my dad, as for many Jews in North America, a vote advocating support for Israel was a vote for plurality in his home country. For my grandfather, who had been raised Orthodox and later defied his father’s religious expectation by refusing to become a rabbi, there was nothing more sacred than representation that assured a Jew’s right to live and worship (or not worship) as he chose. From his vantage point, that could only be achieved by voting for candidates that would assure Israel’s right to exist.

Learning how to vote - Jewish women hear tips in Yiddish (1935).
But it was from my father, oddly enough, that I learned what I feel is the true secret to voting as an observant Jew. Commonality isn’t found in a candidate’s talking points, or his sworn love for Israel, nor even his willingness to tour the Holy Land, but in the precept that has guided Judaism since its beginning and has molded the very platform of Talmudic debate: The willingness to hear and to express all sides of a question, and to look for commonality over discord, before speaking one’s piece.

It’s a problem-solving process that has precedent in the actions of ancient rabbis who debated controversial issues like the rights of the poor to glean the edges of a farmer’s field, or the compassion of treating non-Jews as neighbors with needs and rights. It is guided by what has always been foremost in the Jewish heart: that there is strength in acknowledging the other side, and courage in seeking compromise, even when you believe one side is right.

This year however, it has been difficult to hear the moderate voice in America’s discourse. Calls for conciliation by the president have been mistaken in some cases for apathy or worse, betrayal. And election platforms by opposing candidates that four years ago were considered too extreme are now seen as having merit.

Politicians that appear to quickly and openly endorse Israel over Palestinian calls for recognition now appear more credible to Jewish voters than those who listen to both sides and then openly declare their support to Israel. Even platforms that espouse right-wing values such as upholding Christian prayer in school, opposing gay rights and blocking access to education for children of illegal immigrants now seem preferable over that of a moderate candidate who strives for political consensus. 

Protesters against gays in front of a high school graduation - K763
As American Jews have learned before, it is difficult to quantify extremism. The McCarthy era began in the late 1940s as a pretense to investigate communist values in America. By its decline almost 10 years later, senate investigations had moved far beyond the specter of investigating American values. Citizens of all walks of life had been blacklisted from working on the pretense that their moral views could not be proven to be genuinely “American.” Notably, homosexuality eventually became targeted by the investigations, as did one’s willingness to question the appropriateness of the investigations themselves.

It is interesting that Israeli political views appear to be shifting toward the center once again, suggesting that even in a land divided by deep political conflict, the yearning for consensus and mutual respect can be found.

As American Jews, we need to find our center as well. Israel needs our confidence in its future, just as we need Israel’s. Such mutual trust is necessary if we truly value Israel’s security as a nation, and a Jewish homeland.

The American spirit is strong - Ildar Sagdejev

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