The Jewish Vote- What does it mean?
With the elections just around the corner and now that the presidential debates are over many of us are wondering what does it all mean? We have heard many words, and I suspect that the volume and voracity of words will only increase as we get closer to the finish line. When we consider the candidates’ words we try to understand them through various lenses. What do they mean for me and my family given my age, gender, income, world view, etc. I am always touched when people also consider what do they mean for me as a Jew. What is fascinating to me about this particular lens it that it does not necessarily correlate to any specific level of religious practice, participation or knowledge of Judaism. The fact that there even is such a thing as “the Jewish vote” in our country is really quite astounding when you think about it.
For what it’s worth, I will share with you what I think the “Jewish vote” means, at least to me.
1) First and foremost, it means that you actually do vote. As a minority in this country, representing less than 2% of the population of the United States, if we want our voices heard, we have to show up at the polls. Even if we are busy, distracted, confused, bored, etc. Our vote is our voice. Furthermore, I view the fact that we can vote at all as remarkable. Citizenship, the right to vote, the ability to participate in the civil discourse is something that Jews were only accorded in the last couple hundred years, and even then, not in all nations. As an oppressed minority for most of our existence, it is a privilege and an honor to live in a society where we count, we must never forget that. Finally, in modern times, there are so many countries where democratic elections are not the norm. We are a people who celebrate freedom as a core human value, drawing from the Exodus narrative as a paradigm and an imperative. Voting is the tangible demonstration of freedom. For so many people in the world and for so much of our existence that right was refused. To squander that right is to devalue human freedom.
2) “If we are not prophets, we are at least the sons of prophets” (Talmud Yerushalmi Shabbat 17a, Pesach 33a, Talmud Bavli 66b) Central to the issue of how we vote is the question who we think we are. The Jewish demographic in the United States has certain characteristics, most notably a very high education level, low birth rates and relatively higher income levels. But beyond the qualities that can be measured by surveys and censuses, we have a set of characteristics that are a part of our legacy, which continue to influence our perspective and our behavior. Historically, the Jewish vote has not been self serving based on our personal economic or political interests. Rather, the Jewish vote has consistently represented a prophetic voice; some would even say a contrarian view. The prophet was one who challenged the system in which he lived to rise to a higher level of justice, equality and compassion. Prophets in the bible are fearless in speaking truth to power. They are not focused on their own well being; rather they are passionate about seeking the greatest good for the most people. When we show up at the polls, we may have different views on which candidate is best prepared to make this claim, but we should chose the one who we believe will deliver on it. Otherwise, we are simply choosing to serve our own personal interests, which would be untrue to our heritage.
3) Israel!!! Not in my memory has the issue of Israel played such a central role in US elections. The threats to Israel are real and varied- everything from Iranian nuclear weapons, to mainline Protestant Church criticism, to regional war and uprisings in the Middle East, to internal strife within Israel itself. As a Jew, the right of Israel to safely exist is unquestionable. What strategy the United States takes to ensure this imperative is open for debate, and the candidates may disagree on how best to help. For many American Jews, the issue of Israel is very sensitive and thus we are vulnerable to those who would play upon our fears. Nonetheless, the dangers are real, the options are few, and the clock is ticking. We must sift through the political posturing, and carefully weigh the words and deeds on both sides of the ocean. Let us bear in mind, that after the elections are over, the facts on the ground in the Middle East remain the same and the American Jewish community must stand united to support Israel regardless of who wins here in the US. In the end, the American Jewish community is more enduring and ultimately plays a much larger role that the “Jewish vote” in any single election.
These are exciting times; perhaps even tense times, but they need not be discourteous or unpleasant times. We are passionate as Americans and as Jews about these upcoming elections, but we have an opportunity to model one of our religion’s great achievements as codified in the Talmud and generations of commentators- we have the ability to ardently disagree, debate and still be respectful and civil to one another. Perhaps that is the greatest piece we can contribute as the “Jewish vote” this year. See you at the polls!
Rabbi Leah Cohen
Temple B’nai Chaim, Georgetown, CT, November 2012