It’s campaign season in the US, and like clockwork, out come the Jews who ask only one question when deciding for whom to vote: “Which candidate is the strongest supporter of Israel?” It is not unheard of to hear such people express the opinion that Jews who consider issues other than support for Israel when casting their ballots are not “good Jews.”
In fact, it is those who consider only Israel in their voting choices who have fallen victim to muddy thinking and are failing to exemplify true Jewish values.
Let me start by saying that I consider it a truism that Jews should support the State of Israel. What that means, exactly, is a matter of some debate, but as far as I am concerned, it is simply beyond the pale for a Jew to classify him- or herself as someone who does not support the Jewish State. I’m not talking about Jews who disagree with some Israeli policies or think that the current Israeli government is doing the wrong thing. Rather, I’m talking about the people who believe that Israel is by definition the bad guy, or the people who think that the modern State of Israel should not exist. This essay is not targeted at such people; as far as I am concerned, they are beyond redemption.
The question, then, is not whether a Jew in America should support Israel, but rather whether a Jew in America should only support Israel. Is how the various candidates support Israel one in a list of issues a Jew should consider when voting, or is it the only issue?
There are many issues at play in the campaign which are spoken to directly by Jewish law, tradition, and culture. Israel is the most obvious of these, but it certainly is not the only one. Some others include:
- Abortion and birth control — Jewish law is not as liberal about abortion and contraception as NARAL, and it’s not as strict as the Pro-Life Action League. Frequently, politicians who are viewed as the strongest supporters of Israel are also pro-life. Voting for such a candidate is a vote in favor of making illegal some abortions and some forms of birth control which are not only permitted but in some cases required by Jewish law. This is a Really Big Deal.
- Immigration — When the Jewish people left Egypt, wandered in the desert for forty years, and finally entered the Land of Israel, we were not exactly “legal immigrants,” seeing as how we slaughtered or made subservient the people who were living there at the time. We are commanded, “Love ye therefore the stranger, for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:19). Our own history and this commandment have much to say about the treatment we should advocate for people who enter this country illegally.
- Public assistance — We are commanded to help the poor, the widow and the orphan. The great scholar and teacher Maimonides enumerated the eight levels of charity, ranging from the least praiseworthy, giving unwillingly, to the most praiseworthy, helping a person become self-sufficient so that they no longer need to rely on charity. Jewish law requires community involvement in ensuring that individuals satisfy their charitable obligations. This has obvious implications on the debate over the various forms of public assistance that are or could be administered by our government.
- Civil rights — Jews have long been pioneers in the civil rights movement. Abraham Joshua Heschel marched alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. at Selma. Jews have always recognized the critical importance of protecting civil rights, both because this is a direct manifestation of the commandment to pursue justice, and because “And then… they came for me… and by that time there was no one left to speak up.” Our right to freely and safely practice our religion can only be fully secured by protecting civil rights for everyone.
- Justice system — Jewish law commands us to ensure that a working, trustworthy system of justice is established in any community in which we reside. There are opinions that a Jew is prohibited from living in a palce where the justice system is nonexistent or lacks integrity. The question of whether individual political candidates will ensure the fair administration of justice for all is therefore a crucial one for a Jew to ask when choosing for whom to vote.
- The environment — In the very first chapter of the book of Genesis, we are commanded to “replenish the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creepeth upon the earth” (Genesis 1:28). We are commanded to shoo away a mother bird before taking the eggs from her nest. We are absolutely prohibited from chopping down a fruit-bearing tree under any circumstances. We are commanded to allow the land of Israel to lie fallow for one year out of seven as well as every fiftieth year, so that it will continue to provide us with bountiful harvests under God’s blessing. In short, stewardship of the environment is an important Jewish value, and we must pay attention to it when choosing for whom to vote.
- Tikkun olam — It is incumbent upon every Jew to work to improve the world. This commandment touches on every single issue at play in any political campaign. For every issue, Jews can and should be asking, “Which candidate’s positions will, if carried out, make the world a better place from the Jewish perspective?” Simply put, a Jew who ignores any campaign issue is a Jew who is ignoring his obligation to improve the world.
No element of Jewish law or tradition supports the position that support for the modern State of Israel trumps all these other issues. In fact, a case can be made under Jewish law that since the modern State of Israel is a secular state rather than the religious state ordained by the Torah, every one of the issues listed above, all of which derive directly from Torah commandments, are more important than support for Israel.
Treating support for Israel as the most important issue in the campaign might be justified if the positions of the various candidates on this issue were drastically different. The reality, however, is that this is not the case. Even the viable politicians who are supposedly weakest on supporting Israel acknowledge that Israel has the right to exist in peace with its neighbors and that terrorist attacks against Israel are unacceptable. Even the ones who are supposedly strongest on supporting Israel are willing to further their own “legacy” and chance for a Nobel Peace Prize by pressuring Israel to give up land in exchange for peace.
Another important factor in how heavily support for Israel should count in a Jew’s voting choices is the question of tactical vs. strategic decision-making. When you vote for a president, you’re voting to put someone into office for for years. Frankly, the amount of damage a president can do to Israel in four years is rather limited. In contrast, if that president should happen to get to nominate a justice to the U.S. Supreme Court, the impact of his choice will be felt in this country for decades, if not longer. Given that several of the important issues listed above have been and continue to be directly influenced by Supreme Court decisions, it is extremely foolhardy not to take this possibility into account when deciding for whom to vote. In contrast, the Supreme Court has essentially no influence over how the US supports Israel.
For American politicians, what supporting Israel really should mean is supporting the Israeli government, and all modern presidents have done that to at least some extent. Furthermore, Israel has always recognized that it needs to watch out for its own interests, because it can’t rely on anyone else to do it. What all this means, simply put, is that what happens to Israel really isn’t affected that much by who gets elected in America. Sure, it makes a difference, but it doesn’t make a big difference. In contrast, the different candidates for office have drastically different platforms and positions on the issues listed above, so taking those issues into account when voting can make a big difference in terms of what actually happens in this country.
If you’re an American Jew who wants to have an impact on Israeli policy, voting in American elections isn’t the way to achieve that. You will have a greater impact by voting in WZO elections. You will have an even greater impact by making aliya and voting in Israeli elections. But really, it’s fantasy to think that your vote in American elections will make a big difference in what happens to Israel. Allowing Israel to own your vote is therefore an irrational abrogation of your obligation as a Jew to help improve the world.