Tuesday, October 28, 2008

I Heard It Through The Grapevine

I will not vote in November.

I have already voted. I sent in my absentee ballot a couple of weeks ago. In my mind, voting is one of the most important things a person can do. I don’t care how long I have to stand in line or how many pieces of identification are required; I have voted in almost every election since I have been old enough to vote. I would like to say I have never missed one but there have been special elections that somehow escaped my notice. I research the candidates and try to make the best decision possible.

This presidential election has had some interesting twists to it. The dive in the economy helped change the tone from that of just one negative ad after another to some real talking about priorities and issues. We finally got an issue that got us beyond the name calling and got us voters to take a look and ask ourselves if we trust this candidate or that candidate to get us out of this mess we are in.

In the Jewish community, it should come as no surprise that there are Jews who back the Democratic candidate Barak Obama and those who back the Republican candidate, John McCain. Each side is as passionate as the other about who would make the best President of the United States. The days in which Jews all voted in a block are long gone. It is a wonder that we can even talk about the “Jewish vote” any more as something different than any other group. We have soccer moms, hockey moms, NASCAR dads, seniors, Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, Greens, Communists, Socialist, East Coast Liberals and Midwestern Conservatives. We have our own religious right and our secular left. The only things I can say about the Jewish vote is that we vote.

People talk about Israel as a concern for the Jewish vote. But again, we are all over the map when it comes to Israel. I don’t think that there are too many Jews who are looking to dissolve the Jewish state, but we certainly don’t agree on how Israel should conduct her domestic or foreign policies and how the United States should or should not deal with Israel as a matter of our own foreign policy. Should Israel negotiate with the PLO? With Hamas? With Hezbollah? Should we divide Jerusalem, give back the West Bank, exchange prisoners to get back Israeli kidnapped soldiers? Who should be negotiating with the Palestinians? What should or should not be on the table? Israelis themselves are split on these issues and the Jewish community in the United States is also split.

There are many who say that Jews should vote for their interests in the United States, and not look at foreign policy to Israel as a lone issue. There are many issues in this country that we have strong opinions about. We discuss in our communities issues like health care, the war in Iraq, taxes and governmental regulations. We are worried about sending our kids to college and if we can afford to keep our homes and if we will be laid off in the months ahead.

If Judaism has any issue with the current campaigns, it is in the area of personal attacks. That people disagree on issues is to be expected, but Judaism insists that we treat each other with respect at all times, even at the end of a very long and difficult election season. A campaign that criticizes the plans of an opponent should not be criticized because that is what this season is all about, what plan do we think is best for this country in the years ahead. If a criticism is followed by a different idea, then we should listen and be aware of the differences. It is another matter when there are personal attacks about things that happened long ago as if they have any bearing on where we are today. Everyone grows and changes and not one of us lives our life without some regrets about our past. Destroying the character of someone else is a serious sin. The politicians tell me that this kind of negative campaigning is what moves people to vote. If this is so, then we need to give the entire country lessons in civic and civil responsibility. If our government is locked up most of the time, it is because everyone is so angry with the way we talk to and about each other and have forgotten that compromise and negotiation are how things are supposed to get done. Forget about whether or not we should be sitting down and talking to our enemies, we need to remember that we need to sit down and negotiate with lawmakers from the other party. This is hard to do in our culture of screaming at each other the most hurtful names we can find.

I have seen people I respect repeat the most derogatory slanders that they have seen but not substantiated over the internet. I have seen good people worry about nonsense that is being passed around as true. The media regularly scolds the candidates and their parties for telling lies and stretching the truth in campaign materials. There is no reason to be passing on such dirt. Even if we get it from a reliable source we should not be repeating it to others. This is very wrong. If we want to convince a friend, a family member or a neighbor to vote for our candidate, then we should speak of policies and platforms. We are guilty of Lashon HaRa, evil speech, if we pass on to others the personal attacks even if we get them from a reliable source. It applies not only to the campaign, but in every aspect of our lives. Sending out slanderous emails to defame someone else is a sin. There is no other word for it. A popular actress in S. Korea committed suicide because of the hateful false things that were being said about her on the internet. That they are written is bad; if we pass it on, we are guilty.

I don’t advise any of the campaigns but let me leave with this one piece of advice. We may not be responsible for all the hate that is out there. But we know, first hand, the dangers of hate speech and ugly rumors. I hope that we will have the sense and the wisdom to know what to do when they arrive in our inbox – we should just press “delete”.

And we will be making the world a better place, one conversation at a time.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind?

My friend and colleague Rabbi Irwin Kula, the director of CLAL recently shared with me some of his feelings about Politics, Jews and Israel. He noted that Democrats seem to favor diplomacy in dealing with the Israel/Palestinian issues, and Republicans are more inclined to support Israel no matter what the situation may be. So it is no surprise that Jewish Democrats and Jewish Republicans both see themselves as the true defenders of Israel when all they are really doing is finding in the words of the candidates a justification for their own pre-existing notions of what support for Israel must imply. It has very little to do at all with what the State of Israel might really need at this juncture in history. Rabbi Kula notes that it is almost as if Israel is not a real state anymore, but some kind of a “test” American Jews use to explain perhaps our own inner spiritual life, rather than the political reality of the modern state. We tend to pick and choose the data that fits our needs and that best helps us confirm our positions.
All of this, he implies, leads to the kind of political pandering we see from the candidates for national office today, each one trying to say the right combination of “code” words that will gather the most people to vote for the candidate. Rabbi Kula expresses concern that someday our non-Jewish fellow citizens will begin to ask exactly what this “support” for Israel is all about and the answers may mark the end of, or the erosion of, American support for the State of Israel.
Rabbi Kula is right. In this day and age, it is very hard to speak of Israel as “my home land, right or wrong”. To be sure there are plenty of Jews and Jewish communal leaders who will not tolerate any negative speech about Israel. They feel as if there are too many enemies of the State and of Judaism to give them more words with which they can attack us. Such people think that if we only speak good of Israel, that others will not speak bad of her. This has led us to ignore all the problems that Israel is facing and to put our heads in the sand about how we can find solutions.
I agree with Rabbi Kula but would paint this picture a bit differently. I do not feel that the issue is one of American politics but of Israeli politics. My daughter came back from her Rabbinical School year in Israel very unhappy with Israel. She was appalled by the way they treated gays in Jerusalem and with the corruption in government and the social problems she encountered. Frankly I am unhappy with all of that and more. I don't like the way Masorti/Conservative Jews are treated by Israeli politicians or by the government. I don't always like the foreign policy decisions of the State and I don't like the way the Israeli political parties pay for votes by giving money to people who promise to vote for them while infrastructure crumbles.
My time in Minnesota, where the 35W bridge collapsed last year, only points to the fact that we should be profoundly unhappy with things is this country too. Perhaps the coming elections here and in Israel will change things, but maybe they won’t. The point is that there is much here in the USA that needs improvement, but we don't go around saying this country is not worth the time or trouble.
For both the USA and Israel, there are good and bad. The fact that college students are still filling Birthright programs and returning energized is a good thing. That Americans still go to Israel to live is another good thing. I agree that nothing can be changed as long as American Jewish leadership does not address the flaws in Israel and in the USA. When we talk only good about Israel we will not help them change what needs changing. Years ago, when they told us American Rabbis did not count, we protested, withheld support and showed them that we do count and the situation in Israel changed.
What we need today, at the leadership level, is a conversation with Israeli leadership about the serious issues that will affect how much money is raised at UJA and through Israel Bonds. We are seeing a new generation of Jews in the United States, who did not grow up without a Jewish State and who don’t understand why it is a State where we can’t talk about her flaws. If they are to support Israel, they will want to know about civil rights for homosexual citizens, of Arab citizens, for Masorti Jews and for all other minorities who don’t seem to be able to get a fair shake in the Jewish State. When National leaders start asking the hard questions to politicians in Israel, they will listen, like it or not, because Israel still depends on our financial and political support. Military support is one thing, we do need to make sure that the Palestinian issues are not perceived out of the context of a 60 year long war, but we also need to ask the hard questions about fiscal responsibility, corruption and basic civil rights.
We need to stand up for these qualities in this country as well. No matter if the conversation is about Israel or America it is not "My Country - Right or Wrong" but, as stated by Senator Carl Schurz back in 1872, "My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”
Our obligation as Jewish leaders could not be summed up better.