The American Jewish Vote: Not all about Israel!
Whether or not a candidate for public office supports the state of Israel is important to American Jews, but it is not the only issue we care about. Indeed, in 2012 it is highly likely that all major Presidential candidates will be pro-Israel, so that American Jewish voters can concentrate on voting for the candidate who best embodies the principles of the Torah and the American republic.
While Jewish law does not mandate that we support one party or another, there is an imperative to vote. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, in a letter written in 1984, explained that all American Jews must vote, since we must express our hakarat hatov (gratitude) to the leaders of the great nation we reside in. Rabbi Shmuel Kaminetsky dismissed those who doubt the impact of their individual vote, noting that recent elections have been decided by just a few hundred votes: "Therefore, I urge all members of our community to fulfill their obligation to vote for those who strengthen our nation—whether materially or spiritually.”
As American Jews, we have dual commitments. First, we must use our influence to secure the welfare and security of the Jewish people. Secondly, we are to use our vote to promote peace and protect the vulnerable in society. Ignoring American policy decisions impoverishes our choices and is irresponsible. Our choices of leadership are made with greater nuance if we allow all of our concerns as American Jews a place at the table, and this will help ensure more honest and passionate deliberation. We cannot check our moral and spiritual convictions at the door of the voting booth.
American Presidents have supported Israel from its inception. While we may have disagreed with these Presidents on individual issues, each has given significant aid, validity, and support in times of need. While we cannot assume this support will always be there and must always offer our unequivocal support to Israel, recent polls offer encouragement that the American commitment to Israel remains solid.
A Gallup poll showed that Americans are more pro-Israeli today than they’ve been in over 20 years. An overwhelming majority now favor the strongest American support for the Jewish democratic state. Consequently, the Presidential candidate will almost certainly be pro-Israel. Thus, I believe that one’s primary responsibility in the upcoming election is to vote for what is best for the American people and for what promotes national and global justice.
The most pressing need to address is those suffering right before our eyes. The great 20th-century halakhic authority Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach taught: “In relation to the obligation to pay the costs of saving the life of a sick person who is in danger of dying: From the straightforward reading of Sanhedrin 73a, we see that one is obligated to do everything to save him, and if not, one transgresses the negative commandment: ‘Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor’” (Minkhat Shlomo, V.2, 86:4).
The Jewish people have moved beyond the shtetl, where we just relied upon righteous individuals to help those in need. Today, we know that we need government, non-profits, and individuals – in a word, the whole social system – to be engaged in relieving the poor and sick from their suffering. This is the paramount priority we must remember when voting: Which candidate best supports the mission of the Jewish people to defend the vulnerable? Who will most effectively stop genocides, get millions of Americans back to work, reform education, and reduce crime? Which candidate throws off the responsibility of helping the poor, relegating it to the assumption that wealthy individuals will supply the need? In an era where Americans give only 1% of income to charitable causes, we cannot naively hope for the grace of individuals. Ensuring the welfare of the vulnerable must be supported and enforced.
Our faith must inform how we vote. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel argued, “We affirm the principle of separation of church and state. We reject the separation of religion and the human situation.” In the end, the core message of the Torah is that the Jewish people are created to be ambassadors of justice and defenders of the vulnerable. May the Jewish voice emerge this election year to transcend our self-interest and ring loudly as a call to protect the vulnerable.