What Are the Jewish Issues?

The 
Polymath

By Jay Michaelson

Published August 21, 2008, issue of August 29, 2008.
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‘We need Christians on Capitol Hill, Jews on Capitol Hill and Muslims on Capitol Hill talking about the estate tax. When you’ve got an estate tax debate that proposes a trillion dollars being taken out of social programs to go to a handful of folks who don’t need and weren’t even asking for it, you know that we need an injection of morality in our political debate.” — Senator Barack Obama, June 28, 2006 In this election year, what are the Jewish issues?

Ask the organized Jewish lobbies, and most of our institutional leaders, and the answers are simple: Israel, Israel and Israel. I want to make a brash, perhaps hyperbolic, suggestion: that not only is this agenda wrong, but it also threatens the very Judaism it hopes to preserve.

Most Jews, polls say, care about a wide variety of issues: Iraq, the economy, Israel, the environment. Yet many Jewish organizations (not all, of course) base their policy choices only on what they perceive as “good for the Jews,” which usually means supporting Israel, fighting antisemitism and maybe a smattering of other issues, like the separation between church and state.

These are, of course, important issues, but they are only half of the picture. The assumption is that Jewish issues are issues that affect Jews directly, rather than issues that Jews should care about as Jews. The difference is what Rabbi Sidney Schwartz, in his book “Judaism and Justice,” called the values of Sinai and the values of Exodus. The former are the ethical and religious values that Judaism represents: justice, monotheism, holiness and the like. While not necessarily universal, they are about Judaism, not the Jews; values, not tribe. The values of the Exodus, in contrast, are about the Jewish people specifically, and by extension, Jewish self-interest, whether annihilating the Canaanites in biblical times or defending our people today.

Of course, every culture requires both of these: core principles and a sense of self-preservation. But our leaders, first by necessity and now by habit, have long put undo stress on the latter. It’s not our fault, necessarily. As the joke goes: “Forgive us Jews for being a little nervous. Two thousand years of Christian love have worn down our nerves.”

But now we have a situation where an old guard insists that we support the Jews and a younger generation lacks any reason to do so. Support the Jews, our leaders say. The kids ask, “Why?” Because it’s what Jews do, they’re told. Well, this is circular, it’s ethnocentric and it holds little appeal in 2008.

Most recently, of course, this parochialism has cropped up in the embarrassing spectacle of Barack Obama kowtowing to the Jewish and Israel lobbies, soothing them with all the right pro-Israel bromides, as if they were nervous little children. Meanwhile, outrageous and often racist e-mails about Obama continue to circulate in our community. My own mother receives them every week. What is at the root of them? Prejudice and fear. Prejudice because many Jews (like many non-Jews) are racist; fear because we worry that Obama might not be in our corner enough.

For young people weary of a decade of doublespeak and deception, Obama represents a meaningful change — not an empty one, as his critics charge, but a substantive one, with real differences in policy, approach and engagement. Even young conservatives, who disagree with Obama on many issues and will likely vote for McCain, do not forward idiotic e-mails about Islam or flag pins. Only scared, old people do that.

Including scared, old Jews. Theirs is a Judaism so worried about dying out that it is, indeed, dying out.

Christian leaders, especially on the Right, do not act this way. They care about something other than their own interests. They have religious values that inform a wide variety of political decisions, and they use the language of faith, which resonates with the 90% of Americans who believe in God and the 70% who belong to an organized religion, to make their case. So have our country’s great liberators, from Abraham Lincoln speaking of the “judgments of the Lord” to Martin Luther King Jr. demanding equality for “all God’s children.” In our country, religious issues should be the ones religion demands us to address — not the ones that happen to affect our group.

But with only a few exceptions (on the left, they include the American Jewish World Service, the anthology “Righteous Indignation: A Jewish Call for Justice” and the Jewish Funds for Justice; on the right, Senator Joe Lieberman’s moralizing and the neocons’ neo-Straussism), Jews have been absent from this resurgence of faith-based politics. We’re still too busy looking out for our own, or perhaps worried that any injection of religion into public life will only help the goyim.

In so doing, we’ve made Judaism seem irrelevant, tribal and circular. If all Judaism means is looking out for the Jews, many young people are right to have no interest in it. A Judaism that just preserves the Jews stands for nothing.

What if the Jewish issues this year were the ones our tradition instructed us to act on? For example, the Iraq War, which was started on the basis of lies, and has further destabilized the Middle East, has distracted us from the real war in Afghanistan and is projected to cost us more than $1,000,000,000,000 (that is not a typo). Or our failure to address China’s cultural genocide in Tibet, which has led to the most offensive Olympics since Berlin in 1936. Or how about our country’s use of torture, and withdrawal from international conventions and treaties on everything from the law of war to climate change? These issues challenge the Jewish demand to pursue justice (Deuteronomy 16:20, Genesis 18:19) and peace (Psalm 34:14).

At home, we’ve moved away from protecting the economically disadvantaged and toward enriching the most powerful: the bailouts of Wall Street, which have let those who caused the credit crisis get away scot free while costing taxpayers billions; the estate tax repeal and the Bush tax cuts, which enrich the mega-rich; our tattered social safety net; our preposterously hyper-capitalist health care system; our widening wealth gap; our systems of corporate welfare. These are Jewish issues, because of our obligations to clothe the naked and provide for the poor (Deuteronomy 15:7-8, Leviticus 25:35-36, Leviticus 23:22, Leviticus 19:9-10, Deuteronomy 24:19-21), as well as to judge equally between rich and poor (Deuteronomy 1:16-17).

And in our ethical lives, our culture’s vulgar, puerile sexuality (which goes hand in hand with a hypocritical Puritanism), consumerist greed, environmental devastation, and sexism and racism stand in stark contrast to the commandment to be a holy people and protect our world (Leviticus 19:2, Deuteronomy 20:19).

Some would say that these are luxury items for an embattled minority whose tiny state is in existential danger, and that not all ethical/political issues are Jewish ones. Really? Since when did core ethical values become luxuries? Anyway, the premise is wrong; if we focus only on what’s good for the Jews, our minority will grow even smaller, for there will be no clear reason for the not-already-converted to perpetuate it. It would be a dead tribalism worthy of the burial it would receive.

Of course, the values I’ve set forth are progressive ones. But I would welcome multiple Jewish voices in the public square, including conservative ones arguing for “traditional morality,” pre-emptive war and capitalist individualism. I think those voices are wrong, but at least we’d be arguing about something other than our own fears. At least there would be a robust public discourse of Jewish political-ethical values that are relevant to our lives as Americans — values that are more meaningful than just what’s good for the Jews and our state.

In carrying on such a conversation, we enrich both ourselves, as religious beings, and our political discourse. Since I began with Obama, let me conclude with him, as well: “If we scrub [political] language of all religious content,” he said two years ago, “we forfeit the imagery and terminology through which millions of Americans understand both their personal morality and social justice [and] discount the role that values and culture play in some of our most urgent social problems. After all, the problems of poverty and racism, the uninsured and the unemployed are not simply technical problems in search of the perfect 10-point plan. They are rooted in both societal indifference and individual callousness — in the imperfections of man.”

Yes. Real Jewish issues are not about the Jewish tribe. They speak to real problems, and make our ancient religious mandates seem radically new again — and utterly crucial.


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