Why millennial Jews like me aren’t ‘Jewish voters’
When I sat down to write a piece about the millennial Jewish reaction to the election results, I found myself surprisingly stymied. I work in Jewish media for goodness sake; I must have a reaction on the Jewish issues in this election. Which were what, again?
It’s not that I’m unfazed by the election; like much of the country, I’ve spent the past few days simultaneously wired and catatonic as my brain overloads. Regardless of which way things fall, I’m perturbed by how close it is and by the gaping divide in our country this so clearly represents. And as great as it is for Americans to actually turn out to vote for once, it makes the split results even more damning. I’m scandalized that simply counting all the votes could be a partisan issue.
But none of my feelings, positive or negative, are particularly Jewish.
When I think of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Squad’s wins, I don’t feel nervous because of their opposition to U.S. support for Israel. I feel excited that someone my age broke into a government dominated by people in their 50s and 60s, and thankful that true progressives can actually make it into the government. While I may disagree with the extremity of their positions on Israel, their opposition to right-wing extremism makes me feel more confident facing rising antisemitism. Besides, I am more concerned with their advocacy for racial, economic and environmental justice.
It’s a stereotype that the Jewish vote swings based on Israel, yet JStreet’s recent poll shows Israel is a top concern for only 5% of Jews. And as I talked to friends about the election results, they seemed bemused by the idea of responding Jewishly to the results.
“It just really feels like an old-school thing to be like ‘Jewish perspective equals antisemitism and votes for Israel.’ Like, what are we, 80?” said Amalia Mark, a rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Boston. “The way people are voting Jewishly is using the way they understand the world and what it needs, and applying frames of Jewish values and Jewish practice on that.”
A true rabbi, she went on to give textual sources and examples of halakha that center care for others, such as shmita years. “The whole point of being a Jew is to make the world better,” she told me, explaining how sad she was to see hate and fear driving the election. “The whole point of my existence as a Jewish person is not about Israel or Jewish continuity.”
My values weren’t born of Jewishness; my father isn’t Jewish and my mother and I went to Reform children’s services on the High Holidays only until I, a true nerd, asked to stop because I hated missing school. I developed, and continue to develop, my politics elsewhere — from my parents, who are lawyers for union rights and non-profit causes; from my peers, many of whom are engaged in racial, environmental or economic justice work; and from reading widely in critical theory, journalism and history.
My connection to Judaism came later, and it worked because I found support for values and issues in which I already believed.
None of this is to say that Jewishness is unimportant to my politics. It gives me perspective on the Christian hegemony that often dominates the U.S. and makes me understand the importance of diversity. It builds empathy for minority groups. And it gives me an inspiring history of resistance to fascism.
“There is a specific and tangible location that we occupy that is a little bit different from the dominant white space,” mused Cody Edgerly, a friend who works for Never Again Action. “It helps to have a strong backing in Jewish ritual to actually confront white supremacy.”
Unfortunately, the gaping divide in our country’s politics is reflected, in miniature, within the Jewish community. This internal dispute is the most pressing Jewish political issue for me. Though my compatriots and I aren’t single-issue Jewish voters, some members of our community are, and critical views on Israel or support for Ilhan Omar or AOC often results in being called a JINO, or Jew In Name Only. This, in itself, is a betrayal of Jewish values; respectful disagreement is enshrined in the Talmud and centuries of commentary. In the Torah, Abraham even disagrees with God, trying to save Sodom and Gomorrah, and God listens.
More importantly, it alienates a whole contingent of young Jews. As I scroll Tiktok (a quarantine vice), I worry even more for Gen Z, who can’t post a joking video about Passover or a cute yeshiva boy without their comment section screaming in all caps about Israel and Palestine. It only hurts Jewish community to reduce us to one issue.
To be clear, it’s not that I don’t care about Israel. I used to live in Jerusalem and most of my friends will tell you they’re shocked I haven’t moved back yet (I am, too). But that doesn’t mean that I support it blindly, nor that it needs to dominate my politics.
I’m unwilling to sacrifice what I think is important for America, and the world, for the sake of Jewish issues, and if that means supporting politicians who support BDS in addition to universal healthcare, it doesn’t bother me. Israel’s existence isn’t under threat from US politicians, but the American public is.
Besides, any reaction I have to this election is a Jewish one; I am, after all, a Jew.
Mira Fox is a fellow at the Forward. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @miraefox.