Despite assiduous efforts on the part of the organized Jewish community’s right wing – particularly those who have turned support for Israel into their major religious commitment, far out-shadowing any commitment to the ethical teachings of our Torah or a spiritual connection to God – to convince the media and politicians in both parties that Jews will reduce their support for President Barack Obama and Democratic candidates based on their fear that Israel is not being given the support it deserves from the liberal and Left world, most American Jews will continue to vote Democratic in a percentage higher than any other religious or ethnic community except that of African Americans and Latino Americans.
Yet the myth continues that Jews vote primarily on the perceived level of support by the candidate for the current policies of the Israeli government. It’s understandable why AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations would want to maintain this fiction, because their task is to mobilize support for the Israeli government. Over the years, these organizations, and others such as the ADL, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the Orthodox community, and many in the Reform movement, have been champions of large aid packages to Israel (larger than to any other country in the world) while objecting to those who criticize Israeli policies, such as its 2007 blockade and then invasion of Gaza or its unwillingness to stop building new settlements in traditionally Arab sections of East Jerusalem and the West Bank. It is true most American Jews, like most Americans, believe that Israel is an important ally to the United States, that its existence is important as a symbol (and possibly a necessary escape destination) for Jewish survival, and that we are proud of its many accomplishments in science and technology, which produce new knowledge and products that can improve the lives of many people around the world.
Yet it is impossible for anyone inside the Jewish world to not notice that increasing numbers of young Jews feel alienated from the organized Jewish community, do not believe that it speaks for them or for authentic Jewish values. When forced by their own families, Hebrew school teachers, rabbis and communal leaders to give blind support to the policies of the Ariel Sharon and later the Benjamin Netanyahu governments of Israel, and told that if they do not do so, they are likely to be “selfhating Jews” or even closet anti-Semites who have no appropriate place in the community, many respond by saying, “Well, I wasn’t so turned on, given the spiritual deadness of what I experienced in that community anyway, so perhaps you are right and I don’t have a place in the Jewish community.” While the mainstream Jewish leaders don’t really allow themselves to hear this response, they do notice the dwindling interest among younger Jews, spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year on “the problem of Jewish continuity” (namely, how to keep young Jews in the community), but believe they can do this by providing a free trip to Israel or to Auschwitz or some other gimmick. They blind themselves from seeing how destructive to the Jewish future is their own insistence that there is an intrinsic link between Judaism and support for Israeli governmental policies.
So why then is it likely, as I believe it is, that Jews will give considerably less support to President Obama in 2012 than we gave in 2008, when 78 percent of American Jews supported him?
The answer is that Jews vote Democratic not because they believe Democrats will more likely support Israeli policies than Republicans, but because most American Jews are more concerned about caring for the poor, oppressed and dispossessed, and creating a world of peace, social and economic justice, and environmental sanity than they are about walking lockstep with Benjamin Netanyahu. And many of us would welcome the U.S. using its strength to push Israel into an agreement that provided for a Palestinian state living in peace with Israel, something that is accomplishable if Israel was willing to stop building settlements and allow Palestinians sovereignty over the 22 percent of pre-1948 Palestine that constitutes the West Bank and Gaza.
So then why will fewer Jews support Obama in 2012? For the same reason they decreased their support in 1980 for then President Jimmy Carter. Having given great support to candidates they believed to be serious about liberal values, many Jews have, like many other Americans, become deeply disillusioned by Obama’s capitulation to the Right on issue after issue. For some it was the huge financial support to the banks and Wall Street rather than creating a new New Deal that directly provided jobs and froze home expulsions of those who could not afford to pay their mortgages. For some it was the escalation of the war in Afghanistan and the use of drones that frequently killed innocent civilians. For some it was the failure to fight for immigration reform, or to change the drug policies that imprison millions (particularly African-American youth) for the same kind of use of drugs that millions of upper-middle-class Americans still get away with. For some it was the failure to courageously engage with the environmental crisis. And for some it was his willingness to go along with policies that reduce American civil liberties (most recently by signing a defense bill in late 2011 that effectively eliminates habeas corpus by allowing the Administration to indefinitely imprison without trial anyone whom they designate as “suspected” of supporting a terrorist group, without requiring that these charges stand up to serious scrutiny). Yes, there will be less Jewish support for Obama in 2012. Because he has abandoned or at least been unbearably weak in fighting for the very concerns that lead Jews to support the Democratic Party, many will drift to a third party, vote Republican if the candidate is not an out-and-out racist, or sit out the election entirely.
This provides a moment for progressive Muslims to make overtures to the Jewish community on the basis of shared values. In my book Embracing Israel/Palestine, I try to show that the best way to support Israel is to be pro-Palestine and the best way to be pro-Palestine is to also be pro- Israel. The obvious reason: The fate of these two peoples is intrinsically connected, and there is little likelihood either side can achieve peace, security and justice without actively seeking to assist the other side to achieve the same for themselves. I suggest that as a first step in this direction, we need to challenge our own U.S. government to abandon its view that homeland security can best be achieved through dominating other countries (either the hard kind of domination that comes from the military or the soft version that manifests in cultural, media, economic and diplomatic domination). Instead we need to realize that the best path to homeland security would come through a strategy of generosity, manifested in part through a Global Marshall Plan of which the first location would be the Middle East. I’ve been working with the first Muslim elected to the House of Representatives, US Congressman Keith Ellison, to build support for this approach, and he has introduced House Res. 157 endorsing the Global Marshall Plan (read the full version at www.spiritualprogressives.org/GMP).
I invite my Muslim brothers and sisters to join me in supporting this direction by joining our Network of Spiritual Progressives, which is developing this plan, by creating a study group in your communities around Embracing Israel/Palestine, and by challenging the rhetoric of domination and power over others that today flourishes in both major parties.§
Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun magazine, chairman of the interfaith Network of Spiritual Progressives rabbi of Beyt Tikkun synagogue in Berkeley, Calif. and author of 11 books, most recently Embracing Israel/Palestine, published in January 2012 and available through Amazon. com and Kindle. After you’ve finished reading the book, Rabbi Lerner invites your responses to it: RabbiLerner@Tikkun.org.