In this week’s elections, the majority of Jews once again voted for candidates advocating more progressive economic policies (higher taxes and more government support for the poor) – 69 percent according to one poll, 65 percent according to another.
Why did even wealthy and upper middle class Jews, whose own narrowly defined economic interests might better be served by tax cuts, lean progressive? Because the legacy of Jewish religious teachings, Jewish history, and Jewish culture all push Jews to side with the oppressed even at the expense of personal financial or other forms of sacrifice. Even the grandchildren of assimilated Jews carry with them the message of the Torah that we have a special obligation toha’ger (the stranger or “other”) and the Torah’s call to “love the stranger and remember that you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.”
I’ve acknowledged in my books Jewish Renewal: A Path to Healing and Transformation and Embracing Israel/Palestine that there is a counter-strand in the Jewish tradition – I call it “Settler Judaism.” These two strands often appear in tandem as though the editors of our holy books could not fully decide upon which of these two voices to confer legitimacy. It’s a dynamic apparent within most cultures throughout history. In the Jewish context, both strands alternate, and which gains legitimacy depends on many extrinsic factors. What’s remarkable is how strong the voice of caring for the “other” has remained given all the traumas of Jewish history and the pressures of a capitalist ethic pervading most aspects of contemporary capitalist society. It’s true that under conditions of perceived threat, many Jews find themselves unable to apply this message to the Palestinian people. But they nevertheless apply it to domestic politics in the U.S.
Of course, this is not a necessary carryover for the next generations – the more assimilated well-to-do or wealthier Jews are, or the more scared for their survival, the more they are likely to leave behind the legacy of identifying with the oppressed and start to vote the way others of their same economic and social class vote, prioritizing their own narrow self-interest. Some people have tried to argue that this has nothing to do with Torah values, but only with the experience of oppression Jews have experienced. But this argument holds no weight, based as it is on the assumption that other groups who have voted overwhelmingly with Republicans did not also face histories of significant levels of oppression. This simply is not true – ask any person of Polish, Irish, or Italian descent, for example, and you’ll hear many stories of past oppression, but without the conclusion that they should therefore embrace the candidates who are most committed to developing programs to alleviate others’ suffering or oppression.
I expect that Jews’ tendency to identify with oppressed groups will slowly give way to a different dynamic as Judaism’s most radical messages fade from the memory of increasingly assimilated American Jews, while right-wing forces are seen as more reliable allies to the misguided settlement and occupation policies of the current Israeli government, while ethically sensitive Jews are hounded from the Jewish community by those who will never tolerate any dissent about Israel, and as intensified struggles between the 1 percent of most wealthy Americans and the vast majority of Americans pushes more Jews to identify with their class interests rather than their religious/spiritual values. But this isnotinevitable – which is one reason why I urge you to do all you can to get friends and colleagues to read and subscribe to Tikkun(or buy them a subscription for a perfect Chanukah or Christmas gift) or to join our Network of Spiritual Progressives(members also get a free one-year subscription to Tikkun).
Rabbi Michael Lerner
P.S. My full analysis of the midterm elections will appear soon – not focused on Jewish participation but on the underlying value issues. In the mean time, I wanted to share these thoughts and also pass along the Times of Israel report below.
Poll: US Jews voted Democrat, but cooler on Obama approval
by Rebecca Shimoni Stoil
J Street says Jews voted 69% to 28% for Democratic congressional candidates over Republicans; Republican figures put the split at 65% to 33%
American Jewish support for Democratic candidates remained stable in the face of a sweeping Republican victory in American midterm elections, with the vast majority of Jewish voters polled supporting a two-state solution and at least a partial freeze in settlement building, an election night poll commissioned by J Street indicated Wednesday.
Despite strong Republican victories across the country, 69 percent of American Jews polled in the J Street survey said that they voted for Democratic congressional candidates over 28 percent for Republican candidates.
The Republican Jewish Coalition, however, cited exit polls that itsaid show that Republicans are getting increasing support among Jewish voters, while the Jewish community’s support for Democrats continues to erode. The difference between the two sets of data was not large – the Republican Jewish Coalition reported that 33% of Jewish voters gave their support to Republicans, with 65% going to Democrats – but if the RJC polling data was more accurate, it would mark a low for Jewish support for Democrats unseen since the Reagan era.
While RJC Executive Director Matt Brooks said that the group was “encouraged by the Republicans’ strong showing again this year and by the continued inroads the GOP is making in the Jewish community,” the J Street pollers emphasized that Democratic support remained strong among Jews.
“The 2014 Jewish vote once again demonstrates that American Jews are a base Democratic constituency that supports the Obama Administration’s efforts to reach an agreement with Iran and to help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” the pollster Jim Gerstein said. “While Prime Minister Netanyahu has recently raised questions about American values, the data clearly show that American Jewish values closely align with the actions of the Obama administration.
Obama remains significantly more popular with Jewish voters than with the general population. His 57 percent approval rating among Jews is 15 points higher than it is among Americans as a whole, but at the same time, it demonstrates that a significant percentage of Jews who voted for Democrats in congressional elections do not approve of Obama’s performance.
While the J Street poll focused on issues of Mideast policy, pollsters found that American Jews, like the rest of the electorate, cast their midterm votes with domestic policy in mind. Only eight percent identified Israel as decisive in how they vote, ranking it tenth on a list of 14 issues behind the economy (44 percent), healthcare (31 percent) and Social Security and Medicare (20 percent).
According to the poll, eighty percent of Jewish voters say that Israel should suspend some settlement construction in the West Bank, with 28 percent supporting a total freeze and 52 percent supporting a freeze in construction in areas outside the core settlement blocs.
The poll found that a minority of American Jewish voters – 40 percent – said Netanyahu’s policies have hurt Israel’s relations with the US, but even fewer – 21 percent – say that they have helped relations.
“American Jews, who remain strongly connected to Israel, are also deeply concerned about the policies of the Israeli government,” said J Street’s president, Jeremy Ben-Ami.
“Not only do they line up more with the US government on critical issues, they fear that the Netanyahu government’s policies are harming the US-Israel relationship.”
Ben-Ami interpreted the poll as “a wake-up call for the Israeli government.”
“If they choose to go forward with unlimited settlement expansion throughout the West Bank, they will find that American Jews, whose support is so crucial, are not with them,” he said.
The poll found that 80% of Jewish voters support a resolution of the conflict that establishes a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, with 78% agreeing that a two-state solution is necessary to strengthen Israel’s security and ensure its Jewish, democratic character and 75% agreeing that it is an important national security interest for the United States.
Over 80% of those polled also said that they believe the US should play an active role in helping the parties to resolve the conflict, and 77% said that they would strongly back the US putting forward its own draft agreement and asking Israelis and Palestinians to return to negotiations based on those parameters.
Rumors have circulated in recent weeks that Secretary of State John Kerry is planning to do exactly that in the coming days. Kerry met last week with Palestinian representatives, but State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki emphasized that “there are no current plans to introduce a peace plan,” dismissing reports that proposals would be laid on the table during Kerry’s meeting with Saeb Erekat.
On Iran talks, likely to emerge as a major bone of foreign policy contention between the Democratic White House and the Republican Congress, the poll found that 84 percent would support a deal currently under negotiation by the P5+1, which would restrict Iran’s enrichment of uranium to civilian purposes, put in place full-time inspectors to ensure Iran is not developing nuclear weapons and reduce sanctions as Iran demonstrates compliance.
Looking ahead to 2016, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton far outpaces prospective Republican challengers, leading former Florida Governor Jeb Bush (69:24) and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul (71:22).
The survey was conducted November 4 – election day – on behalf of J Street and includes 800 self-identified Jewish voters. Respondents were screened at the beginning of the survey when they were first asked for their religion and then, if they did not identify themselves as Jewish by religion, they were asked again if they considered themselves Jewish. The margin of error was 3.5 percentage points.