While much of the commentary on the results of the just-completed American presidential election has focused on the demographics of the electorate, very little has been said about the “Jewish vote.” As far as minorities go, it is the Latinos who are getting most of the attention, along with African-Americans and Asian-Americans, and understandably so, given their overall numbers.
But the two parties sure did take Jewish voters seriously during the campaign, each of them courting Jews assiduously, particularly in key states where their votes might have made a difference. In the third presidential debate, the candidates competed with one another to demonstrate whose support and sympathy for Israel was greater, and their campaigns went after Jews aggressively via advertising, targeted use of surrogates, endorsements and other means.
Though there has been a reconsideration of exactly what the 2008 numbers were, in the end, while the latest Jewish vote for Barack Obama may have been down as much as eight or nine percentage points from that, Jews voted for the incumbent in numbers more similar to those of the above-noted minority groups than the overall “white” vote. Still, whatever may have been the case decades ago, the very concept of a unified “Jewish vote” is shaky in a number of ways.
Not only were Jewish voters actively involved in the campaigns of both of the candidates, but the majority of Jews vote today as individuals, motivated by their own predilections and inclinations, in tune with the spirit of individualism that increasingly characterizes American life. Furthermore, even those Jews who vote on the basis of what they see as Jewish group interest can come down in very different places, as was the case in the recent election, with people in each of the two camps thinking the candidate they supported was the one who was best for Israel, or best for the well-being of the American Jewish community, or both. Though some American Jews may have evaluated the latest two tickets differently from the way they evaluated the two tickets four years ago, others, applying similar standards, did not make that choice and stayed with the Democratic ticket.
On both sides, however, there are people who believe that the voting choice of their fellow Jews represented far more than a mere difference of opinion. They see the other’s vote as a violation of Jewish values and undermining of Jewish interests worthy of being treated with opprobrium and hostility. And by thinking, speaking, and acting in that way, Jews on each side of the aisle have extended the vitriolic divisiveness that has come to be a defining attribute of much of the political discourse and political life in America today into the Jewish community.
It is increasingly recognized how bad this kind of polarization, which has paralyzed governmental action in Washington, is for America. For the American Jewish community, I would propose, it is doubly bad. In bitterly turning Jew against Jew and tearing the community apart, this kind of behavior weakens the communal cohesiveness that characterized and strengthened Jewish communal life and helped sustain Jewish identity over the decades. And in polarizing the community around Israel and other issues, this kind of behavior dilutes the community’s ability to protect the Jewish people and advance bottom-line support for Israel, something that all members of the community presumably should be able to do together however different opinions may be about various policy issues.
The term “civility” is sometimes used these days in calling for a different the kind of discourse and behavior. While there is nothing wrong with that approach, I would suggest that, the good manners that the term conjures up don’t go far enough and may be an impractical goal at a time when the prevailing situation is so intense and people are so passionate about the issues. The way I see it, for our own good, the community would be a lot better off if all members of it could have greater respect for those who, sharing basic beliefs and goals for the Jewish people, might hold different opinions on the issues or might support different candidates and different parties.
Meanwhile, differences in party affiliation can actually be seen in a positive light, reflecting the view that it is best for the “Jewish vote” not to be taken for granted and good for members of the community to have relationships with elected officials from both sides of the aisle after the votes are counted and governing begins.
Whether the toxic atmospherics of American political life today have already fully infected Jewish communal life remains to be seen. Hopefully, with a deep breath taken and some soul-searching engaged in as the dust settles from this most recent campaign, there will be a greater readiness to move forward not by sacrificing whatever partisan beliefs and feelings anyone in the community might have, but by thinking of and relating to those who hold different positions in a more accepting, even respectful, fashion.