Looking At The Election From A Broader Perspective

With the presidential election here in America under two weeks away, the incessant campaign pitches in all of our print and electronic media are virtually impossible to ignore.

The volume is shrill, sometimes hysterical, and the natural instinct is to cover one’s ears and just pray that all the screaming would stop­– please. I thank God every day that I don’t live in a so-called “swing state,” which would sentence me to daily visits by one or the other candidate. As it is, one of them is usually here raising money and tying up traffic. But because New York is such a dependable win for the Democrats, neither candidate sees fit to spend too much time here trying to win us over… and that’s just fine by me.

In the Jewish community, as is invariably the case, the election has generated much heat. These are obviously difficult and challenging times for Israel (when are they not?), and most of the discussion within Jewish circles has, understandably, centered around the question of which candidate will more dependably and effectively support Israel against the Iranian threat, and the myriad other geopolitical challenges that she faces. I have no issue at all with that being a major focus of our attention. We who love Israel must use our influence to insure that her interests, and her security, are a priority to an American administration, Democrat or Republican. As I’ve written previously, the concentration of Jewish population in the aforementioned swing states gives us inordinate influence in presidential elections, and using it to Israel’s advantage is both our right and our obligation.

At the same time, it often seems to me that we too easily allow ourselves to forget that the election is about more than Israel. Perhaps more than in recent memory, the stark contrast in political philosophies between President Obama and Governor Romney, and their running mates (particularly Congressman Ryan), affords us two very different versions of what America ought to look like. One is as much of a Democrat as a Democrat can be, and the other is as much of a Republican as a Republican can be. They are almost caricatures of the parties they represent, so classic are their politics, and their worldviews. We owe it to them, and to ourselves, to appreciate those differences, and make an informed selection.

Through the years I’ve heard some fascinating discussions-and participated in a few of them myself- about whether Judaism as a religion leans towards Democrat or Republican ideals. Liberals are quick to point out, and correctly so, that the great prophets of our tradition, like Isaiah, Hosea and Micah, are unabashed, even flaming liberals. They champion those in society least able to help themselves, and scold the governments of their times for abandoning them. Conservatives are equally quick to point out that Jewish law in no way frowns on making money, and the concern for a healthy economy is hardly an alien idea in Jewish law and tradition. The ancient rabbis understood economic cycles, recessions, supply and demand, the intricacies of buying and selling…they cared as much about economic health as the conservatives of today do. You can make a compelling case either way.

But without trying to make a global argument that our tradition tips one way or the other, the election being held here in November offers two very different visions of America.

One sees an America in which the government is as small as possible, as “out of the lives” of its citizens as possible, which regulates and manages as little as possible, and which levies as few taxes as possible (which is made possible by radically reducing the size of government). To this point of view, government is much more the problem than the solution to any problem Americans face. Business, it says, will boom, and the economy will recover more quickly, if the government will just get out of the way.

The other vision sees government as playing a much bigger role in the lives of America’s citizens. That bigger role is made possible by increased tax revenues, but the benefits of greater government involvement far outweigh the tax burden. Regulating the excesses of business and banking, safeguarding the environment, setting national goals and initiatives for education… this vision would see government as absolutely indispensable for achieving these goals. Government is not the enemy; it is the ally of the common citizen.

The great glory of America is that you and I are free to argue these points until we’re blue in the face, and to vote as our consciences dictate. That is the essence of a vibrant democracy like ours. A failure to vote is a failure to appreciate the great privilege that is ours.

That said, I would add this: as we Jews head to our polling places, we would do well to remember that, in addition to our very legitimate concerns for Israel’s short and long term security, our country is at a crossroads. We have a real stake in deciding which direction America should take as it moves through these challenging early years of the twenty-first century. Vote your conscience. Vote your preference. Vote!

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.