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Get Down to the Real Issues and Leave Negative Tactics Behind

November 11, 2010 By:
Rabbi David A. Teutsch
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Every two years, we see tens of millions of dollars' worth of vitriolic political attack ads, many of them coming from outside groups with no ties to Pennsylvania. Politicians, pundits and voters all decry their use, but the negativity always returns for one simple reason: It works. We don't like to admit it, but the reason such tactics are used is that they drive voters to the polls, and help determine which lever to pull.

But not always.

Partisan organizations invested heavily here during the recent election cycle in an effort to whip Jewish voters into a frenzy of fear over Joe Sestak's record. For weeks, Israel -- the spiritual homeland of the Jewish people -- was front and center on our televisions, turned into a political football for partisan gain. But post-election polling shows what I'd already guessed: Most of Pennsylvania's Jews were entirely unimpressed.

In spite of all the money and time invested in trying to scare Jews into supporting Toomey, fully 71 percent of Pennsylvania's Jewish voters chose Sestak, according to an Election Night poll -- even more than the 66 percent of American Jews who supported Democratic candidates across the country.

As a rabbi, scholar of the contemporary American Jewish community and life-long supporter of Israel, I know that American Jews usually don't vote based on Israel issues. We march, advocate and pray for peace, and consistently call on the U.S. government and Congress to act in Israel's best interest -- regardless of which party might be in power.

None of which is to say that we don't have strong differences of opinion over what that interest is. Vigorous debate is a hallmark of any democratic society, and it certainly is a characteristic of the Jewish community. We're taught that Abraham and other prophets who followed him went so far as to argue with the Almighty; certainly, we may argue with each other.

Our differences of opinion don't translate to a desire to see Israel used cynically as a wedge issue. Efforts to create false divides fail.

Moreover, not only were the neo-conservative attack ads ill-considered, morally bankrupt and wildly misleading -- they did not reflect the Jewish community's genuine concerns.

More than 75 percent of the American Jewish community shares Sestak's vision that Israel's prospects for peace and security are bound up with its prospects for achieving a two-state agreement with the Palestinian people. We understand that the end of any decades-long conflict will require difficult compromise. We support a two-state solution because we know that failure to resolve the conflict will not only mean more death and destruction, but also endanger the very nature of Israel.

The threat is real, and it is dire. Realities on the ground -- changing demographics, constant settlement construction and a corresponding loss of hope on all sides -- are bringing the Jewish homeland closer and closer to the day when it will have to choose between being democratic and being Jewish.

Appearances aside, the anti-Sestak slurs weren't actually aimed at the vast majority of American Jews, but at the tiny minority that prefers the risks of war over the risks of peace. The ad campaign wasn't about working with Jewish Americans to defend Israel; it was about furthering a neo-conservative agenda that in no way represents what most Jews care about.

In the end, Pat Toomey was able to squeak out a narrow victory without strong Jewish support. It is to be hoped that the new senator will reject the dirty political games that swirled around him, and adopt a new, more constructive approach to the real problems facing Pennsylvania, the United States and Israel.

When disagreement slides into vilification and outright falsehood, both Jewish and American principles draw a line. I'm sure that the majority of voters yearn to see something very different.

As someone who has advocated for Israel my entire life, I hope that Sen. Toomey will acknowledge these truths and find a way to adopt a truly pro-Israel approach. It is what his Jewish constituents want him to support.

Rabbi David A. Teutsch, member of the J Street Rabbinic Cabinet and National Advisory Council, is past president of Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and currently leads its Center for Jewish Ethics.


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