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What Midterm Voting Patterns Say About Us
The "debate" over the number of Jews who voted for either U.S. Rep. Joe Sestak or Sen.-elect Pat Toomey in the recent Pennsylvania Senate race is just the latest in the annual attempt by the Republican Jewish Coalition to convince its donors that contributing to that organization is money well-spent.
In each election cycle, they use polling techniques that are likely to show significant progress in making inroads to Jewish voters, while, in reality, Jews remain among the staunchest supporters of Democratic candidates on both the national and local levels. Supporters of the RJC attribute this voting pattern to some sort of atavistic tendency on our part.
We are probably the only identifiable community that does not "vote its pocketbook" and, in fact, there is considerable data that indicates that affluent Jews are often more likely to cast their votes for Democratic candidates than are those who have lower incomes, although both segments tend to vote overwhelmingly for Democrats.
Why is this so? Are we really so foolish that we continue to vote against our own best interest? Don't we care that the political right is more vocal in their support of Israel? Are we just stubborn people who are so blinded by political nostalgia for the New Deal, and the party of Hubert Humphrey and Robert Kennedy, both of whom were very liberal and pro-Israel?
In fact, I believe, we are -- to use a term popular with the religious/political right wing -- true "values voters." Much of the Republican rhetoric in the recent election was anti-government. Candidate after candidate promised to get government off our backs, in effect to protect us from a rapacious cadre of elected officials and bureaucrats. More than one Republican candidate promised to take back America and put it into the hands of "the people."
And on Election Night, several politicians quoted either Thomas Paine or Thomas Jefferson (the quote has been attributed to both, but seems actually to have been written by Henry David Thoreau) that "the government that governs best is one that governs least."
But that sort of benign anarchism is the direct antitheses of what Judaism has to say about government. Rather, our tradition teaches us that government that governs justly and compassionately governs best. In Pirkei Avot, we are told to "pray for the welfare of the government. If it were not for the fear of the government, each man would eat his neighbor alive!"
The 15th-century scholar Rav Ovadia Bartenura explains that just as larger and more powerful fish in the sea eat smaller fish, if it weren't for the fear of the government, stronger men would "swallow" up smaller men. It is not government that we need to be protected from; rather, the proper role of government is to protect the less powerful from the avarice and greed of others.
A great deal of the Republican appeal to voters was and is based upon the idea that hard-working people are overtaxed, to a significant degree, in order to assist those who are less industrious.
It is no mere accident that in Judaism our obligation to those who have less is considered a mitzvah and not simply an act of voluntary generosity. We read in Leviticus: "When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the corner of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger; I, the Lord, am your God. You shall not steal."
In other words, we are mandated to share our wealth, and not think that the fruits of our labors are all ours to keep. It is also worth noting that in the context of sharing our bounty -- paying taxes, for example -- the prohibition against theft is repeated, making greed tantamount to theft.
Certainly, few of us go to the polls thinking of what we are taught in the Tanach or the Talmud. Rather, our voting behavior is deeply rooted in our worldview; most of us somehow know in our kishkas that it is our obligation to make the world a better place for all. Thus, we care about better health care and decent education. We want to see people protected from avarice. And we know that sharing our resources is not "socialism," but simply behaving in a manner of a compassionate people.
Until and unless this becomes the agenda of the Republican Party, most Jews will continue to reject their overtures, no matter how much money they spend trying to convince our community that Israel is the one issue that matters to us. I, for one, am insulted when we are approached not only as a single-issue entity, but also one that cares less about our nation's needs than do other Americans.
We love Israel, and care deeply about her needs and security. But as Jews, we are also taught to care for all mankind and to encourage others to do likewise. That is what being a "light unto the nations" truly means.
Burt Siegel, a longtime analyst of Jewish voting patterns, worked on Jewish outreach for Joe Sestak in his bid for the U.S. Senate.