We Jews are a scrappy lot. This year marks the 350th anniversary of the arrival of the first Jews on the shores of colonial America seeking freedom from religious persecution in Brazil in 1654. And with those Jews, also came the first fight for civil rights when Asher Levy filed a suit against Peter Stuyvesant, the governor of New Amsterdam, to allow the new immigrants to remain in colonial America - and won. Thus continued the Jewish tradition of seeking and pursuing justice and began an American Jewish community.
Jonathan Sarna, the Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, has aptly described our American Jewish adventure in the introduction to The American Jewish Experience, published by Holmes and Meier, 1997, 2nd Edition:
"American Jewish history weds together two great historical traditions: one Jewish, dating back to the Patriarchs, the Prophets, and the rabbis of the Talmud, the other American, dating back to the Indians, Columbus, and the heroes of the Revolution. Bearing the imprint of both, it nevertheless forms a distinctive historical tradition of its own, now more than three centuries old. It is a tradition rooted in ambivalence, for American Jews are sometimes pulled in two different directions at once."
Dr. Sarna is stating the case mildly, but presently it appears that that ambivalence and struggle does not exist for many Jews. While in the past, we have forged our destiny with those struggling for a better America for all, many Jews have decided to cast their votes on November 2 based solely on where the candidates stand on Israel.
When we ask ourselves, "Is it good for the Jews?" that has to mean more than Israel.
This is not to advocate for one candidate over another, but to advocate for an approach to voting and engaging in civil society that includes the issues about which Jews and American Jews specifically have widely cared the most - civil rights, social justice, the environment, and caring for our most vulnerable members.
While Jews comprise only 2.2 percent of the total population of the United States, we are disproportionately active in the electoral process - read: politics. Not only are we members of Congress, state legislatures and city councils around the country, we write checks, large and small, to the candidates or our choice. We are poll watchers, we knock on doors to get out the vote, and we vote in disproportionately large numbers.
Perhaps it’s become trite or cliché to say that voting is not only a right, but a responsibility, but it bears repeating when there is so much at stake. We are a country at war, millions of Americans lack access to adequate health care, our way of life is threatened with encroachments on our civil liberties in the name of homeland security, and many good family-wage jobs have been outsourced overseas. Jews are a part of that mix. According to the National Jewish Population Survey conducted several years ago, approximately one-fifth of American Jews lives in poverty.
Jews give generously to support a strong infrastructure of social service agencies, but it is a myth that many believe that the Jewish community does it all alone. Gifts to our Jewish agencies, while essential, are not enough to alleviate the need that exists and continues to grow. Most of the funding that supports our vital social services - nursing homes, housing for the elderly, food banks, etc. - in the Jewish community comes from government in the form of Medicaid, Medicare and Social Services Block Grant, to name a few sources.
When you make your decision on which candidates to support on November 2, keep that in mind. Israel is a key part of our Jewish priorities, but our priorities have always included a balance of supporting policies that benefit Jews as Americans, as well as the safety and security of Jews in Israel.
How Asher Levy would vote is anyone’s guess, but after fighting so hard to stay in America, he almost assuredly would relish his right to vote. So, whatever does eventually drive your decision on how to vote, vote.
Randi Abrams is president of Coalition for a Jewish Voice and former Director of Public Affairs and Community Services for the United Jewish Communities Washington Action Office.