Political Campaigns… and the Jewish Problem

It might seem a sacrilegious thought but it’s entirely true: Your vote doesn’t count. When was the last time you heard of an election, even for a local office, decided by one vote? A school board single vote might be crucial. But anything on the order of a city-wide election—all the more so a state-wide contest, and even more still, a national one—has never turned on a single ballot.

Yes, yes, if everyone felt that way and chose to not vote, the system wouldn’t work. But that is a retort, not an argument. In the end, your personal vote, qua vote, carries no determinative weight.

Please don’t get me wrong. It is important, even imperative, for Orthodox Jews in America to vote. Foremost, because it is a privilege afforded us by the wonderful country in which we live; gratitude for our freedoms and opportunities mandates that we not ignore the gift of citizenship. And then there is the importance of our communities being seen by elected officials as reliable voters; when public servants face decisions, communities perceived as electorally active more readily command the attention of the deciders.

So by all means vote! But no matter how much careful thought may have gone into our decisions, or how much fervor swells our hearts as we approach the booth—our particular votes are of no consequence regarding a presidential election’s outcome. Especially in New York, whose electoral votes are as good as apportioned.

Another fact that may elicit grumbles but whose veracity is grumble-proof, is that, despite all the research we may have done, and all the ads, debates, and op-eds we’ve seen, heard, or read, we can’t ever really know how a candidate will actually govern once elected. We may be able to make an educated guess, based on past performance (or, although less so, on his campaign promises). In the end, though, even if educated, it remains a guess. As the Talmud exhorts, it’s wise to “teach your tongue to say ‘I don’t know’.” As in so many things, in politics, despite our calculations, we really don’t.

Harry Truman, for instance, harbored some bias against Jews and blacks; yet, once in office, he energized the cause of civil rights. And when Israel declared its independence in 1948, he had the US recognize the new state within minutes (confounding his State and Defense Departments). Richard Nixon, as his Oval Office tapes attest, had little personal love for Jews (most of whom, he said “are disloyal”; “generally speaking,” he averred, “you can’t trust the [expletive deleted]s”). Yet not only did he appoint more Jews to high offices than any other president before him but he responded with alacrity and generosity to Israel’s military needs during the Yom Kippur War—in the opinion of historians, crucially.

Why point out these disturbing facts? Because we have an election season “Jewish problem”: too many of us imagine that our, and our friends’, votes are crucial, and that we know more than we do (more, indeed, than we can) about the candidates. And so we deride anyone who isn’t convinced of our omniscience. All’s fair, no matter how foul, and bearers of other perspectives become “opponents,” rather than, well, people with other perspectives. I’ve witnessed anger, even hatred, born of ultimately pointless political discussions; could an animus more chinom, more baseless, exist?

What’s more, and more troubling still, we seem to forget that we’re still in galus. Not sufficing with merely supporting a candidate, we insist on attacking his opponent, and joyfully join the buzzing swarms of partisan politickers. Do we ever stop to consider that affronts, whether based on nonsense or fact, particularly when lobbed into the public sphere, can easily come back to haunt us should the candidates we choose to vilify win?

Instead of imbibing the rank political culture, we would do better to sip from purer drink. In the end, as Shlomo HaMelech informs us, “Like streams of water is the heart of a king in the hand of Hashem” (Mishlei, 21:1). From a Jewish perspective, in other words, what’s immeasurably more important than our votes are our tefillos—that whoever happens to win be well guided by a Divine hand.

© 2012 AMI MAGAZINE

The above essay may be reproduced or republished, with permission and the above copyright appended.

Communications: rabbishafran@amimagazine.org

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