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In the 2008 Election, Columnist Asks, “What Are the Jewish Issues?”

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
September - October 2008

“In this election year,” asks Forward (Aug. 29, 2008) columnist Jay Michaelson, “What are the Jewish issues?”  
He writes: “Ask the organized Jewish lobbies, and most of our institutional leaders, and the answers are simple: Israel, Israel and Israel. I want to make a brash, perhaps hyperbolic, suggestion: that not only is this agenda wrong, but it also threatens the very Judaism it hopes to preserve.”  
While polls show that most Jewish voters are concerned about a variety of issues — the economy, the environment, Iraq — Michaelson notes that “Many Jewish organizations (not all, of course) base their policy choices only on what they perceive as ‘good for the Jews,’ which usually means supporting Israel, fighting anti-semitism and maybe a smattering of other issues like the separation between church and state.”  
These, Michaelson writes, are important issues, “But they are only half of the picture. The assumption is that Jewish issues are issues that effect Jews directly, rather than issues that Jews should care about as Jews. The difference is what Rabbi Sidney Schwartz, in his book Judaism and Justice, called the values of Sinai and the values of Exodus. The former are the ethical and religious values that Judaism represents: justice, monotheism, holiness and the like. While not necessarily universal, they are about Judaism, not the Jews; values, not tribe. The values of the Exodus, in contrast, are about the Jewish people specifically, and by extension, Jewish self-interest, whether annihilating the Canaanites in biblical times or defending our people today.”  
In Michaelson’s view, Jewish leaders have “long put undue stress” upon what they perceive as narrow Jewish self-interest: “Now we have a situation where the old guard insists that we support the Jews and a younger generation lacks any reason to do so, Support the Jews, our leaders say. The kids ask, ‘Why?’ Because it’s what Jews do, they’re told. Well, this is circular, it’s ethnocentrtc and it holds little appeal in 2008. Most recently, of course, this parochialism has cropped up in the embarrassing spectacle of Barrack Obama kowtowing to the Jewish and Israel lobbies, soothing them with all the right pro-Israel bromides, as if they were nervous little children. Meanwhile, outrageous and often racist e-mails about Obama continue tn circulate in our community. ... Even young conservatives, who disagree with Obama on many issues and will likely vote for McCain, do not forward idiotic e-mail about Islam or flag pins. Only scared, old people do that. Including scared, old Jews. Theirs is a Judaism so worried about dying out that it is, indeed, dying out.”  
Christian leaders, Michaelson points out, act in an entirely different manner: “They care about something other than their own interests. They have religious values that inform a wide variety of political decisions, and they use the language of faith, which resonates with the 90% of Americans who believe in God and the 70% who belong to an organized religion, to make their case. So have our country’s greatest liberators, from Abraham Lincoln speaking of the ‘judgments of the Lord’ to Martin Luther King, Jr. demanding equality for ‘all God’s children.’ In our country, religious issues should be the ones religion demands to address — not the ones that happen to affect our group ... But with only a few exceptions ... Jews have been absent from this resurgence of faith-based politics. We’re still too busy looking out for our own ... In so doing, we’ve made Judaism seem irrelevant, tribal, and circular. If all Judaism means is looking out for the Jews, many young people are right to have no interest in it. A Judaism that just preserves the Jew stands for nothing.”  
“Real Jewish issues,” Michaelson concludes, are not about Jews but “speak to real problems, and make our ancient religious mandates seem radically new again — and utterly crucial.”

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