As supporters of Israel, one of the questions we must ask is whether, when we walk into the voting booth, we should consider issues other than Israel. We are told that if Jews don’t focus on Israel, no one else will, so we must disregard all other issues. Does Israel face existential threats? Yes. Does this mean that we should vote only based on Israel? Absolutely not. Israel is our #1 issue, but we cannot be true to ourselves by ignoring the plight of the weak, the hungry, and the oppressed.
So if I oppose single-issue voting, why am I a life-long member of a single-issue pro-Israel lobby (AIPAC) and why did I serve as President for two years of a single-issue pro-Israel PAC (CityPAC)? The answer is that I don’t see a contradiction between making Israel our #1 issue, never compromising on Israel, and remaining true to our other values. We should not say to ourselves, “well, so-and-so is not so good on Israel, but he’s great on other issues, so I’ll support him anyway.” For me, strong support for Israel is the minimum we should expect from our candidates. I support single-issue pro-Israel advocacy groups because support for Israel is so important. But there are many issues that confront our children and this country, and when both candidates are strong on Israel, we should base our personal choices on where they candidates differ.
The great sage Hillel said “If I am not for myself, who will be?” That’s why Israel should be our top priority. If the choice is between a candidate who is questionable on Israel and one who is reliably pro-Israel, we should support the reliably pro-Israel candidate.
But Hillel also said, “If I am only for myself, what am I?” We live in the United States. There are over 40 million Americans without access to health insurance. There are many without adequate food, shelter, or access to education. We are fighting a war in Iraq that is ruining our economy, killing our soldiers, weakening our military, and limiting both our national willpower and our ability to protect America and its allies by force when and if it becomes necessary. We cannot be good American citizens if we ignore the issues facing America.
One way to know what Judaism expects of us is to think about what we pray for. Prayer tells us what God wants us to do. In Birkhot Ha’Shacher, when we praise God for clothing the naked, releasing the bound, and other such acts, we are reminding ourselves that it is our obligation to clothe the naked, release the bound, and otherwise care for others. We cannot sit idly by and ignore the great issues facing our country and focus only on Israel, for if we do, what are we? That’s why we rise every Shabbat to say a prayer for the government of the United States. This prayer reminds us that we have an obligation to improve the welfare of the country we live in, and that means taking seriously the issues confronting our country—many of which have nothing to do with Israel.
Our strong support for Israel is consistent with our obligation to improve the welfare of the United States because a moral and strategically sound foreign policy is in the best interests of the United States. We can, should, and must support single-issue pro-Israel advocacy groups. It is entirely proper for groups like CityPAC to support pro-Israel incumbents regardless of who the challenger is (the “friendly incumbent rule”), because groups like CityPAC have only one issue—they have to have only one issue to be effective, and that’s true of nearly all advocacy groups, not just pro-Israel advocacy groups.
But the friendly incumbent rule, which is almost as misunderstood as the infield fly rule, does not require us as individuals to have only one issue. We can agree never to compromise on Israel, and never to set any issue above Israel in importance, but when two candidates are both good on Israel, we should focus on where they disagree instead of trying to create minute distinctions on Israel. The goal of pro-Israel advocacy is to have elections where no matter who wins, Israel wins, not to use Israel as a wedge issue to divide our community and our country.
Professor Arnold Eisen, the Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, touched on this issue in his June 7, 2008 commentary on Parashat Naso:
Are American Jews justified in taking Israel’s interest and survival into account when casting their votes for President? Absolutely. It would be wrong not to do so. My Zionism is born and sustained in both covenant and normalcy. Sovereignty in the Land of Israel gives Jews the opportunity to apply the Torah’s vision in every area of life: politics and the economy, education and health care, relations with Arab and other minorities, and relations with foreign states. Israel offers unparalleled opportunities for the service of covenant in our day. It is also home to nearly half the world’s Jews—about six million at the moment, a number that to contemporary Jewish consciousness carries with it clear moral and political imperatives.
I believe that our survival as Jews in America is linked directly to Israel’s; the survival and thriving of the Jewish people in every part of the world requires that Israel live and be strong. America’s role in defending Israel’s existence as a sovereign state with a Jewish majority imposes a special obligation on American Jews to worry profoundly about Israel. We cannot permit the legitimacy of Israel’s existence to be made dependent on evaluations of the State’s perceived virtue. When Israel and no other state is held up to the standard of moral perfection, we are right to call this anti-Semitism; when the president of a neighboring state calls repeatedly for Israel’s destruction, we are right to use all our political weight to be sure that America and other nations take notice and respond appropriately.
But Israel cannot be the only issue on our political agenda. Both covenant and normalcy require that we also be concerned about persons other than ourselves. For American Jews, this demand takes the form of worrying about what is good for America, and not only about what is good for Jews. The welfare of our diaspora minority demands this every bit as much as the venerable Jewish mitzvah that we watch out for the stranger and the weak. Health care, education, poverty, civil liberties: if we heed the prophets and the sages, we cannot not care about all of these matters, and about their impact on all Americans, and not just Jews. Israeli Jews also know that their national security depends on more than the balance of power vis-a-vis external enemies. Treatment of minorities, economic success, Jewish morale—these too are crucial.
You can read his entire commentary here
Support for Israel should be the minimum we expect from our candidates. Support for Israel should not excuse a poor record on other issues, especially if the opposing candidate is good on Israel and the other issues we care about. Of course, if an incumbent chairs a committee that has a large impact on the U.S.-Israel relationship, then the Israel factor should be more important. For example, Howard Berman (D-CA) chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee. I would hope that even pro-Israel Republicans would support Berman simply because that committee needs to be chaired by someone very strong on Israel.
In the Presidential election, we have two candidates whose records are clearly pro-Israel, but only one, John McCain, has called for the repeal of Roe v. Wade, thinks gun control is unconstitutional, and believes that “the Constitution established the United States of America has a Christian nation.” They both support Israel, but only Barack Obama shares our other values.
Support for Israel is widespread and bi-partisan in today’s Congress. An example of where Israel should not be an issue is the Illinois Tenth Congressional district, where incumbent Rep. Mark Kirk (R-IL) is being challenged by a Democrat, Dan Seals, with outstanding positions on Israel and backing from many pro-Israel voters in the district.
No matter who wins this election, the Tenth District will be represented by a strong supporter of Israel, and no matter who wins, Congressional support for Israel will remain strong, deep, and bi-partisan, both among Congressional leadership (of which Kirk is not a member) and the rank and file.
Yet supporters of Kirk argue that even though he is a four-term Congressman in the minority party who chairs no committees of any importance to the U.S.-Israel relationship, he should be retained because he manages to attach his name to many pro-Israel measures that would pass with or without him. Ironically, that argument flies in the face of a cardinal principle of pro-Israel advocacy: An election where both candidates are strong on Israel is good. The last thing we want is for Israel to become a partisan issue. Support for Israel is one of the few issues that both parties agree on. When one candidate truly is questionable on Israel, then we need to say so—I said so in 2004 and I voted for Kirk over his Democratic opponent, Lee Goodman. But when both candidates are good on Israel, it is irresponsible to turn Israel into a partisan football.
Oddly enough, Kirk himself is not a single-issue voter when it comes to Israel. The week after Kirk was re-elected in 2006, he voted to elect Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) to the post of Republican Policy Committee Chairman. Issa had previously referred to Israel as an "apartheid state" and called for the U.N. to re-draw Israel's borders.
Does Kirk agree with Issa on Israel? Doubtful. But he voted for him anyway (fortunately, Kirk's fellow Republicans rejected Issa by a 2-1 margin). No one who accuses Israel of apartheid should be in Congress, and no one irresponsible enough to put such a person in a position of leadership should be in Congress either.
If you are pro-Israel and you are a Republican, then you should vote for any pro-Israel Republicans you can find. But if you are pro-Israel and you are an independent or a Democrat, don't let anyone intimidate you by saying that if you are pro-Israel, you must compromise your other values and vote Republican. Our Republican friends are entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own facts. There are real differences between Democrats and Republicans, but Israel is not one of them.