A New Jewish Agenda
“Behold, cometh this dreamer.” (Genesis 37:19)
Jewish Americans voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama — 77 percent to 23 percent.
They chose Obama for the same reason most voters did, only more so. They were appalled at the state of the nation after eight years of a Republican administration. They gravitated to Obama’s policies. But what won even independent- and Republican-leaning Jews over was his ability to project idealism and intelligence, vision and pragmatism.
All our great leaders, from Moses to Rabin, share this combination of almost paradoxical traits. The biblical Joseph was a boy when his brothers derided him as a dreamer, but he grew into a man with great practical ability (and, by the way, he saved Egypt’s economy). Obama is a long way from joining this pantheon, but Jewish voters see in him that possibility.
However, the enormity of Obama’s Jewish support disguises the depth and intensity of division within our community over this election. Vicious ads and viral lies tore us deeply, if not in two. The Jewish infighting got rough and ugly over this election. The far left tarred McCain as a warmonger, the right had Obama installing Noam Chomsky as special Mideast envoy.
There is a way to heal this gash. On Nov. 5, 2008, it’s worth looking at what Obama and his opponent, Arizona Sen. John McCain, had in common. Because those similarities reveal the common path we Jews must now follow.
Both men stressed energy independence. Their policies, especially in the more cartoonish moments of the election, differed in dramatic ways — “Drill, baby, drill!” can now go the way of “Hoo But Hoover?” — but McCain and Obama agreed without hesitation on the reasons America must stop greasing its downward slide with Saudi crude.
Both men recognized the importance of multilateral diplomacy and engagement in dealing with Iran and the Middle East, and both avowed the non-negotiable importance of a secure and peaceful Israel.
Finally, both men emphasized universal national service as a critical part of strengthening America at home and abroad.
Energy independence, an engaged and enlightened Middle East policy, national service: There you have it. In that overlap is the Jewish communal agenda for the next four years.
But what, exactly, is our role?
Energy Independence: Green Is the New Blue-and-White
Anyone who doesn’t understand there is a direct correlation between our foreign oil consumption and the long-term health of our economy, our planet and Israel is either in denial or in a Mercedes E-Class.
McCain and Obama understood we don’t have the luxury of denial anymore.
Transitioning from an oil-based economy to one that relies on domestic sources of energy and, ultimately, alternative energy, will take time, ingenuity, investment and sacrifice.
We need to lead the way. The Jewish community’s stake is even higher: Israel’s enemies benefit directly from America’s gas pumps. Iran can’t pay for a screwdriver, much less enriched uranium, without high fuel prices. Oil receipts have also funded the spread of the most irredentist interpretations of (mostly Saudi-backed) anti-Semitic Islam.
Green, then, must become the new blue-and-white. Synagogues need to offer incentives for congregants to be fuel and energy efficient. Our numerous defense organizations need to join together in making the fight for energy independence at least as important as the fight against a dozen Aryan whack jobs lurking around the fringes of the Internet.
Our communal leaders need to set an example in the cars they drive, the investments they make. Plant a tree in Israel or buy a bond there, but also invest in cutting-edge Israeli solar, electric and biofuel research.
A good first step: The Republican Jewish Coalition and National Jewish Democratic Council need to sit down together and craft a joint ad supporting Obama’s promised “Manhattan Project” for energy independence.
Middle East Policy: Courageous Support
Obama’s most vociferous Jewish critics woke up Nov. 5, checked Debka.org, and came to the shocking realization that Israel still exists.
Now everyone can take a breath and focus.
America’s relationship with Israel is strong because it is in America’s interest, not just the Jewish interest. It is resilient because it has deep popular support — not just Jewish support. It is ongoing because responsible Jewish organizations focus on making Israel a bipartisan issue, not a campaign slogan.
Both candidates agreed that a nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable, and the new president will need unwavering bipartisan Jewish backing to help ensure that.
Both men agreed that the Israeli-Palestinian issue is not the cause of America’s problems in the Middle East. But both men acknowledged that addressing that conflict is in Israel’s interest, and it is.
It is time for American Jewish organizations to stand with an American president’s good faith and intelligent efforts to help Israel move toward rapprochement with whatever country or nation it wants, and to encourage Israel through incentive and support to take the difficult steps it must to improve its security.
Some donors will cancel checks, some pressure groups will scream, “Traitor!” But a new beginning requires our communal leaders to find new wellsprings of courage and resolve.
National Service: Communities of Obligation
Our communities can make common cause with national service by inspiring our youth to serve, providing them with meaningful service opportunities, and — this is important — demanding that they do so.
That’s right. For GenX and GenY Jews, the message from the organized Jewish community has long been, “We owe you.” We ply them with cool outreach events, free trips to Israel, grants for every ‘zine, rave and hip-hop Shabbat they want — and all we ask is that they like us. This has got to stop.
Jewish tradition already has a word for what Obama meant when he called for universal national service: kehilla hiuvit, literally, “a community of obligation.”
Our Jewish communities need to demand service of all of our young people. You want to go to Israel? First commit to tutor an inner-city child. You want to feel you belong? Plant a tree. Not in Israel (you can do that, too) — in Boyle Heights.
“Let us summon a new spirit of patriotism, of service and responsibility,” Obama said in his victory speech. Jews of the left and right can work together to heed that call.
The dawn of a new era in American politics demands a new agenda in Jewish politics. We can use our collective power to advance a far-reaching three-point agenda that will inspire our youth, improve our communities and improve our world. The nation has chosen. Now it’s our turn.