From deep in the political wilderness, from the “bluest” fringe of America, Rabbi Michael Lerner this week saw the writing on the wall.
“We have a tough fight in front of us” to influence American politics while being outside of many positions of power, Rabbi Lerner, editor of the San Francisco-based Tikkun magazine, told The Jewish Week.
“Liberals,” he wrote in an e-mail to Tikkun subscribers this week, are “trapped in a long-standing disdain for religion” and “have been unable to engage [conservative] voters in a serious dialogue.”
The challenge for the left, he said in a phone interview, is to speak the language of morality but from a progressive perspective.
And from the opposite coast, this from a leading liberal: “I think some of those people [in her liberal circles] may feel depressed and angry, and some of them may feel marginalized,” said Ruth Messinger, president of American Jewish World Service and former Manhattan borough president.
But as the widest swath of American Jewry — the non-Orthodox — struggled to comprehend the dramatic realignment that now sees them on the losing end of the “moral values” debate, Orthodox community leaders were pleased with the re-election of President Bush.
The growing Orthodox community now finds itself closer to the epicenter of American politics, perhaps more in line than ever before with the conservative values of red-state America and with an administration that has a distinct, fundamentalist Christian flavor.
“Certainly there is a sense that the Orthodox community has not always received the respect and recognition within the Jewish world we feel we deserve,” said David Zwiebel, executive vice president for government and public affairs at Agudath Israel of America.
And this from conservative talk-show host Dennis Prager: “Right now there’s a good feeling. I have felt less and less lonely since 9-11.”
While three in four American Jews stayed true to their Democratic roots and cast their votes for Sen. John Kerry, the fact that 22 percent of Americans in exit polls said “moral values” — not the war in Iraq or terrorism or the economy — was the issue that most drove their votes has turned the American Jewish landscape upside down. Eleven percent of Jewish voters listed “moral values” as their driving force, but Iraq was their top issue with 27 percent.
In this election season, in a major departure from communitywide Jewish voting patterns, “Religion is eclipsing ethnicity as a force in American politics,” New Republic editor Peter Beinart wrote in a Washington Post opinion piece just before the election.
Beinart explained that Jews, like Catholics and Protestants, increasingly make their electoral choices for ethical, not ethnic reasons, and soon “the Jewish vote, in a meaningful sense, will cease to exist.”
Exit polls suggested that 70 percent of Orthodox Jews voted for Bush.
“What this election showed is that there isn’t a [single and unified] Jewish community anymore,” said Rabbi Daniel Lapin, president of Toward Tradition, a Seattle-based organization that brings Jews and Christians together to lobby for political stances based on “Torah values.”
“It’s a major realignment,” Rabbi Lapin said, adding that membership applications to Toward Tradition had increased dramatically since the election but offering no specifics. “We vote our values rather than our ethnic identity. Orthodox Jews, Jews who take Torah and tradition seriously, voted the same way that [conservative] Christians voted.”
“Traditional Jews, conservative Jews have far greater access to the [current] administration than we’ve ever had before, while the conventional centers of power in the Jewish community are feeling anxious about diminished access,” the rabbi said.
The network of non-Orthodox Jewish organizations, which represent the majority of American Jewry, are likely to find diminished access to lawmakers during a second Bush administration and little support for their positions on such issues as abortion and gay rights.
It’s too early to predict which Orthodox institutions and causes will benefit most during the next four years, observers cautioned. But such access could translate into financial support for Orthodox institutions and political support on such issues as vouchers and the stalled Religion in the Workplace Act.
On a national level, the Republican Party positioned itself as the spokesman for these values, as Orthodox organizations have largely done in Jewish circles.
“It’s clear that the Orthodox Jewish groups are going to be listened to,” said Marshall Breger, a law professor at the Catholic University in Washington and Jewish liaison in the Reagan White House.
Nathan Diament, the Orthodox Union’s director of public policy, asked the question, “Are we in the Orthodox community better positioned to work with the administration in public policy?”
His answer: “Yes.”
“The Republicans know that a majority of our community supported the president and they’ll hopefully be appreciative of that,” Diament said. “There are many community institutions that may benefit from having access.”
Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice-president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said the amount of access he had in the Clinton administration “was significantly more than I have at the present time.”
“The people who have access clearly have a better chance of influencing” government policy, he said.
Observers disagreed over interpretations of the election results.
Are we seeing a political realignment of the Jewish community or a confirmation of recent trends, they asked. Will liberal leaders, Jews included, change their positions on some issues or simply adopt religious language to sell their old positions? Did Jewish votes for Kerry represent a repudiation of the campaign’s religious orientation or a reaffirmation of traditional Jewish values?
Rabbi Lerner said the continued Jewish preference for a Democratic presidential candidate was in line with the decades-old Jewish practice of putting ethics before economic self-interest.
“They believe in taking care of others as their highest interest,” part of Judaism’s prophetic tradition, Rabbi Lerner said. “The strong moral commitment of Jews to progressive politics … to ethical values … remains.”
However, a recent survey by the University of Akron’s fourth National Survey of Religion and Politics indicated that 67 percent of Jews are “uncomfortable when candidates discuss faith,” second only to atheists and agnostics at 72 percent. And most Democratic leaders, Rabbi Lerner said, have failed to embrace his “politics of meaning” that combines pragmatic politics with a transcendent philosophy.
That will be the theme of a Tikkun conference to be held here Feb. 4-6.
“In the right-wing churches and synagogues … voters are presented with a coherent worldview that speaks to their ‘meaning needs,’ ” Rabbi Lerner wrote in his e-mail.
“The liberal world has developed such a knee-jerk hostility to religion that it has both marginalized those many people on the left who actually do have spiritual yearnings and simultaneously refused to acknowledge that many who move to the right have legitimate complaints about the ethos of selfishness in American life.”
A choice faces liberal elements in American politics, both Jewish and general, who seek to reverse last week’s election losses — change their package or change their packaging?
The Democrats “have to find their core positions,” said Ed Koch, former New York mayor, a Democrat who supported Bush’s re-election. “They do it every time they’re beaten up” in an election.
“The challenge of the [non-Orthodox] community is to redefine its case both within the Jewish community and to the private sector,” said Steven Windmueller, a teacher at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles and author of a recently published book on Jewish political advocacy.
Rabbi Epstein said, “It would be disingenuous to change the package.
“I think everyone’s going to be arguing for morality,” he said. “They’re going to frame [the debate] in moral terms.”
His words reflected a growing sentiment in Christian circles.
“We need to work really hard at reclaiming some language,” said the Rev. Robert Edgar, general secretary of the liberal National Council of Churches. “The religious right has successfully gotten out there shaping piety issues, civil unions, abortion as almost the total content of ‘moral values.’ ”
The Rev. Carlton Veazey of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice said, “We have to go back and examine what we are saying, why it is not resonating. We don’t just cave in and say they’ve got a monopoly on morality.”
Such issues as abortion, stem cell research, Supreme Court nominations and civil liberties still energize the majority of U.S. Jews, non-Orthodox, who voted for Kerry.
“Seventy-five percent of the Jewish community sees itself as part of that constituency,” Windmueller said.
The election losses are “not going to stop people,” said Messinger, a lifelong Democrat who was trounced by Rudolph Giuliani in her run for mayor in 1996. “These people will continue to organize and speak out on issues. We have a great deal more to do.”
According to most polls, the overall Jewish vote for Bush was 20 to 25 percent. Polling indicated that older Jews tended to vote Democratic, Prager said, while “40 percent of young Jewish males voted Republican.”
“More and more young Jews are going to vote Republican as they feel more secure in America,” Prager said.
Many so-called “post 9-11” Americans turned conservative following the terrorist attacks on the United States, supporting the government’s war in Iraq and overall fight against terrorism.
“9-11 changed my life,” Prager said. “Jews are prepared to engage in the issue of good and evil much more than before.”
Part of the Jewish community’s slow drift to the GOP began with the election in 1980 of President Ronald Reagan, who was credited with energizing a generation of young conservatives. This continued with George W. Bush’s election.
“That’s already happened in the last four years,” Breger said. “It’s not going to be a cataclysmic change” during the next administration.
But, Breger said, the strengthened profile of Jewish Republicans will remain.
“There’s no doubt that now we have a two-party system in the Jewish community,” he said.
The Republican Jewish Coalition, which coordinates pro-GOP activities in the Jewish community, recently established local chapters in some 10 U.S. cities, Breger said, and the Bush campaign drew large numbers of Jewish volunteers.
“The infrastructure,” he said, “is very strong.”
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