Exile and the Prophetic: Obama’s (and our) Jewish politics

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This post is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.

During the Presidential election some wondered about the Jewish vote and whether it would continue to be overwhelmingly Democratic. One pundit argued that the idea of a Jewish vote is a myth.

There was Jewish money galore in the campaign, most notably on the Republican side. President Obama’s testy relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu was highlighted. Would this muddy the electoral waters send Jews, Mitt Romney’s way?

Jewish voting patterns are only part of the political story. Despite the Jewish Republican billionaires, Jews heavily fund Democratic Party politics. As important, Jews historically set the tone for Democratic and progressive policy discussions.

Jews are known for not voting their pocketbooks. Translated, this means that Jews remain Democrats though their financial and class status suggests a Republican orientation. So it is typically analyzed. Indeed, Jews have been influenced by the Jewish tradition’s emphasis on ethics and social justice. But if you look at Jewish support for progressive policies and government largesse in those pursuits, both have historically been good for Jews. The long and the short of it – this applies to the Civil Rights movement in particular and the pursuit of an open and inclusive society in general – the desire for social justice and self-interest has guided Jewish involvement in American politics.

Self-interest is confirmed by the opposite trend: When Israel is challenged Jews threaten to pick up their ball and choose another party. First, of course, the party of choice, the Democratic Party, is cautioned. Come back to bedrock Israel support and all will be forgiven. Not only will all be forgiven, Jewish support for liberal issues will continue unabated. This is another veiled threat. If support for Israel is withdrawn, Jews will withdraw their support from other liberal agendas.

Take Gay rights. Though there are straight and Gay activists that see the broader spectrum of justice issues to include Israel/Palestine, most are naturally focused on their main issue. If the choice is to keep to the broader spectrum and jeopardize your main issue, which one do you choose? This is true with feminist issues as well.

Not only can the support of influential Jewish supporters be lost, those critical of Israeli policies can also be branded as outside the mainstream of the issue focused on. The question isn’t only finding other supporters when some Jews drop out. The reputation of the critical thinker is at jeopardy within his own issue.

Being seen as ‘anti-Israel’ carries a double risk. On the one hand, those so branded can lose some of their most enthusiastic supporters and funders. On the other, one’s work can be so severely challenged that you become a liability to others within your primary issue.

So the Jewish vote is more complicated than usually thought. Has it become less or more so over the years? My sense is that though a good percentage of Jews have changed their perspective on Israel/Palestine over the years, most of the changed are already marginalized within mainstream politics for reasons other than Israel/Palestine. The choice presented for those outside the political mainstream is remaining on the margins or reappearing in the mainstream part-time – with a silence on the issue of Israel/Palestine.

Call the latter the Obama/Hillary option. That is, if things don’t change soon. There is talk of an Obama ‘get tough on Netanyahu/Israel turn’ since Obama is free of reelection worries. But how far can Obama go without jeopardizing his power within the party itself? Remember, as well, that Obama’s second term effectiveness time frame is two years or less before he assumes lame duck status.

What Obama will do with his life after his second term is fascinating to contemplate. If Obama goes the way of Carter, he may end up as the political pariah, Carter has become. The alternative is to go the way of Clinton and bask in a political afterlife that is financially remunerative and egoistically gratifying. One wonders, though, about Obama’s post-Presidency options. Either because of his natural distaste for retail politics and/or his Blackness, Obama may simply fade away.

Activists on Israel/Palestine have to go with the possibility that Obama will get tough with Israel soon. Yet what does ‘getting tough with Israel’ mean in the American political lexicon?

When justice in America is the issue by and large the Jewish community has been there and done that.

When justice in Israel/Palestine is the issue by and large the Jewish community hasn’t been there and hasn’t done that.

Getting behind any Obama initiative on Israel will mean dropping Palestine – at least as Palestine is increasingly thought of on the Left, Jewish and otherwise. It means considerably narrowing the vision of what has to occur if Palestinians are to be free. It means keeping silent on the history that befell Palestinians. It means favoring a two-state solution that isn’t two real states. It means jumping on the J Street bandwagon.

Any volunteers?

So President Obama’s second term (Jewish) politics is complex. He has to deal with the Jewish vote in the broadest sense of the term. At least, the Jewish vote that registers on the Democratic Party’s radar screen. But, then, (Jewish) politics on the Left, doesn’t register at all.

Jews of Conscience are off the (Jewish) politics radar screen. So what’s a Jew of Conscience to do?

About Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is retired Director and Professor of Jewish Studies at Baylor University and author of The Heartbeat of the Prophetic which can be found at Amazon and www.newdiasporabooks.com

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