Time for Orthodox Jews to go from "No We Didn't" to "Yes We Can"
Why did Jews as a whole community heartily endorse the "Yes We Can" campaign of Barack Obama while my own subset of Orthodox voters turned away and voted for McCain? And what can we do now to influence this Orthodox preference in the future?
Somewhere between 66% and 75% of Orthodox Jews supported and probably voted for McCain in the past election. Straw polls at Yeshiva University, a left of center Orthodox school, had McCain ahead with 66% of the vote.
Other pre-election polls gave Barack even less overall support among the group. You could say that I happily cast my somewhat lonely Orthodox vote for Barack along with that minority in my community.
Or you could say that I voted along with the majority of Jews as a whole who went 78% for Barack Obama in last week's presidential contest. This outcome continues the long and deep tradition of Jews nationwide voting for Democratic candidates. We voted at the rate of 77% for Kerry in 2004 and, because of the presence of Lieberman on the ticket, 80% for Gore in 2000.
But you should ask us, why do you Orthodox resist the landslide of Jewish support for democrats?
The main factor that accounts for this contrarian trend is that many of us Orthodox Jews in recent elections have identified with the message emanating from the Bush-Rove strategies pitting us versus them, blue versus red, and liberal versus conservative.
As we know this dualistic worldview of good versus evil was sold by the republicans to the public through fear tactics and division. Bush-Rove sought to divide America, to create overt culture clashes and capitalize on the friction.
When challenged on the essence of the political clash, and when confronted with the notion that fairness for the poor and middle-class was elemental to Jewish values, and when accused of making their choices tinged with racism, the Orthodox republicans with whom I spoke during the campaign repeatedly and seamlessly fell back on their well-rehearsed non-sequitur standard that Obama was "bad for Israel."
We've by now seen how Obama dramatically came forth with a strong and consistent message in his campaign that neutralized and superseded the politics of division. His historic efforts brought together Americans with substantial and meaningful messages of unity and purpose.
And by the way, we've now seen how his first appointment was Rahm Emanuel as White house Chief of Staff, a proudly identified Jew of Israeli-Irgun extraction, and a negation of all the Orthodox doomsday predictions.
As I watched and listened during the campaign, my fellow Orthodox tribalists who threw in with Bush-Rove and friends had lots of fun mocking the Obama message as just "words" and calling Barack and all his inspiration an "empty suit." To their credit, they spoke accurately from their point of view, at one with the Great-Divider's political philosophy and adding their voices to the chorus of the great republican echo-chamber.
But, as the campaign wore on, more and more people, Jews and gentiles, minorities and members of the silent majority, all joined in accepting and then enthusiastically endorsing the Obama political platform and its mission.
Through it all, with only small attrition, the majority of us Orthodox Jews apparently held fast to the politics of divisiveness, derision and fear. They stood by McCain and Palin and all that those two stand for. And they suffered a rout.
What now for those folk after the "bad outcome"?
The first Obama-era scenario for us Orthodox is more of the same - more divisiveness as part of the pious opposition in America.
Though that would be disappointing, I expect it will prevail. Right wing Orthodoxy has invested a heap of politically naïve capital in that worldview. Why? Because, first off, it sets them apart from other Jews competing for souls in the synagogues and schools. And at the same time, right-wing identification appears to give the reactionary Orthodox some solid standing in a broader community coalition of political adherents, that is, as part of right-wing America.
This answers the always enigmatic question – what do northern urban Orthodox Jews have in common with the anti-Semitic southern conservative rural whites with whom they have found truck as political travelers? The two groups eerily found companionship because they both hold to three characteristics. They are: "not-them" preachers, "they are immoral" teachers, and they claim to be "indeed we are holy" believers. I fear this "strange-bedfellows" scenario will continue.
Yet, I am praying for the emergence of a second and more positive Obama-era scenario for us Orthodox Jews as a community.
With some soul-searching and some real faith, we sectarian Orthodox brothers and sisters together in unity can achieve a Come-to-Barack transformational moment.
What such a true change will require of the majority of my compatriots is threefold. First, they must repent somewhat from the hubris that they bear, that Orthodox means isolated, separate and better.
Second, they need to seek a healing from the fear of the darkness and doom for the future of Israel and the Jews that has been sowed amongst us Orthodox.
And third, they need to pick themselves up and with their boundless devotion and energy they must join the "Yes, we can" movement to rebuild the American middle-class.
It's up to all of us in the Orthodox community, our leaders and above all, our talented and energetic base to resolve to repent, to turn the page and to go forward together from "No We Didn't" to "Yes We Can."
Tzvee Zahavy is a resident of Teaneck NJ. He served as president of the Young Democrats of Yeshiva College in 1969-70, has been a lifelong Democrat, and most recently served as a volunteer for Obama in the past election. He is an ordained Orthodox rabbi, a professor of Jewish Studies and corporate consultant. [Revised essay's tone 8:00 PM.]