As a state legislator, a Congressman, and a private citizen, I have been politically active in Jewish causes, including pro-Israel causes, for over forty years, and have observed many presidential candidates. But Barack Obama is the first to so thoroughly capture the imagination of Jewish Americans.
The reason, in my view, is that American politics for far too long has been dominated by partisanship, hate-mongering, and influence-peddling. The results are everywhere to see–a country where divisiveness thrives, whether it is between races, religions, or the haves and have-nots. (The top 2% of Americans earn 50% of America's income now -- and decent health care and a quality education are beyond the reach of many Americans.) Now, into this polarized nation comes Barack Obama–with a strikingly different message, and a history of bridging divides and crossing frontiers, through his twenty-five years of political activism.
As a community organizer and leader in Chicago and New York, and throughout his twelve years in public office, he has epitomized the notion of Tikkun Olam ("repairing the world"). Barack Obama understands that we can only surmount our greatest challenges by finding common ground and nurturing an inclusive style of politics–in a radical break from the polarization which plagues our polity. More than most, Jewish Americans have benefited from progressive ideas and inclusive politics, and no candidate better represents that tradition than Barack Obama.
In fact, there is something essentially Jewish about Obama's political philosophy. As Rabbi Harold Shulweis of Valley Beth Shalom observed last year in his Yom Kippur sermon about "Jewish universalism":
Jewish belief does not think "either/or." The ideal of Jewish monotheism is "both/and." Hear O Israel, the Lord is 'Echad.' ONE. "One" means overcoming your split thinking. "One" is the golden thread that runs throughout Jewish thought and belief . . . Oneness is a Jewish frame of mind.
Barack Obama rejects the politics of "either/or." He rejects the "politics in this country that seeks to drive us apart–that puts up walls between us." He understands that we are one. As he said during his remarkable convention speech in 2004:
It's that fundamental belief -- I am my brother's keeper, I am my sister's keeper -- that makes this country work. It's what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family. "E pluribus unum." Out of many, one.
Thus, Obama's vision of unity makes him a natural ally to the Jewish community. Likewise, he has been a strong ally to Israel. Some, including in these pages, have raised questions about whether Barack Obama is truly committed to maintaining the United States' support for Israel. In his speeches and public statements, his legislation and his voting record, he has proven himself to be a stalwart friend of Israel, committed to helping Israel in its search for peace with its neighbors, while standing strong with Israel against those who do not share this vision.
"I start with the premise that Israel is a stalwart ally of ours and their security cannot be compromised," Senator Obama pledged last year to an AIPAC audience in a widely-praised speech that described his travels in Israel, confirmed his unwavering commitment to the Jewish state and laid out his vision for protecting American interests in the Middle East. He understands the threats Israel faces, especially from terrorism and Islamist radicalism. "Our job is to never forget that the threat of violence is real," he told AIPAC.
In addition to burgeoning grassroots support, many Jewish leaders and pro-Israel activists are also joining the Obama campaign. "I am proud to say that he is unyielding in defending Israel's security," said longtime Jewish leader and philanthropist Lester Crown, "(Obama's) conviction holds fast whether the threat comes from Gaza or Tehran."
In the United States Senate, Barack Obama has led the charge to tighten sanctions against Iran and make it easier for state and local governments to divest from companies that do business with the radical regime in Tehran – a high priority of the pro-Israel community in all 50 states. Consistently–before non-Jewish audiences as well as Jewish--Senator Obama insists that Israel must remain a Jewish state and strongly condemns anti-Semitism and anti-Semites.
Barack Obama has stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the Jewish community in raising the alarm about genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan. "We must also consider using military force in circumstances beyond self-defense," Obama wrote in Foreign Affairs, including cases of genocide and mass atrocities. Unlike our current leaders, Barack Obama will confront the destabilizing and debilitating impact of America's reliance on imported oil.
Closer to home, Jewish Americans support Senator Obama because of his dedication to other bedrock causes in our community: promoting strong families and women's rights, including advancement in the workplace, protecting a woman's right to choose, and maintaining the separation of church and state. "I don't think that people of any faith background should be prohibited from debating in the public square," Obama said in a recent presidential debate, "But I am a strong believer in the separation of church and state. By the way, I support it not just for the state but also for the church, because that maintains our religious independence and that's why we have such a thriving religious life."
Barack Obama is a rare combination of an uncommon intellect, extraordinary decency, and proven leadership. Jewish Americans are understandably anxious about the direction in which our country is headed – both at home and abroad – and are eager for change.
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