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Does it matter if Jews are in politics?

by Jared Sichel

April 4, 2014 | 12:47 pm

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Ca.) is set to retire at the end of his current term.

Yesterday evening, I observed a panel of three local Jewish politicos at University Synagogue in Brentwood, which was hosted by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. On the panel were Los Angeles city councilmember Bob Blumenfield, Ana Guerrero, mayor Eric Garcetti's chief of staff, and Richard Bloom, who represents much of the Westside in the California State Assembly. 

It wasn't particularly notable--more just serving as an opportunity for young LA Jews to meet some of their fellow Jewish power players.

One short exchange, though, early on in the evening touched on a question, and an idea, that seems a bit, well, sacrosanct within Jewish political circles. The panel's moderator, political expert Raphael Sonenshein, asked Blumenfield, Guerrero, and Bloom, whether it even matters if Jews are in politics. With longtime Jewish politicians like Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Ca.) and LA County supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky leaving office at the end of this year, these seemingly eternal "Jewish seats" may no longer be Jewish following November elections.

So, as Sonenshein probed, does it matter? Should Jews care whether or not Jews are in politics?

Speaking to a Jewish audience at a synagogue, to expect any member of the panel to argue, "No, it's actually not so important," would have been a bit optimistic. Risky behavior (and telling Jews that they shouldn't care whether or not Jews are in politics is risky behavior) is not in the DNA of most politicos. Not surprisingly, Blumenfield, Guerrero, and Bloom all said in different ways that, yes, Jews should be in politics, whether as elected officials or as behind-the-scenes staffers.

Jews, they argued, are in an ideal position to a) Trumpet issues significant to Israel, like the boycott, divestment, and sanction (BDS) movement that is particularly active on Southern California campuses, and b) Infuse "Jewish values" into politics, a term that this reporter observes changes according to the party affiliation of the Jewish politician infusing his or her values.

To the first point, there is something to be said about a pro-Israel, pro-Jewish Jew fighting back against anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism (see: Attempt to ban circumcision in Santa Monica a few years ago). A committed Jew is simply more likely than a non-Jew to passionately fight for Israel and against anti-Jewish laws, such as banning circumcision, that dress up as "health focused" policies.

But, even so, political issues surrounding Jewish rituals and traditions like circumcusion are rare, and, in the United States, the need to have a Jewish politician "protecting" Jewish religious activity is more or less nonexistent.

When it comes to Israel, the division today in America is not really Jewish vs non-Jewish. To the extent that there is any division on Israel in Washington, Democrat vs. Republican is far more predictive than Jew vs. non-Jew. As MJ Rosenberg wrote in the Huffington Post last year, the Democratic Party is simply not as reliable an ally of the Jewish State as it historically has been. The hullabaloo at the 2012 Democratic national convention was a rude awakening for many pro-Israel Democrats. And the J Street lobby is a Jewish liberal "Pro-Israel Pro-peace" lobby that many people in both parties don't trust. Republicans, meanwhile, are reflexively pro-Israel. And there are, if I am correct, 32 Jewish Democrats in Congress and one Jewish Republican.

Political affiliation, which for most people is based on their values, is more reliable than religion on predicting policy positions.

The same holds true for any political issue, or any professional issue. Does it matter if Jews are in Hollywood? In business? In law? Yes, sort of, but only to the extent that being Jewish actually informs behavior. A Jewish screenwriter may be able to infuse elements from the Torah that a Christian screenwriter who holds similar values may simply be unable to do. Being Jewish, in that case, makes a difference. A Jewish lawyer defending the right of Jewish parents to circumcise their baby son may have an understanding of that practice that a non-Jewish lawyer of similar values may not have. 

But when it comes to things like taxes, spending, foreign policy, health care, and education, a candidate's values, not religion, are the predictive element in determining policy positions.  Does Judaism believe in "social justice" as defined by Democrats, or in "limited government" as defined by Republicans? The answer to that is not as simple as quoting Isaiah or referencing God's disappointment at the Israelites wanting a king to rule them. When people reduce Judaism to political cliches like "social justice" or "freedom", one can't help but feel that one's interpretation and observance of Judaism is based on their politics, which makes use of such terms as "Jewish values" intellectually questionable.

That the significance of a "Jewish seat" or Jewish representation in politics is overblown can easily be illustrated. A Jewish Republican would vote for a conservative Christian over a liberal Jew. A Jewish Democrat would vote for a liberal Christian over a conservative Jew. People who care about politics care far more about their candidate's issues and values than their religion. Waxman's and Yaroslavsky's Jewishness may be areas of pride for many local Jews, but beyond areas where their being Jewish helped them support objectively Jewish issues, and not political issues that are turned into Jewish issues, their Jewishness may be little more than an area of pride. 

So, does it really matter, as Sonenshein asked, if Jews are in politics? Occasionally. 

Does it matter if Jewish values are in politics? Yes, but identifying what those values are when it comes to running a society is an immensely complex task that Jewish scholars have debated for centuries, and not something that can be reduced to mere cliche. 

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