There are three phases to every election, Los Angeles City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa recently told me: there's the primary, there's the runoff and then there's the home stretch. Those last few weeks, he said, is when things really get tough. Villaraigosa lost the 2000 mayor's race in a bruising down-to-the-wire battle against Mayor James Hahn. This year he's not only a candidate for mayor once again, he is a local chair of the Kerry for President campaign.
"The end," he said, no doubt dredging up some nasty memories, "that's a whole other race."
Now the presidential race is in that last phase, and if you thought Campaign 2004 has been contentious and divisive up until now, just wait. The candidates will have their line up of sedate, Dr. Jekyll-like debates while their campaigns engage in Mr. Hyde-like accusations and distortions. This close to the finish line, passions are running as high as the stakes. The same holds true among the Jews. Various synagogues and organizations are sponsoring their own pre-election debates beginning this week. I'm moderating a few of these, and I'm not expecting to encounter a lot of moderation.
Because the issues on the table in this election cleave so close to longstanding concerns in the Jewish community -- Middle East policy, terror, medical research, church-state issues -- supporters of both candidates have ratcheted up their activism and their rhetoric.
Jewish supporters of President George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry understand that while Jews make up just 2 percent of the American population, they can have a significant impact on the outcome of an election.
One reason is that we vote. As our columnist Raphael Sonenshein has pointed out, with 6 percent of the Los Angeles city population, Jews cast 18 percent of the vote in mayoral elections. With 3 percent of California's population, Jews represent an estimated 5 percent of the state's registered voters.
In a close race, the Jewish population of swing states like Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania might provide some crucial ballots to the contenders.
We also give. According to J.J. Goldberg, author of "Jewish Power" and editor of The Forward (and a speaker at one of the upcoming debates here), "Jews are one of the largest sources of Democratic financing, donating or raising as much as half of the party's presidential campaign funds."
As Republicans have made significant gains in Jewish support, they have also garnered increased contributions.
Both parties recognize the value of Jewish voters, and their Jewish partisans are working hard within the community to advance their candidate.
I had a taste of both sides' crusading spirit this past week. Monday evening, I met with about 30 young professionals, members of a Valley Beth Shalom havurah, at a home in the Encino hills. We discussed the election. The conversation stayed entirely civil until I took a vote. It was 25 hands for Kerry, 5 hands for Bush. The partisan claims and accusations began to fly. Although the argument hardly reached the level of Dick Cheney-John Edwards, I got the sense the right verbal match could have lit quite a fire. And this was a havurah -- a word that shares the Hebrew root for friend. We are, ostensibly, all friends, but one looming, consistent issue we face is not whom we argue about, but how we argue.
Argument is built in to our culture.
"It's not just the Bible that makes the Jews special," David Suissa said at a fundraising banquet for Israeli democracy Sunday night, "it's the 600 years of argument that followed our receiving it."
That argument strengthened our understanding and our faith, and political argument, done properly, can have the same effect.
In an essay for CLAL, philosopher Michael Gottsegen articulated a way we can vent our sharp disagreements without losing sight of the values that guide our convictions.
"What are the central principles that rightly inform a Jewish political sensibility," he wrote, "and how do we translate them into the idiom of the American public space to constitute a politics that is at once authentically Jewish and American?"
Gottsegen identified four, and I'll oversimplify them here: respect that is due the human being, derived from the notion that each human is created b'tzelem elochim, in the divine image; respect for the entire realm of creation because it is the work of God, or ma'aseh bereshit; the principle of brit, or covenant, which elevates the idea that human society is based on reciprocity and mutuality; and the principle of rachamim, or mercy, "which lays upon individual and society the obligation to care for the weak and vulnerable." Click here to read "A Jewish Contribution to American Politics" by Michael Gottsege
How these translate into policy and political conviction depends on how you balance these values against one another. Jews of good faith and sincere convictions can come to different conclusions. If we lose sight of that fact, we lose sight of one another, and then we, as a people, will truly be lost.
You can join the debate at the following venues: Temple Ner Maarav in Encino, Oct 9, 8 p.m.; Temple Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills, Oct. 15, 8:15 p.m.; Beth Shir Shalom in Santa Monica, Oct. 17, 4 p.m.; University of Judaism in Bel Air, Oct. 17, 7:30 p.m.; Sinai Temple in Westwood, Oct. 18, 6:30 p.m.; Congregation Ner Tamid of South Bay in Rancho Palos Verdes, Oct. 21, 7 p.m.; Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, Oct. 25, 6:45 p.m.; and Congregation Shaarei Tefila in Los Angeles, Oct. 31, 9:15 a.m. Complete listings at jewishjournal.com.