ATLANTA (JTA) – I am one of those 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling. I was a Hillary supporter. I did not support Senator Clinton because she was a woman but because I liked her policies and record. But as is often the case in life, my hopes were not to be. Once that became clear I sat on the sidelines, watching and wondering. Now I am firmly in the Obama/Biden camp. I have been both pushed and pulled in that direction. I am there as an American, a woman and a Jew.
John McCain is a firm pro-lifer, having voted against choice more than 120 times in his career. His running mate opposes abortion even in the case of rape and incest. While there is nothing fundamentally wrong with these beliefs, I object to having someone’s personal views forced upon everyone else when it entails such a private family matter.
Furthermore, this view potentially conflicts with Jewish law, which holds that when there is a threat to the life of the mother, her life takes precedence over that of her fetus – and leaves abortion decisions up to a woman and the rabbi with whom she consults. Many traditional rabbis take into consideration the issue of mental stress on the mother, permitting abortions in the case of Tay-Sachs and other genetic diseases.
Were McCain and Sarah Palin to write their pro-life beliefs into law, their policy could create both a direct obstacle to Jewish law and severe invasions into our private lives.
McCain’s views on abortion are not, however, my primary reason for not supporting him. I find myself diverging with him on a far broader array of issues.
The Torah repeatedly instructs us to care for the “widow, orphan, poor, and the stranger.” It is fundamental to Judaism that those who are blessed with “more” have an obligation – not a choice – to help those who have less. Taking care of the needy in Jewish tradition constitutes doing tzedaka, not charity. There is a world of difference between the two.
The root of charity is “caras,” as in dear – caress, care. The root of tzedaka is justice. Jewish law prefers that people give charity lovingly and kindly. But Jewish law teaches, even if you don’t care to give, that you are obligated to do so. How then could I support McCain, who has voted against the minimum wage at least 10 times? How could I support someone who believes in the privatization of Social Security? Can you imagine what would be happening today as the economy lurches toward implosion to people who depended on private Social Security accounts? Social Security is a contract a society makes with its citizens: We will help you when you are old and needy.
How could I support a candidate, McCain, whose health-care program would leave millions uninsured and tax the health insurance benefits we now receive from our employers? How could I support someone who supports more tax cuts for the very wealthy and almost nothing for the middle class or the poor?
And then, of course, there is Israel, to which so many of us are deeply and viscerally connected. Groups of Jews who oppose Barack Obama want to strike fear into people’s hearts on this issue. Why else would I regularly receive e-mails from them – I like to know what the other side is saying – referring to BHO, as in Barrack Hussein Obama?
Obama’s record has earned him praise from AIPAC and Israeli leaders, as well as condemnation from Palestinian leaders. The recently defunct, solidly pro-Israel New York Sun declared in an editorial earlier this year: “Mr. Obama’s commitment to Israel, as he has articulated it so far in his campaign, is quite moving and a tribute to the broad, bipartisan support that the Jewish state has in America.”
Moreover, the paper noted, “he has chosen to put himself on the record in terms that Israel’s friends in America, at least those not motivated by pure political partisanship, can warmly welcome.”
Leaders in Israel – on both sides of the political spectrum – do not fear Obama’s commitment to Israel. Israeli leaders from Ehud Barak to Benjamin Netanyahu were impressed by Obama. Netanyahu, the Likud Party leader, told the Jerusalem Post that he was “impressed with Obama’s understanding of the Iranian threat and that they both agreed that a nuclear Iran was unacceptable.” Netanyahu also said that he and Obama agreed on the importance of “preventing a nuclear Tehran” and that “when it came to stopping Iran there were no politics.”
What about the famous “experience” conundrum? Obama’s familiarity with the issues has impressed many people, including the veteran journalist David Horowitz, editor of the Jerusalem Post. Horowitz compared his recent interviews with President Bush and Senators McCain and Obama.
When he met a few months ago with Bush in the Oval Office, the president – who at this point is “presumably as expert on Israeli-Palestinian policy as he is ever going to be” – brought with him “no fewer than five advisers and spokespeople during a 40-minute interview,” Horowitz wrote.
On his whirlwind visit to Israel, “McCain, one of whose primary strengths is said to be his intimate grasp of foreign affairs, chose to bring along Sen. Joe Lieberman to the interview” and “looked to Lieberman several times for reassurance on his answers and seemed a little flummoxed by a question relating to the nuances of settlement construction.”
Horowitz’s meeting with Obama was markedly different. Obama “spoke with only a single aide in his hotel room.” (The aide’s only contribution was to suggest that Obama and Horowitz switch seats, so the Post photographer would have better lighting.)
Obama did not lack for Middle East advisers. Dennis Ross, President Bill Clinton’s special envoy to the Middle East and one who is widely respected for his knowledge and commitment to a secure peace settlement, and Daniel Kurtzer, the former ambassador to Israel and Yeshiva University graduate and its former dean, were “hovering in the vicinity,” Horowitz wrote, but they were not in the room. Horowitz observed that Obama “knew precisely what he wanted to say about the most intricate issues confronting and concerning Israel, and expressed himself clearly, even stridently on key subjects.”
Contrast that with Sarah Palin’s rote repetition three times during the Charlie Gibson interview of precisely the same phrase about Israel that “We can’t second-guess Israel.” Is that all she has to say? Can she only speak in sound bites? Does she have any knowledge of the nuances of the situation?
The same thing happened in the vice-presidential debate. Palin spewed a lot of talking points – two-state solution, no second Holocaust, embassy in Jerusalem – but demonstrated no real familiarity with the situation.
I firmly believe that those who know the history and nuances of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the track record of the different players cannot help but come down on the side of a safe and secure Israel. But in order to help broker a real peace, they must know much more than rote talking points.
Many Jews, myself included, were deeply disturbed by the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s most controversial comments, but there is nothing in Obama’s record to indicate that he adheres to Wright’s views. I was glad to hear Obama forcefully and publicly denounce them.
Contrast that with Palin, who sat in her church while a Jews for Jesus leader, David Brickner, preached that terrorism in Israel is God’s “judgment” against Jews for failing to accept Jesus? Maybe she said nothing because she did not understand the implication’s of Brickner’s words, but that would be even more disturbing.
When Palin first ran for mayor of Wasilla, she did so as the town’s “first Christian mayor.” What does that have to do with being mayor? Is this someone you want a heartbeat away from America’s oldest president, a man who has had multiple bouts with cancer?
Lest someone assume that I am contemptuous of her deep religious commitment, let me stress that it is the contrary. In my work and life I find myself more comfortable with those who are deeply committed to their faith – whatever that faith may be – than those who are totally unconnected and, even worse, contemptuous of those who are. I just don’t want them imposing their faith on me.
Finally, let’s talk about the 800-pound gorilla sitting in the middle of many people’s election ballots. Jews have prospered in this country in countless and unimaginable ways. America has given us tremendous opportunities. While no one should vote for Barack Obama because he is black, the fact that a black man is a nominee for the highest office in the land constitutes an affirmation of the fact that at long last, some of the final barriers of discrimination are crumbling. For Jews it is yet another reminder of the blessings this country has offered them and other minorities.
For me, the choice is clear.
(Deborah E. Lipstadt is the Dorot Professor of Modern Jewish and Holocaust Studies at Emory University and author of “History on Trial: My Day in Court With David Irving.”)