It should come as no surprise, but there are lessons for us as American Jews that are both sobering and strategic. Because of the unprecedented maturity of civil society in America we often forget we live in essentially a Christian country. Its Christian nature is certainly an exception in human history, for the physical safety of American Jews is not in question. The development of a liberal, pluralistic American culture has meant that Jews and Judaism have been free to thrive or fail based not on the threat of enemies but only on the internal strength of the community to define and educate itself.
The election of 2004, however, represents a new challenge to Jewish public policy. Both parties courted Jews largely based on the Israel card. The bipartisan support of Israel among Americans and their elected officials is one of the major accomplishments of the Jewish community in the latter part of the 20th century. While much of identified Jewish money flowing to political campaigns may be linked to support of a strong U.S.-Israel relationship, much of Jewish voting in a level playing field of two pro-Israel candidates did not.
This meant that American Jews voted their beliefs and values, their hopes, and not their Middle East fears. And, even with our increasing wealth, we're still voting far more like African Americans than Episcopalians. This is astonishing and should be celebrated. For even with the weakness of the overall Jewish system of education, the transmission of social values has managed to continue to reflect a people who may remember they were slaves long ago in Egypt even more so than being privileged descendents of Kings of Israel.
While our numbers will continue to shrink into near political irrelevance in a growing and diverse nation of 280 million, it is time to assert our small but potentially powerful voices not only for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship but also for a Jewish values vision of America. Those of us who have been privileged to be part of the development of the pro-Israel community know that often advocacy for Israel is a barometer of our own Jewish identities and a surrogate for our Jewish involvement. The secular nature of the political process did not devalue Jews who did not practice Judaism but rather affirmed their importance. For many, being identified in the political lexicon as pro-Israel was easier than overtly standing out as a Jew; there was convenient political cover to wiggle out of the religious identification but still maintain the ethnic one.
It is striking that there is a positive correlation between the states with the worst educational systems and those that voted for the Republican ticket. Perhaps that is one reason why "No Child Left Behind" was so under-funded; President Bush will have a free hand to work with an even more supportive Congress, so this will be telling. The centrality and universality of quality education is certainly one that is associated with the Jewish people. The two coasts, with the nation's top universities, overwhelmingly supported the Democratic ticket.
One of the features of this election that strikes fear into the hearts of many Jews is the use of code words. When so many Americans went to the polls to vote on moral issues, we know that what they mean is that they went to the polls to vote for Christian issues and that, increasingly, their understanding of Christian issues is less intellectual, more absolute and more easily manipulated in a political season. Since we can never match their numbers, we need new strategies to engage this growing and perhaps defining feature of America.
While affirming how important our evangelical Christian friends are in making sure that the Holy Land does not become an Ultimate Victim of Islamic Fundamentalism in an era of weapons of mass destruction, we would honor their justice-seeking tradition by respectfully but forcefully challenging their vision of America with our own Jewish values, which emphasize and legitimize a wide-range of ideas, acknowledges the grays inherent in every single policy debate and is not swayed by political campaigns or even, apparently, the passing of generations.
After 350 years of Jewish life in America, there are many Jews who in the aftermath of the election quietly worry that maybe we are more like guests than stakeholders. Yet it would be a mistake to give in to a sense of feeling like outsiders, for the election itself was close and nearly half of Americans, especially the most vulnerable as well as the most thoughtful constituencies, also feel like there are two Americas. And, what the Jewish vote has demonstrated, yet again, is that the Edwards' formulation of "Two Americas" does not have to correlate economic privilege with social Christian conservativism. It is not likely that Jews are going to abandon the Democratic Party for quite some time. Therefore, the task ahead is to help America embrace a wide range of thoughtful ideas and programs, wrestle better with the large and small issues through the re-assertion of Jewish values into the marketplace of policy ideas and challenge the dominant definition of what constitutes moral values and moral leadership.