A poll of Florida Jews this month by the American Jewish Committee backs up something we’ve heard before: When it comes to reasons for voting for president, Jews don’t put Israel very high on their list of priorities. Asked to identify their most important issues in this campaign, respondents gave the top two spots to the economy at 54 percent and health care at 16 percent. United States-Israel relations ran a distant third at 5 percent, tied with issues like national security, abortion, and social security. Even fewer — 1 percent — consider Iran’s nuclear program a top issue.
Los Angeles Rabbi David Wolpe would like to change that. Writing for Time, Wolpe asserts that he has become a single-issue voter this campaign, and that issue is Iran. His reasons are worth quoting at length:
Once Iran has a nuclear bomb, the world will never look the same. Not only Israelis, but the West will never sleep easily in its bed. Stopping Iran will not feed your family, get you a job or open a factory. It will not elevate the level of public discourse or bring manufacturing back from China. It will merely ensure that the free world, beginning with Israel but not ending there, will not live under the shadow of annihilation. To our presidential candidates: show me you have a way to do that, and you’ve got my vote.
Like the benediction he gave at the Democratic National Convention, Wolpe’s essay is assertively nonpartisan. Wolpe, like many a pulpit rabbi, explains elsewhere that he has made a promise to minister to his entire congregation, not just to the folks who share his politics.
And so in discussing Iran, Wolpe doesn’t mention the policy choices available to the candidates. If the stakes over an Iranian nuke are so high, why not share whatever combination of sanctions, red lines, and military responses he considers appropriate to preventing Iran from getting the bomb?
I have mixed feelings when I hear rabbis profess nonpartisanship. Too few rabbis — especially those with national stature like Wolpe, who regularly tops Newsweek’s list of the most influential rabbis in America — clock in on high-stakes debates of the day.
If Torah is supposed to be a way of life, why won’t its most learned scholars share their interpretation of its economic vision, its approach to alleviating suffering, its philosophy for defending the nation’s interests abroad and for protecting its people at home?
And yet, in writing a regular column for a communal Jewish newspaper, I appreciate the delicate dance pulpit rabbis must perform — that is, trying to be in the political debate but above it at the same time, desperate to bring attention to a burning issue but unable to weigh in on its solution lest you alienate followers or your own principles of objectivity and nonpartisanship. I don’t mean to single out Wolpe. In some ways, this is a reflection of the entire Jewish communal debate over Iran. The Jewish organizational consensus is that “Iran must be stopped” and, except on the distinct ideological Right and Left, the discussion stops there. There’s little full-throated support for sanctions because we don’t want to be seen as condoning too tepid a response; conversely, there are few explicit demands for military action because Jews don’t want to be seen as “leading” the country into war. “Containment” is an option that dares not speak its name.
We’re left with a communal dialogue on Iran that sounds like Mark Twain: “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.”
Nevertheless, Wolpe has done something important in his essay for Time. With the candidates about to engage in a series of debates, including one on foreign policy, he found a way to put the Iran issue front and center. If that succeeds in wringing strong statements on Iran out of both candidates, it would be a win-win.
More than one pundit has suggested that there is no discernible difference between the Iran rhetoric of Romney and the policies of Obama. If there is any difference in their stated positions, it revolves around whether, in the words of the Washington Post’s Jackson Diehl, the candidate would act militarily “if Iran actually tried to build a bomb” (Obama) or “if Iran were merely close to acquiring all the means for a weapon — which it is” (Romney).
That doesn’t mean that you don’t have to worry about the Iran issue, or that there is no reason to prefer one candidate over the other. But the pledges by both men to prevent a nuclear Iran are signs of a successful effort on the part of activists, Jewish and non-Jewish. It mirrors the historic achievement of the pro-Israel movement, which makes both parties work hard for Jewish votes. Perhaps Florida’s Jewish voters feel that both parties are strong enough on Iran and Israel that they can focus on other issues.
Nevertheless, there are issues — and if you think Iran is one of them, go for it — that demand a strong communal debate and tough critique led by our religious leaders. Without their voices, we lose a source of wisdom and undermine claims to the continuing relevancy of Torah and its teachers.