Rabbi Jonathan Klein's Blog

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Location: Los Angeles, California, United States

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Op-ed I wrote in November, 2008 after the Elections

Sadly, it never saw the light of day, though it was allegedly distributed on JTA:

78 Percent, Jewish Hope for America

There has been a lot of talk about hope recently.  President-elect Barack Obama has energized a previously unimagined younger base. Record numbers of people everywhere took to their cell phones and laptops for the first time as well as to the streets, young people emptying out their piggy banks to invest in a man whose values they believe stand in stark contrast with the current administration's world view--militarism, greed, conscious rejection of science, and conflicting public "Joe six-pack" populism with private good old-fashioned elitist cronyism.  Hope incarnate electrified the nation on election night, and stories featuring octogenarians and older charmed viewers with tales of disbelief that a black man would soon sit in the whitest of houses. 

For Californians, however, there was an evisceration of hope.  A mean-spirited campaign aimed to negate the rights of same-sex couples to marry has undermined our trust in the democratic principles upon which our government operates.  Proposition 8, which eliminates the constitutionally-defined right of same-sex couples to marry by rewriting the state constitution with a hateful clause, simply does not make sense when Obama announced that "change has come" to our country.  Millions of people are deeply bewildered by the cognitive dissonance of election night, when we proudly elected the nation's first President of color while we simultaneously managed to create another deeply sinister first:  A majority vote robbed the rights of a minority under the guise of democracy.  This is an historic nadir in American history.  Never before have we witnessed a constitutional change meant to pummel a protected subgroup, yet alone one that consists of our sons and daughters, mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles.  Homophobia runs deep, perhaps the last bastion of culturally acceptable public bigotry in our society.  So much for hope, or "Change we can believe in." 

Nevertheless, there are a few things that still allow hope.  For one, the vote for Proposition 8 in 2008 passed by a much smaller margin (52% yes, 48% no) than Proposition 22 eight years earlier (61% yes, 39% no).   Moreover, some surveys leading up to election day suggested that Californians for the first time believed in the rights of same-sex couples to marry.  Inconsistency between these surveys and election returns partly results from confusion in the voting booth; phone-bankers promoting the No on 8 campaign regularly encountered befuddled voters who thought that voting yes on 8 would protect marriage equality.  A stumbling block was placed before a semi-blind electorate, and that contributed to the narrowest of losses.  Perhaps most encouraging and edifying, the Jewish community voted overwhelmingly against banning civil rights for gays and lesbians.  Exit polls suggest that 78% of Jewish voters in Los Angeles voted against Proposition 8 and only 8% supported it.[1] 

Jews have succeeded in part because of the 14th Amendment's guarantee of "equal protection of the laws," ensuring the rights of minority groups.  Such a guarantee is second nature for the People of the Book.  We have long championed this protection, recognizing that our own narrative is that of the sojourner in strange lands, the Wandering Jew despised by the generations as the scapegoat for societal ills.  Abraham, as part of an upcoming Torah Portion, tells the residents of Hebron during his negotiations for a lot to bury his wife that he is a "resident alien" among them; the Jewish Founding Father depended on the good will of the majority when all he wanted to do was mourn his wife's passing.  Speaking with the voice of God, the bible teaches us to "Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt"[2] and "You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt."[3] 

Jews know better than to target a minority group; in fact, on all levels, the great vast majority of our community voted for a black president and for LGBT rights, not to mention animal rights by giving farm animals freedom of movement (Proposition 2) and being pro-choice by rejecting the cruel requirement to notify a minor's parents prior to having an abortion (Proposition 4).  We were strangers, so we refuse to oppress strangers, people unlike us, and those who have been marginalized by society.

These voting patterns in 2008 are consistent with the past one hundred years.  Post-Ellis Island Jews have always voted in overwhelming numbers for the progressive candidates, and not just FDR (who got 90% of the Jewish vote in 1940) but even LBJ, who ran against Goldwater, whose paternal grandparents were Jewish!  Obama garnered more Jewish support than Kerry.  We have contributed core leadership for every civil rights and social justice struggle, drafting the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in the conference room of Reform Judaism's Religious Action Center, contributing disproportionate leadership in the National Organization for Women and founding Ms. Magazine, and even leading much of the anti-war movement in the late sixties.  If there is any reason to be proud of our religion, it is our consistent selflessness and compassion for the plight of others.

Traditional Judaism does affirm a biblical injunction against sex between men, and this led many undoubtedly in the Orthodox community to support Proposition 8.  However, rabbis have never been forced to marry anyone for reasons beyond their control.  Our clergy have never had to officiate at interfaith weddings and they never will.  The specter fabricated by the Yes on 8 proponents that religious institutions would lose their tax-exemption status if their clergy refuse a same-sex wedding is completely false.   In fact, Proposition 8 actually removes the discretion of rabbis to perform weddings: it undermines the separation of religion and state by forcing our religious institutions to reject gays and lesbians, who are simply asking for an affirmation of their private love for one another.  For this reason, even Orthodox Jews could have in good conscience voted against the initiative (and many did), as it deems gays and lesbians persona non grata in their synagogues.

We believe in justice.  Yet sometimes we forget that we are demanded to pursue it.  We cannot idly watch the country crumble and believe that our economy is self-correcting, that warfare ends without political will, or that morality will trickle down so that lesbians and gays need only receive civil unions.  It is easy, with our people's unprecedented financial and social success, to silently submit to the ubiquitous belief that economic power is a hostile zero-sum game and that those without self interest above all else will lose.  Perhaps this explains our communal silence in the face of a bloody, costly war that diverts $10 billion away every month from our economy; some of us fear that Israel and the United States will lose if we don't keep killing Iraqis.  Meanwhile, there are hundreds of thousands of dead.  We ignore that other biblical dictum, to never stand idly by the blood of our neighbor. 

In the Jewish Journal immediately following the elections, not a single article addressed the tragic vote against gays and lesbians despite numerous expressions of excitement regarding the election of Obama.   Was it a lack of contributors on the subject?  Or was it a "senior moment" for the editors, Hope confounding our words and dazzling us out of our wits, leaving us unable to acknowledge the immeasurable pain felt by so many ?  Beyond insensitive, it is dangerous.  In Arkansas, a horribly homophobic Unmarried Couple Adoption Ban passed as well, eliminating the rights of individuals "cohabiting outside of a valid marriage" to adopt children.  Can Jews remain silent as our gay and lesbian friends and family brace for the next potential removal of their rights?  As my grandmother might say of Jewish silence, "It's a shanda for the goyim," an embarrassment reflecting poorly on us.

Beyond our demonstrated commitment in the ballot box to civil rights, the California Jewish community has tremendous wisdom to offer those struggling for marriage equality.  Our historic effort to bring justice to so many groups, built upon our own past suffering, continues despite pundits who attempt to distort our record.  It is precisely now that embracing our people's commitment to justice requires our active participation in the struggle for marriage equality.  Jewish unwavering support for marriage equality and opposition to Proposition 8 also upholds our nation's Founding Fathers' respect for religious diversity. A model religious community looks at the democratic greater good rather than absorption in self interest, which tragically appears to be the model of several churches and other religions which have both funded Proposition 8 and actively advocated against same-sex marriage, gathering the votes to ensure its passage.  Jews, perhaps more than any other faith, can refute the premise that rejection of gays and lesbians is often synonymous with religion.  In short, Jews can and will save religion from becoming anachronistic and meaningless in the 21st Century.

Democracies can fail.  In 1933, an emasculated German state, the Weimar Republic, suffering under the throes of a disastrous downturn in its economy, democratically empowered its leaders to throw away its own civil liberties. Twelve years later, over seventy million dead worldwide, historians quickly concluded that the worst evil unleashed on this planet emerged out of a democracy desperate for leadership and change.  Perhaps now more than ever, the Jewish experience and ethos can be an Or l'goyim, a light unto this nation.  Maybe hatikvah, "the hope" once imagined by the dreamers of a Jewish state, laden with the pursuit of justice and love for the stranger, can inform this latest incarnation of hope.

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