For several years, I have been puzzled about why some Jewish Americans were voting for certain conservative Republican candidates. They would say the candidates were “good for Israel.” It didn't make much sense to me, because the opposing candidates also seemed to be good for Israel, in that they supported Israel's right to exist, to have secure borders, to defend itself, and to conduct its affairs as it deemed best. Finally, today, I met a Jewish American who explained what he and his Republican friends considered to be “good for Israel.”
He said that George Bush was good for Israel because Bush thought that if he invaded Iraq and toppled Saddam Hussein, at some time in the future a democracy might be established in Iraq and this man figured that would be good for Israel. He explained that Bush's plan had only a one-percent chance of succeeding, but even that slight chance justified our invasion. He supports other candidates if they also are willing to take actions, such as going to war, if there is even the remotest chance that somehow Israel might benefit. In other words, he and his friends are concerned about one thing and one thing only: Israel. They are willing to have our government kill, torture,violate international law, displace people, and destroy property and the environment without limits, even if these efforts are almost certain to fail, all in the name of helping Israel.
Some people who are not familiar with Judaism might not be surprised at this man's views but most American Jews would be shocked. Judaism teaches peace and respect for all peoples. Over the centuries, a body of Jewish law has been developed which carefully protects and demands respect for enemies in war, competitors in business, and non-Jews in all circumstances. So I was puzzled to hear that this man, who is affiliated with an Orthodox community, seemed to have somehow jettisoned huge parts of the established Jewish religion which would be contrary to his extreme views that allegiance to the state of Israel justified violations of fundamental secular and religious laws. Fortunately, he explained that also.
He said that, in his and his friends' views, the more liberal branches of Judaism are no longer really Judaism, they are just secular liberalism. As examples, he pointed to reform Jews' acceptance of abortion and concern about the environment and social justice as beliefs that are just political and not really consistent with Judaism. I didn't argue with him. It was clear that he had selectively re-defined Judaism as supporting and justifying his personal fanaticism. As disturbing as it was for me to hear this, even more troubling was the thought that he was part of a community which seems to share his beliefs. But at least I now know why all the logical arguments and all the facts and evidence with which we have been trying to persuade the “good for Israel” voters has had so little effect. Now I know that these voters don't just mean “good for Israel,” they also mean “and to hell with everyone else.”
Certainly not all Jews agree with this man. But just as certainly, he is not alone in his views, and he and his friends have influence even in the broader Jewish community because of their relationships with rabbis and Jewish community organizations. When this man and his friends declare which candidates are good or bad for Israel, it can be nearly impossible to get a different viewpoint heard, let alone accepted. In fact, promoters of contrary viewpoints are frequently labeled as “anti-Semitic,” or if they are Jews themselves, as “self-hating Jews.”
My acquaintance and I had a very civil conversation, and I am grateful that he was honest about his beliefs. I have learned from him. But I am very much saddened by what I have learned. It portends possibly irreconcilable rifts within Judaism and potentially dangerous misunderstanding of Judaism from those of other faiths. Islam has suffered grievously from such divisions and distortions. Judaism may be headed down the same path.