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Jews’ political values: another view

by RAYMAN L. SOLOMON AND DAVID P. SOLOMON Special to the Democrat-Gazette | January 22, 2023 at 1:51 a.m.

Robert Steinbuch's Jan. 15 opinion column in the Democrat- Gazette demands a response. It is not only that we vehemently disagree with his arguments, but in a state with a small and dwindling Jewish population, his views cannot stand alone as a statement of who Jews are, and what they do (or should) believe in the realm of politics and religion.

Jews are 1/10th of one percent of the population of Arkansas, which means that many Arkansans have no or almost no regular social contact with Jews. Helena, where we were born and raised, had a thriving and important Jewish community for over 170 years, but our father, David Solomon, who died in 2017 at the age of 101, was the last Jewish resident of Helena.

Our disagreements with Steinbuch relate both to the form and the substance of his arguments. Space concerns prevent us from addressing all of his claims and grievances against "the left." His form of argumentation is to take the most extreme version of "woke" politics and ascribe this to the entirety of the left which for him includes all Democrats. His descriptions of affirmative action advocates as demanding quotas is such an example.

Thus, it is easy to ask how any Jew can support this caricatured representation of the Democratic Party. We could engage in similar argumentation as follows: Recently, Donald Trump had dinner with two avowed antisemites at Mar-a-Lago. How could any Jew support or vote for any conservative or Republican?

Another example: Some wealthy conservative foundations threaten to cut off funding of a campus Hillel should the Hillel invite speakers who criticize Israeli governmental policies, even though these policies are criticized daily in the Knesset. So how can Jews support conservative candidates?

Steinbuch engages in dishonest polemics, not scholarly or journalistic arguments.

But there are more fundamental problems.

• Steinbuch makes factual claims that are meant to mislead. According to the latest data from the Pew Research Center survey on religious attitudes, 75 percent of Orthodox Jews do vote Republican, but 20 percent vote Democratic. Similarly, 28 percent of Conservative Jews vote Republican. To Steinbuch, this constitutes "many," but aren't 20 percent of the Orthodox not "many" as well? And 18 percent of Reform Jews, the religion's largest denomination, voted for Republicans. Isn't that also "many"?

• Judaism is not organized as a hierarchical religion. Unlike Catholicism, there is no pope who speaks authoritatively on matters of faith. Neither is Judaism congregational, where local bodies control religious practice.

Rather, for 2,000 years, rabbis (Hebrew for teacher) have argued and debated the obligations of religious observance and questions of morality. The three largest branches of Judaism--Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform--have groups of rabbis who issue legal opinions on religious practices. Many if not most of these have majority and minority positions.

For Steinbuch to make a claim that "Judaism forbids abortion just as clearly as it bars eating pork" is factually wrong and, again, misleading. As explained above, there is no single authoritative Jewish position; there are many positions.

Even within the Orthodox community, there are rabbis and scholars who take the position that abortion is permitted when the fetus has genetic abnormalities that cause the woman severe mental suffering. One Chabad rabbi states, "As is often the case, Judaism's view is quite nuanced and does not necessarily fit squarely into either side of the debate."

Steinbuch does concede that abortion is permitted when the mother's life is endangered. Republican-controlled legislatures, including Arkansas', have voted for extreme anti-abortion laws that do not allow exceptions for the health of the mother. Voters in Kansas and in the midterm elections clearly rejected this extreme Republican position on abortion, and it would be in line with Jewish theology for Jews to also join in that rejection.

But what is most disturbing about Steinbuch's column is his claim that if Jews manifested what is in their true self-interest, they would not only align with the Republicans, but could be influential. It is certainly within his rights to have a sense of what is in his own best interest, but to pronounce what is in all Arkansas' Jews' best interest is hubris: Steinbuch does not speak for all Jews.

Speaking only for ourselves (but we believe for others as well), our self-interest includes the creation of a society where not only the rich and powerful have a voice in the creation of public policy and that policy serves all interests, not just theirs; where true democracy flourishes, not voter suppression; where the climate crisis is addressed; where the safety net for those in need provides decent health care, housing, and food security, and where the elderly are protected. These are not the values of the Republican-dominated state legislatures, and it is no wonder that 70 percent of Jews reject the abandonment of these values and vote for Democrats.

Steinbuch is correct that the values of Jews and evangelicals are not necessarily in conflict. After all, one does not have to look hard in either the Old or the New Testament to find God, the Prophets, and Jesus demanding the people to tend to the needs of the poor and demand justice for all.

We assume that it was no accident that Steinbuch's op-ed was published on the weekend celebrating the birth of Martin Luther King Jr., the American individual perhaps most associated with the values that his column rejects.

However, it is also ironic that it was published on the 50th anniversary of the death of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the greatest Jewish philosophers of any century. He has been called a prophet because of his clarion call for social justice in words and in deeds. He prayed with his feet by marching next to Dr. King in Selma.

If Rabbi Heschel can stand for social and racial justice with Dr. King, Judaism and Jews cannot be faulted for siding with Arkansas state politicians and political parties that pursue those ends.

Rayman L. Solomon is a university professor and dean emeritus at Rutgers Law School. He is a former chair of the board of the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, a former president of his synagogue, and a board member of Temple Beth El Cemetery in Helena. David P. Solomon manages the Solomon family businesses in Phillips County. He is the former executive director of the American Jewish Historical Society and, in succession to his father, the board chair of Temple Beth El Cemetery in Helena. The opinions expressed are personal; the authors speak only for themselves, not for any of the institutions mentioned.

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