Leah Koenig
Empowering Jewish Progressives:
An Interview with JFREJ Director Dara Silverman, p.4

I think it's important to say that these things aren't just going to change over night if we get a Democrat into office. Just like at the breakfast we said, "whoever is in office needs to be held accountable." But it's a question of if the policies that are being put into place are specifically targeted at benefiting the rich and disenfranchising more and more people and silencing and criminalizing, and imprisoning more and more people who are Jews and allies to Jews. If so, then it's not benefiting Jews.

LK: American Jews have consistently voted Democratic in the past half century or so. But I was reading an article online at Commondreams.org recently that said nineteen percent of Jews who voted in the 2000 election voted for George Bush. And although that's less than a fifth of voting American Jews, it can still pose a real threat in swing states. And yet even more Jews are expected to vote for Bush this year. Do you think that Bush's vocal support of Israel and the decisions made by the Israeli cabinet is the main reason that Jews are voting more for George Bush?

"You know, that's a really Jewish idea-to be not just for yourself but for the larger community." DS: I think it's a lot around the challenge of the way the established Jewish community has really foregrounded Israel as the primary issue for Jews to be concerned about. I think it's a real necessity for all of us who have a broader agenda-of justice and peace and economic security- to really try and shift from being single-issue voters to continuing to maintain that broad agenda and looking at the candidates on a range of issues.

LK: I guess my underlying question is-if you look at John Kerry, he's had a difficult time convincing Jewish voters that he's pro-Israel enough. But if you look at his policy papers, his views really aren't that different from Bush's, which could be viewed as good or bad. But if there isn't really such a significant difference between Bush and Kerry on Israel, then it really doesn't make sense that American Jews would discard their otherwise democratic values for Israel. What else is going on here?

DS: I think their positions are very similar and I think what's going on is that Bush has been incredibly successful at convincing Jews who hold Israel as their primary issue that he will be the best ally possible. I think this is an issue in general in the election that Kerry hasn't been so successful in being able to spark something in people that gets them to see beyond the rhetoric of what Bush says. At the same time, I think one of the really core pieces of this is that Bush is part of the Christian Right, and there's so much support within evangelical communities for Zionism. It's important for us as Jews to look at why Christian Zionism is so strong. The primary reason for that is that their belief is that the whole area needs to be Jewish for the coming of the Messiah. So the motivation for supporting Israel is not altruistic… I think it's really important for us as Jews to be educating each other and people working in Israel and Palestine issues that at this point Christian Zionists are giving more money to Israel than Jews are, and the government is run by a Christian Zionist administration. So when we talk about who is actually supporting Israel, it's not just Jews who are part of Zionist organizations, but there's a lot more power that's behind it that is actually dictating the policy.

LK: Would you say that the rising trend of American Jews supporting the Bush administration indicates that the traditional progressive Jewish voice is becoming endangered?

DS: I think there's a whole movement of progressive Jews who are out there who are untapped. For me, this is what political organizing is about-you have to reach people and build a connection. There are more young Jews who are getting involved and are excited about Jewish culture and being proud of having an ethnic identity that hasn't entirely been assimilated away.

In older Jewish populations I think it shows that there's a nation-wide trend toward voting Republican right now, and a lot of that has to do with policy shifts and the way that economic policy has been dictated by the right wing…It's a shift away from government being by and for the people to trying to shrink it and de-fund it as much as possible so that state governments don't have enough money to cover their services.

I think what it's going to take is a larger political shift of, "why do we have any sort of collective or common good to support people and meet the needs that we can't meet individually?" You know, that's a really Jewish idea-to be not just for yourself but for the larger community. It's going to take Jews getting together and having discussions around kitchen tables and in synagogues and community centers and joining up with other groups that are doing the same thing to build up a really wide and deep and broad progressive movement.

[1]       [2]       [3]       4
Image: jewishwomenwatching.com

Leah Koenig is an intern at Zeek Magazine and also works for Hazon: The Jewish Environmental Bike Ride.

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