See also, another view: If you support Israel and anti-Semitism, you must vote for Trump
Although pro-Trump voices currently dominate American Orthodox discourse, Jews and rabbis in all segments of American Orthodoxy actively support Vice President Biden for president, including Rabbis Menachem Genack and Moshe Lichtenstein. Prevented by professional considerations from expressing political views, many of my colleagues at the Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) and beyond are pleased that I am publishing this column. Of course, the views expressed are mine only.
Voting as American (Orthodox) Jews
Voting in a democracy is a great privilege and responsibility. To wisely cast our votes before G-d and fellow citizens, we must educate ourselves, balance competing concerns, and consider the future. Rarely do we agree with a candidate on everything, or even everything important to us.
As members of a small, long-persecuted group, Jews rightly consider whether a given matter is “good for the Jews” or “good for Israel.” Yet, these are insufficient criteria for a believing Jew. Jeremiah long ago instructed diaspora Jews to seek the welfare of the nations where they live. This applies in nations that oppress us, and even more so in America.
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein required each American Jew to vote due to “hakaras hatov,” “to show our appreciation” for “the democratic system which guards the freedoms we enjoy … and to … contribute to the continued security of our community.” His focus on our obligation as citizens contrasts strongly with the debased suggestion that Jews vote based upon “hakaras hatov” for a particular candidate as payback for specific actions seen as benefiting the Jewish people.
Rema rules that one must vote regarding Jewish communal matters “for the sake of Heaven,” which Rabbi Eliezer Waldenburg defines as voting with the interest of the population as a whole in mind, not one’s personal or group interests. As Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik stated, this also applies to non-Jewish society: “The Jew … is responsible for society. Abraham’s prayer to G-d was related to total strangers — the people of Sodom. The Jew must share in the destiny of his people and be concerned with the destiny of mankind.”
The priorities of Torah-believing Jews thus extend far wider than “what’s good for Israel” or even “what’s good for the Jews.” Here, then, are some issues that my colleagues and I believe should inform the decision of Jewish (Orthodox) voters from a Torah and policy perspective.
Science and reality
Rabbi Soloveitchik’s priority of joining society to combat disease, and stand against “an order which defies us all,” are on this year’s ballot as we consider the worldwide challenges of the pandemic and climate change.
Joe Biden embraces science, technical expertise, and reality; they will inform policy making during his presidency. Biden agrees with the RCA’s view that “the very possibility of reasoned political discourse depends upon public officials both accepting the reality of verifiable facts, as well as basing their statements and positions upon such truths.” Meanwhile, Trump trucks in “alternative facts,” exercises presidential power in scornful defiance of his own experts, and attacks scientists whose reports about reality don’t accord with his political needs.
As a winter of rising infection and death approaches, Trump’s rejection of reality and his intentional, repeated lies endanger all Americans. He turned public health into a partisan issue, called a world-renowned infectious disease expert an “idiot,” and reduced confidence in a vaccine even before it’s been tested. Instead of leading the world in a vigorous response to counter the worst pandemic in a century, Trump leads an ignorant counterculture that rejects mask wearing and limited crowd sizes.
Echoed by many of his American Orthodox Jewish supporters, Trump’s approach has contributed to disproportionate illness and death rates in our communities. Trumpism has exploded in Orthodox Brooklyn where Jews burned masks, rioted, and beat those insisting upon health measures to protect lives. The damage to Orthodox and Jewish interests from this international embarrassment is incalculable.
Biden’s embrace, and Trump’s rejection, of science, expertise and reality also underlie their approaches to the existential threat caused by humanity’s destruction of Earth’s ability to sustain life and civilization as we know it. The evidence of climate change and its damaging impact on people and other living things is widely documented.
Biden will lead a global response to combat humanity’s climate challenges. Regardless of any detailed policy dispute, voting for such plans broadly fulfills Rabbi Soloveitchik’s Jewish mandate to be “a responsible being” who “stand[s] with civilized society ... against an order which defies us all.” It also aligns with our Jewish duty to steward Earth as we wisely use its resources.
Although many conservatives have yet to come to terms with climate change, nature ignores ideologies. Young people who will live with climate change’s ever-worsening consequences urgently understand this; young American religious conservatives increasingly do too. Meanwhile, Trump withdraws from the Paris Accord, blames foreigners, and attacks science. Even worse, he has wielded presidential power to zealously damage the environment. Sefer Hachinuchdescribes this as the way of “the wicked who rejoice in the destruction of the world.”
Trump and Israel
Israel supporters are grateful for President Trump’s achievements in the Middle East. He acted on the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act (a legislative initiative Senator Biden co-sponsored in 1983; see below) by designating an existing building as the US Embassy; other countries followed. Similarly, his recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights gave Israel diplomatic support, albeit on a back-burner issue. But characteristically, Trump has been inconsistent, neglecting without explanation to recognize Israel on US passports as the place of birth of Americans, including one of my own kids, born in Jerusalem.
Building on Israel’s prior, increasingly cooperative relationships with its Sunni neighbors in the face of Shiite Iran and its allies, Trump is helping Israel create formal diplomatic ties with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain and other neighbors. But to do so, Trump is offering to sell F-35 stealth fighters to the UAE. (When Joe Biden was VP, the US fulfilled its longstanding commitment to preserve Israel’s “qualitative military edge” by denying Saudi and Emirati requests to acquire F-35s.) Israel’s political and military establishments oppose this sale since it may damage Israel, including possibly endangering Israel’s regional air superiority, and likely giving Saudi Arabia access to F-35’s cutting-edge technologies.
Trump revealed top secret Israeli intelligence to Russia’s foreign minister and ambassador. Despite contrary assurances to Israel, he also precipitously withdrew US troops from Syria, endangering Israel’s allies, the Kurds.
Trump’s weakened America weakens Israel
In 1961, President Kennedy asked Israel’s Prime Minister David Ben Gurion how to be a good American president for Israel. Ben Gurion replied: “Be a great president for the United States.”
America’s strength in international affairs and effectiveness as an ally — to Israel or any nation — stems from consistency, reliability, and purpose, as well as domestic strength. Yet Trump has weakened America, eroding both “the example of our power and the power of our example.” As Biden wrote:
“Trump has belittled, undermined, and … abandoned US allies and partners. He has turned on our own intelligence professionals, diplomats, and troops. He has emboldened our adversaries and squandered our leverage to contend with national security challenges … with practically nothing to show for it. He has launched ill-advised trade wars, against the United States’ friends and foes alike. … He has abdicated American leadership in mobilizing collective action to meet new threats. … Most profoundly, he has turned away from the democratic values that give strength to our nation and unify us as a people.”
Trump’s erratic approach has reduced the respect, admiration, and fear of America around the world. By turning the United States into a global pariah, Trump has rejected Ben Gurion’s wise counsel. Every American ally, including Israel, is now weaker.
Biden and Israel
Biden’s commitment to Israel and its regional military superiority is long-standing, broad, deep, and heartfelt. It is rooted in his moral recognition as a young Catholic that, after the Holocaust, the Jewish people must have its own state, and must never again depend on others to defend itself. When Biden’s children and grandchildren turn 15, the first place he takes them is to see the horrors of the concentration camp, Dachau; the second place, Israel.
Biden understands Israel’s security needs from an “on the ground” perspective. He has had a personal relationship with every Israeli prime minister since Golda Meir, whom he met in Israel in 1973 on his first international trip as a senator. Reflecting back on Israel’s 1973 Yom Kippur War, former Prime Minister Shimon Peres in 2016 hugged Biden and said, “We were at war, and you were our friend.”
Some claim that Biden threatened to cut off aid to Israel during a heated, private 1982 meeting about Israeli settlements between him, Menachem Begin, and other Democratic senators, but Biden denies this: “[Some Republicans] actually went after me, saying that I threatened to cut off aid to Israel – things I never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever did.”
The following year, Senators Moynihan and Biden introduced the first legislation to move the US’s Israeli embassy to Jerusalem. President Reagan threatened a veto, but the senators thought they could override it. Begin then called Moynihan, saying: “Pat, never fight the battle for Jerusalem in the halls of Congress. Never let Israel become a partisan political issue.” The senators stopped pushing the legislation. Yet decades after Begin’s warning, Trump consistently turns Israel into a partisan political issue.
Biden has been a consistent, strong voice for Israel including during the Obama administration. During Israel’s 2014 conflict with Hamas in Gaza, Vice President Biden successfully led the United States effort to provide much needed, immediate funding for Iron Dome. He warned against Obama’s decision in December 2016 to abstain on a controversial Security Council resolution.
He was instrumental in securing the largest, long-term military aid package in Israel’s history, the ten-year, $38 billion Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). In contrast with Obama’s strained relationship with Netanyahu, Biden and Netanyahu negotiated the MOU together. Closing the deal in Jerusalem, Netanyahu thanked Biden for all he had done for Israel, and his personal friendship for over 30 years: “The people of Israel consider the Biden family part of our family. You’re part of our mishpucha.” Biden then turned to Netanyahu, saying “We’ve been friends, our families have been friends, you have come to know my sons, my daughter.”
Biden’s long track of love and accomplishment for Israel makes it obvious that he will work to get other countries in the region to normalize ties with Israel; continue to recognize the Golan Heights as part of Israel, and Jerusalem as Israel’s capital; and keep the US embassy there. Contrary to Obama, Biden knows the Israel-America relationship must feature “as little daylight as possible in public … [and] keep your differences … to the greatest extent possible … between friends and behind doors” — just as they did when meeting Begin.
Biden’s Democratic Party remains overwhelmingly pro-Israel. Its platform includes “ironclad” support for Israel’s aid package and qualitative military edge, declaring that a “strong, secure and democratic Israel is vital” to American interests, and that an undivided Jerusalem should remain Israel’s capital. Of the 62 Democratic congresspeople newly elected in 2018, 59 are consistent Israel supporters. Biden reflected the Democratic consensus when he rejected recent calls from the anti-Israel left to reduce military assistance to Israel (or condition it on Israel “toeing the line”) as “outrageous” and “a gigantic mistake.”
Biden is realistic about Israeli/Palestinian relations, so they’ll likely remain a low priority. He knows that direct Israel/PA negotiations will be fruitless until both leaders in Jerusalem and Ramallah actively desire them, so he’ll encourage Arab countries to pressure Palestinians to want them. He’ll restore limited funding to PA within the Taylor Force Act so that US funds don’t flow to terrorists’ families. To preserve the possibility of a two-state solution in the distant future, he’ll ensure that regional actors avoid words and deeds preventing its eventual achievement.
Iran and beyond: Trump and Biden
I joined Netanyahu, AIPAC and others to lobby against the 2015 “Iran Deal” (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or “JCPOA”). But so long as Iran complied with JCPOA, the smart, tough move for Israel and the world was to improve and expand it. Israel’s security establishment and others opposed Trump’s withdrawal from it because doing so relieved Iran of its restrictions.
Since Trump’s foolish withdrawal, Iran tripled its stockpile of enriched uranium, to 2,250 pounds. Israeli military intelligence believes Iran may now have enough fissile material to build a nuclear weapon within the year, as well as a missile capable of carrying it in as little as two. Teheran celebrated the recent lifting of JCPOA’s arms embargo while the US tries, alone, to impose snapback sanctions. Trump’s post-JCPOA moves — assassination of Iranian general Solemani, increased sanctions — cannot eliminate Iran’s nuclear weapon know-how, nor have they prompted Iran to negotiate, as Trump declared they would. Unforgivably, Trump has brought Iran closer to a nuclear weapon and has made America, Israel, and the world less safe.
Biden’s approach is tougher and smarter. With an “unshakable” determination to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, he will rejoin JCPOA only if Iran returns to strict compliance. He will lead allies to strengthen and extend its provisions, and to address Iran’s ballistic missile program, regional aggression, and other threatening activities. He will maintain strong US sanctions (without hindering Iran’s efforts against COVID-19), and build upon the historic US-Israel security agreement that he helped develop so Israel can defend itself.
With Trump having sidelined the US in Iran, Russia now plans to sell Iran its S-400 missile defense system that, when deployed in Syria, effectively eliminatedIsrael’s air supremacy. It will also greatly strengthen Iran against potential Israeli missile strikes, as well. China is similarly expanding its influence and arms deals with Iran, and helping Saudi Arabia with its growing nuclear program. This emerging regional arms race damages the security of Israel, the region, and the world.
Emboldened by the power vacuum created by Trump, and his coddling of its strongman president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Israel must now contend with a second Iran; i.e., Turkey, which is actively embracing its former glory as the center of the Ottoman empire. In a recent speech laced with imperialist rhetoric, Erdogan spoke of Jerusalem as “our city.” Turkey’s tentacles are now in Libya, Syria, Azerbaijan, Lebanon, and elsewhere. Moreover, Trump abandoned Israel’s only true friends in the region, the Kurds, to Turkey’s onslaught. Biden, by contrast, supports autocratic Erdogan’s political rivals.
“Making American Great Again” under Trump apparently includes empowering America’s and Israel’s adversaries, including Iran, Turkey, China, and Russia. Thanks, but no thanks. I’ll take Biden.
Biden’s basic decency and commitments to our people and Israel lead him to forcefully denounce all forms of anti-Semitism — including BDS and its supporters on the radical left. Biden has repeatedly said that what convinced him to run for president was Trump’s failure to unequivocally denounce his white nationalist supporters on the radical American right for their anti-Semitism and bigotry in Charlottesville. “They were carrying torches, their veins bulging,” and “chanting the same antisemitic bile that was heard in the streets of Germany in the 1930s.”
Anti-Semitic incidents have risen nearly 40% since Trump became president; the FBI considers white supremacists as the greatest domestic terrorist threat. Trump does not perpetrate their heinous acts, but bears responsibility for breaking down social norms and emboldening antisemitic and white supremacist groups to come out into the open.
Trump often endorses stereotypes about Jews which he believes are true yet which are typically deemed antisemitic: “The only kind of people I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes every day,” he said. At the same time, Trump often betrays his view of Jews as ultimately being outsiders in his America, knowingly raising the dual loyalty canard. This is most evident when, in speaking to American Jewish audiences, he describes Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu as “your Prime Minister,” and refers to Israel as “your country.” (His Jewish daughter and her family offset this no more than “some of my best friends are Jewish.”)
… Immmigration and xenophobia
Biden’s approach to immigration mirrors that of the vast majority of the American people: control our borders, and resolve with humanity and compassion the status of millions of law-abiding residents of the United States who have made their lives here. This approach broadly aligns with G-d’s teachings, who commands us to care for the vulnerable. Rabbi Chaim Dovid HaLevi rules that a Jewish government must conduct itself with integrity and fairness towards minorities as well as strangers in its midst.
In America, too, Jews must identify closely with the immigrant experience. As Rabbi Soloveitchik eloquently writes: “[T]he central experiences of Abraham’s life was galut (exile) – homelessness, wandering without knowing the destination, sleeping on the ground on freezing cold nights, being lost along the byways of a strange land. This passional experience taught Abraham and his descendants the art of involvement, of sharing in distress, of feeling for the stranger, of having compassion for the other. … In general, the Torah ethic is derived from experience. We have mercy on all uprooted and defenseless human beings in exile.”
By contrast, Trump uses fear-mongering rhetoric to rally his base. His attacks on immigration and immigrants, including legal immigrants, go far beyond protecting our borders from illegal immigration. He describes immigrants and even native-born Americans as foreigners. He uses dehumanizing language to describe human beings made in G-d’s Image, vulgarly denigrating countries, groups, and individuals. Trump’s unconscionably cruel policy of separating mothers from their children, many of whom will never be reunited, shocked America’s conscience and was rightly condemned by the RCA.
Cultures infused with xenophobia, fear mongering, and bigotry have always endangered Jews — and Trump’s rhetoric has contributed to the deaths of Jews. In his writings, the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter echoed the hysterical rhetoric about a foreign invasion (“HIAS likes to bring invaders in that kill our people”) that Trump had fed by whipping up “caravan” hysteria in the leadup to the 2018 election. (He didn’t support Trump because Trump wasn’t tough enough.)
The ‘squad’ on the left…
Consistent with his dangerous xenophobia and thoroughgoing misogyny, Trump and some of his supporters regularly attack several newly-elected, Democratic congresswomen who hold a miniscule minority of the Democratic 236-seat caucus.
Yet American Jews must be the first to reject such racialized attacks, including chants of “send her back” at Trump’s political rallies, regardless of whether they are political friend or foe. We remember the xenophobia and anti-Semitism that met Jewish women like Rose Schneiderman, themselves immigrants or refugees, who organized and advocated for worker protections, women’s voting rights, and other causes a century ago. We must always debate issues on their merits, never by impugning our opponents’ ethnic, racial, national, or religious backgrounds.
The “substance” of this attack is that these women and their allies represent the Democratic Party, that Biden is beholden to them, and that American culture will shift dramatically leftwards towards socialism. Yet in reality, Democrats took the House in 2018 with scores of moderate Democrats winning swing districts. Similarly, Biden overwhelmingly won the Democratic nomination by distinguishing himself from the party’s left. The suggestion that if elected president after a half-century of public life and the campaign of his lifetime, Biden (along with moderate Democrats) will lurch radically leftward simply makes no sense.
… and Qanon on the right
These false attacks distract from the dangerous extremists in Trump’s party. For example, at least 22 Republicans presently running for Congress have expressed at least some support for QAnon. The FBI considers QAnon — the growing, far right, intrinsically anti-Semitic, web of conspiracy theory that recently suggested that Osama bin Laden’s assassination was a hoax — a “domestic terrorism threat.” Characteristically, Trump retweets QAnon and praises it.
Surely our people’s history, bloodied by the effects of bigotry and doublespeak yet blessed when living in tolerant lands, requires every Jew to reject xenophobia, scapegoating, and conspiratorial thinking along with leaders who think and promote them — not distort reality to explain them away.
Torah values and the American economy
Some people support Trump because they believe the economy does better under Republicans than Democrats. But since WWII, the economy has consistently performed much better during Democratic administrations. Economic growth, job creation, industrial production and the stock market have all been stronger under Democrats. Trump’s pandemic leadership failures contributed to the millions of Americans suffering unemployment, as well as financial, food, and housing insecurity.
Particularly when wealthy or powerful, one can forget that the Torah’s socioeconomic vision embodies values distant from those of Trump and the Republican Party. “Halakhic Man,” declares Rabbi Soloveitchik, “his feet planted firmly on the ground of reality … looks about … and publicly protests against the oppression of the helpless, the defrauding of the poor, the plight of the orphan. The rich are deemed naught in his view. … The actualization of the ideals of justice and righteousness is the pillar of fire which [he] follows.”
In policy terms, Rabbi Meir Tamari writes that in halachah, “[free] market forces must be restrained by considerations of justice and righteousness, and the free market mechanism has to be distorted by communal action … in order to protect the welfare of the weak and the ignorant as well as the prosperity of the community.” While Rabbi Tamari rightly concludes that “egalitarian distribution of wealth” is not an “automatic” goal of Jewish welfare legislation, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch observes that “the possibility of that shocking contrast, where the wretchedness of the labouring class is rampant right next to the most luxurious opulence, has the ground cut away from under its feet” in an ideal Torah economy.
Under Democratic leadership, then, the US economy typically performs better, reduces its ever-increasing income and wealth inequalities, and more closely aligns with Torah ideals and law. What a great combination!
A Torah value: Health care for all
Joe Biden will fight to ensure that affordable healthcare is available to all Americans. Prior to the enactment of the 2010 Affordable Care Act (ACA), 44 million (!) Americans, including 7 million children, had no health insurance. Like every policy, of course, ACA is imperfect, its details subject for reasonable debate.
In the middle of the pandemic, Trump continues his four-year, multi-pronged attack to deprive millions of Americans of their health insurance. His repeated promises to unveil an alternative plan are, as usual, for nought. Here, too, an observant Jew with health insurance may forget that Trump’s approach violates basic decency as well as Jewish law.
Rabbi J. David Bleich rules that a Jewish “community clearly has an obligation to provide for the medical needs of the indigent and a person lacking medical insurance who suffers serious illness will perforce rapidly become indigent;” a community may tax to achieve this goal. Rabbi Bleich rules further that such a plan must accord each insured person “the opportunity to be treated by a practitioner of his choice at a cost that is affordable by him,” and allow him “untrammeled choice” of doctors and treatments.
Destruction of American democratic norms
Trump continually attacks the democratic norms and institutions that make America the most hospitable diaspora for Jews. With unparallelled venom, he attacks the free press. He attacks public servants doing their jobs, claiming they are part of a supposed “deep state.”
The list of disgraced, convicted criminals who were part of his government and inner circle mock his claim to have “drained the swamp.” Trump has monetized the presidency for personal gain, selling access to power and presidential favors via his country clubs and hotels. Isaiah and Jeremiah condemnations of Judean corruption are, sadly, apropos.
Trump is now attacking the ultimate democratic norm, the peaceful transition of power. For the first time since President Adams peacefully stepped down from the presidency after losing to arch-rival Thomas Jefferson in 1800, an American president refuses to commit to stepping down if he loses. Americans’ commitment to their own democracy, and the Jewish people’s ability to thrive here, is on the ballot.
The question of character
When President Clinton engaged in private, immoral conduct, people rightly noted that, regardless of his presidential policies, his conduct set a terrible example, especially for American youth. This concern is far more grave with Trump, whose persona rejects every quality we value as (Orthodox) Jews and embodies the opposite of the values we seek for our children. His unparallelled greed, hedonistic lifestyle, narcissism, dishonesty, abusive behavior, misogyny, and corruption disgrace the office once held by Washington and Lincoln. Trump’s behavior normalizes the formerly inconceivable, with millions of children already growing up under Trump who never knew American political culture before he debased it.
Trump supporters say we should ignore his character, rhetoric, and rejection of reality, and focus only on his policies or their outcomes. This is mistaken.
First, Biden’s policies will be far superior to Trump’s. Second, Trump’s words and deeds devastate American culture and damage our youth, as argued above. In 2016, the RCA properly urged all who hold or seek public office to “recognize the power of both the style and content of political speech to shape the future, and be positive models in removing hateful rhetoric and violence or threats thereof from public discourse.” Quoting Proverbs, the RCA noted “Life and death are in the power of the tongue.”
Finally, for an American president the distinction between rhetoric and policies is spurious: words spoken or Tweeted from the largest bully pulpit in the world are “policy.” They move markets. They can uplift, or downgrade, our national culture. They can undermine, or strengthen, national institutions and norms. They can endanger, or save, lives. With 1,000 Americans dying daily, Trump chooses to use his presidential tongue not for life, but for death.
The Psalmist instructs us to trust no prince. From a secular perspective, too, no candidate is ever perfect. Nonetheless God has blessed each American with the privilege and duty to pick a candidate on the ballot. We American Jews who bear the torch of Torah observance must consider the stark differences between this year’s presidential candidates and not hesitate to vote for Joe Biden.
Rabbi Barry Kornblau served for a dozen years on the rabbinic staff of the Rabbinical Council of America. His views represent no entity, and are personal. This column was first posted by the New Jersey Jewish Link.