I have a fraternity brother who likes to debate me on a host of issues. We never agree.
No matter what we’re discussing, though, he invariably breaks off, changes the subject and asks me, “but don’t you like that the embassy has been moved to Jerusalem?”
We could have been talking about health care, climate change, Supreme Court choices. It doesn’t matter. What about the embassy, that’s his default question.
It became clear to me – sad to say, since I have known the guy for over 30 years – that because I am a Jew, he considers me a single-issue voter. And Israel is the issue.
What if I were a Protestant? A Catholic? A Hindu? What if I were black, Hispanic, East Asian? Would he still pick out one issue, deciding that it alone eclipsed every other matter that an informed American voter should care about?
Yeah, I was a little ticked off at my friend, which was why I never actually answered that question when he posed it – again and again and again.
(For the record, yes, I want Jerusalem to be universally recognized as Israel’s capital. I want that recognition to come within the framework of a comprehensive peace plan, one that all sides can live with, but that’s just me. Back to the column.)
I got to thinking about my friend, and his impression of me as a single-issue voter, when I recently read about a new poll by J Street, which asked Jewish voters to name their two most important issues. Just 4 percent of those responding chose Israel, even though that same survey found that 65 percent said they were somewhat or very emotionally attached to the state.
The J Street poll isn’t the only one to reach those results. The American Jewish Committee found a similar gap when it surveyed Jewish voters in 2015.
There are two things to unpack here. First, even though most voters polled didn’t name Israel as one of their top two issues, that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t have put it third or fourth, if they had that option. Those positions are still pretty good, in my book.
Second, it’s a historic fact of life in this country that Americans overwhelmingly vote on domestic issues over foreign policy. Their health, their money, their air and water mean more to them than the Middle East, Europe, pretty much anywhere else in the world. That, of course, includes Jewish Americans.
Which brings me back to the single-issue thing. Whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, a conservative or a liberal, an interventionist or an isolationist, a capitalist or a socialist, when political groups seek your vote, assuming that you care about Israel to the exclusion of almost everything else, that’s not exactly a compliment. It’s not that you don’t care about Israel (you probably do if you’re reading this paper), but because few, if any, other voting blocs are subjected to the same litmus test.
Many people are, indeed, single-issue voters. They vote on abortion, gun rights, climate change. Many vote straight party tickets.
And yes, many of them vote on Israel.
But when people are assumed to be single-issue voters simply because of their ethnicity, religion or skin color. then they tend to be “othered,” which breeds, exclusion, resentment, hostility and, for Jews, anti-Semitism,
The 2020 election year will begin in a matter of days. Settle in for a solid year of debates, commercials, rallies, hacking, bots, junk mail, emails, conflicting newscasts, charges and counter-charges.
Jewish voters ought to make Israel part of their political calculus – too much is at stake to do otherwise – but when they go the polls, they should be treated as all other voters. Most of us care about the world around us, not just one small part. That’s what tikkun olam is all about.
Lee Chottiner is the editor of The Jewish Louisville Community.