I didn’t lose my father as a small child, thank God, but at the age of eight, my
father lost his. He grew up plenty poor in the Bronx. One childhood memory he
passed on to me: leaving watermelon rind on the window sill. The white would
turn pink overnight, he explained, providing another sliver of fruit that could
be savored in the morning.
Truth be told, that doesn’t sound right to me,
but that’s not the point. The point is that I have poverty in my background no
less compelling than that of Naomi Ragen (“Voting for America,” September 7),
which for some reason she seems to have felt obliged to put forward in
establishing her credentials as an authentic exegist of the American
So before challenging her interpretation of it, I’ll do the
As in Ragen’s case, my father’s mother was also left with the
daunting task of raising her children alone while working impossible hours in a
never-ending struggle to make ends meet. I don’t know if she ever received
welfare or subsidized housing as Ragen’s mother did, but I do know that as a
result of her circumstances she passed on values to her son, which he passed on
to me, that Ragen inexplicably appears to summarily reject.
building a society in which both the individual and the collective are expected
to look out for those less able to look out for themselves. My paternal
grandmother may not have been religiously observant, but she did abide by the
teachings of our prophets – that it is the responsibility of the community to
concern itself with the needs of the widow and the orphan, to clothe the naked
and to feed the hungry.
The welfare state is not some anti-American,
communist conspiracy, nor the invention of socialist Zionism, but the heart and
soul of Jewish ethical teachings and an expression of the best that America
stands for as well. For weeks now we have been reading in synagogue of the sort
of society we were to create here after crossing the Jordan. Among the dozens of
directives: “If there be among you a poor person... you shall not harden your
heart... but you shall open your hand wide to your brother, to your poor, and to
your needy in your land.”
It is incomprehensible to me, then, that for
Ragen, who attended an Orthodox day school, “nothing was clearer to me growing
up than that... nothing was worse or more demeaning than to be cared for by any
Nothing worse? How about not being cared for by any
government program when the need is real and the beneficiary prepared but unable
to care for herself? “When my mother was widowed and left with three small
children,” Ragen relates, “...she had no choice but to apply for welfare.” What
does Ragen imagine her mother would have done if there had been no welfare to
apply for? Buy a lottery ticket? But why choose this moment to engage in such
discourse at all? Because Ragen believed it important to explain publicly why
she is voting for Mitt Romney for president. That left me feeling duty-bound to
explain why I am voting for Barack Obama.
Ragen contextualizes her choice
by writing about the 40 years she has spent here juggling her American-ness and
I’ve done the same, though I would throw my Jewishness
into the act as well.
But though we grew up at the same time and more or
less in the same place, we occupied two different universes then, as we do
today. Though we both maintain that we will be voting in the American elections
guided by the American dream – and are comforted by the belief that in doing so
we will also be doing what is best for Israel – we will be voting for opposing
But frankly, it is hard for me to believe that Ragen could
really believe what she writes, never mind expect anyone else to.
learned from my mother,” she recalls, “the greatest gift government can provide
for the poor is employment opportunities and education. Or as Mitt Romney said:
‘What America needs is jobs, lots of jobs.’” But take a look at the record. In
the past half-century, though the Republicans held the White House for 28 years
and the Democrats 24, of the 66 million private-sector jobs that were created
during that period, 42 million emerged under a Democratic president and only 24
million under a Republican one.
Going on to champion the cause of the
hardworking, self-made man, Ragen disingenuously casts Mitt Romney as being
precisely that, someone “who built something of his own with his own creativity
and hard work,” ignoring the fact that in actuality he was born into a life of
privilege, his father being a former governor of Michigan.
father, on the other hand, grew up herding goats in Africa. And when he
separated from Barack’s mother when the child was only two, the future president
was left growing up with an absentee father, a hardship he would have to
overcome along with the racism he would experience.
It is ridiculous,
then, to suggest that of the two candidates, Romney would be the more sensitive
to the need for creating employment opportunities, and the height of cynicism to
suggest that he knows better how to do that. While Obama was working as a
community organizer for low-income residents in the South Side of Chicago, and
later as a civil rights lawyer, Romney was building up Bain Capital, an equities
company specializing in leveraged buyouts.
You don’t have to understand
the field to understand the bottom line of the countless reports that any search
engine will reveal about the company’s modus operandi. It involves borrowing
huge sums of money, spinning off huge profits for investors, often at the
employees’ expense. Under Romney’s watch they were sometimes laid off by the
He, however, managed to amass a personal fortune of more than
$250 million in the process, though still paying taxes at a rate of only 14
But the specifics of the business dealings don’t matter as much
as the philosophy behind them. And Romney’s philosophy should be objectionable
to anyone who truly cherishes the American dream. He wants to slash medical
services to the elderly, make it more difficult to receive and repay student
loans, decrease taxes for the wealthy, and undercut organized labor.
prefer Obama’s approach, which, as Bill Clinton so eloquently stated, “embodies
the values, the ideas, and the direction America has to take to build a
21st-century version of the American dream, a nation of shared opportunities,
shared responsibilities, shared prosperity, a shared sense of
BUT WHAT about the elephant in the room? Not the Republican
one, but the president’s Middle East policy. For as much as Ragen professes to
be voting her conscience in terms of what is best for America, I cannot help but
suspect that her position is also colored by her concern for Israel. And, in her
eyes, Obama’s lack of it.
On this matter, while I challenge Ragen’s
bottom line, I am more understanding of how she arrived at it. I believe White
House policy was initially informed by a strong dose of naïveté and a paralyzing
inability to accept that Western reasoning cannot be imposed on foreign cultures
in the pursuit of peace halfway around the world.
At the same time, I
believe those of our friends who are in a position to know, who insist that
America’s commitment to Israel’s security – in word and in deed – is unshakable,
and who maintain that “the level of strategic cooperation between Washington and
Jerusalem today is unprecedented,” a statement recently attributed to Dennis
Ross by The Jewish Week.
“‘We’re all in this together,’ is a far better
philosophy than ‘You’re on your own,’” Clinton declared in rallying his fellow
citizens to vote Obama. That works for me with regard to the American Dream. It
works for me with regard to the relationship between our two countries. I far
prefer the support of a friend whose ethos I admire and with whom I am
occasionally going to have to argue than that of one whose guiding principles I
My fellow Americans, keep dreaming. Vote Obama – for all
the right reasons.
The writer is an American expat who has lived in
Israel for 38 years.
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