You had me at 'shana tova'

Decoding the presidential candidates' High Holy Day messages.

October 5, 2008 21:53
4 minute read.
You had me at 'shana tova'

obama mccain 224.88. (photo credit: AP)


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There's the old joke about the elevator ride at the psychiatric convention. One guy gets off at his floor and says to his colleagues, "Have a good night." As soon as the doors close one shrink turns to another and says, "I wonder what he meant by that?" I feel a little like that when I read the High Holy Day messages of Barack Obama and John McCain. Obama sent out his Rosh Hashana greetings in a mass e-mail to the press and supporters. McCain shared his thoughts (as did Obama) with "Jewels of Elul," musician Craig Taubman's annual Web project. Maybe I read too much into things, but in each statement I find an encapsulation of the candidate's strategy in courting the Jewish vote, and an accurate reflection of the fault lines in the Jewish community. Take McCain's statement. It's titled "Hope in Our Hands," and it describes the season as "both a time for reflection and one of hope for the future." He uses the word hope seven times in all, as in, "It is no coincidence that the oppressors of the Jewish people, from ancient times to today, are always those who have tried to stifle hope and freedom." If you didn't know better, you might think it was Obama, who branded "hope" in the title of his memoirs. But McCain has taken the fight to Obama's territory before, co-opting Obama's "change you can believe in" to read "a leader you can believe in." But there are unique McCainian tropes, none as obvious as a paragraph about a fellow ex-prisoner, Natan Sharansky, who "spent nine years in the Soviet gulag - 400 days were in punishment cells." McCain writes that Sharansky "never backed down or made a deal." Supporters will read that as a reminder of McCain's resolve and his frequent criticism of Obama's stated willingness to negotiate with enemies; critics may regard the remarks as inflexible and hawkish and McCain as fearful of diplomacy. The specter of Iran hangs over McCain's remarks, in a way it doesn't in those by Obama, as we'll see. At least that's what I read into "the oppressors of the Jewish people, from ancient times to today." Obama's greetings include a traditional wish for a "happy, healthy and sweet new year." But they also offer a distinction often overlooked by American Jews who celebrate Rosh Hashana as the Jewish version of January 1 - partying without repentance. "This marks not just a time for rejoicing," according to Rabbi Obama, "but for reflecting on the hopes the new year brings, and on our responsibilities to see them fulfilled." Obama also urges that we (himself included) "rededicate ourselves to the task of repairing this world for our children and grandchildren, and to working to achieve peace and security for Israel." "Repairing this world" is a reference to tikun olam, a once obscure kabbalistic term that was dusted off by the Jewish left as a term for social action. Over the past two decades, it was absorbed by the Reform and Conservative mainstream, as well as by unaffiliated Jews, who want to put a Jewish name to their politics or activism. (Sure enough, in a conference call to 900 rabbis last month, Obama referred to Rosh Hashana as "a time to recommit to the serious work of tikun olam.") It still has liberal connotations, although even the Orthodox Union has been known to use tikun in reference to its domestic public policy work. Obama also references Israel and, coupled with "let us rededicate ourselves," suggests that his administration would make reviving the Mideast peace process a priority, as his advisers have said on the campaign trail. (McCain's advisers, by contrast, tend to dampen expectations on the Israeli-Palestinian track.) Rosh Hashana greetings are a nice gesture from political campaigns, but they are campaign documents nonetheless. Interpret them this way, and you can decode the candidates' messages to Jewish voters: McCain: "With Israel facing a dire threat from Iran, things may appear hopeless. That's why you need a leader, tested like your heroes by imprisonment and torture, who will stand up to that threat without appeasing the enemy or backing down." Obama: "The world needs fixing, and Israel seeks peace. Let's address our problems by tapping the traditional American-Jewish commitment to social justice and meeting our nation's responsibilities to make the world a better place." Both messages are entirely consistent with the way the Jewish vote is breaking for the two candidates and the campaigns' outreach strategies to Jews. Those most anxious about Iran and Israel are leaning toward McCain. According to an American Jewish Committee poll, McCain has an overwhelming 78 to 13 percent lead over Obama among Orthodox Jews, the Jewish cohort that consistently puts Israel at the top of its list of priorities. Meanwhile, those who place domestic concerns higher or at least as high are for Obama; that includes, according to the AJC, 59% of Conservative Jews, 62% of Reform Jews, and 61% of the "Just Jewish." Whether it will be McCain or Obama who has a truly "happy new year" may well depend on the 13% of Jews who remain undecided. The writer is editor-in-chief of the New Jersey Jewish News.

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