12/20/2011 10:29 am ET

Feelings and Facts: The Complicated American Jewish Voter

Recently, on my (long) drive to LAX for a flight to Tel Aviv, I listened to a fascinating episode of Airtalk on NPR that focused on the GOP's recent push to collect the historically Democratic Jewish vote.

While the beginning of the broadcast explored the recent Republican pursuit of the Jewish vote, the conversation quickly turned to the question of whether or not Israel should be a necessary impetus for a Jewish voter. Calls came in from both sides of the debate: Yes, Israel should be the primary reason for a Jewish vote, or no, it shouldn't be a factor at all. In the discussion that ensued, though, I think what was ignored was an essential underlying reason why this is so very complex for most American Jews. 

It is critical to understand a serious motivating factor for the Jewish vote vis-a-vis Israel. For very real historical reasons, Jews live with a collective anxiety concerning their fate. A long history of anti-Semitism, persecution, pogroms and near anniliation weighs on our souls, deeply impacting how we experience the world around us. That history is bolstered by many powerful voices who continue to call for our extermination or who portray Jews in demonic terms.

And Israel is our quintessential and paradigmatic symbol of overcoming that anxiety with strength, creativity, ingenuity and hope. With the State of Israel, with national and religious (albeit often deeply problematic) autonomy, we actively engage a precious security that has proved historically elusive. Even in the shadow of insecurity and emotional instability, the profound experiment that is the State of Israel not only gives us a tangible representation of our freedom, but a psychological home for our deepest aspirations as a people. The transformed power balance and ensuing feelings are real, and to underestimate them as a motivation for voting, even in America, is to deny a very true part of our self identification as a people. This fact, though hard to intellectually understand due to the often severe disconnect between American and Israeli Jews, still permeates us in tangible ways.

At the same time, relying solely on emotions and feelings can be dangerous. Ignoring the facts on the ground, as it were, also denies Americans the chance to authentically express their responsibility as democratic citizens with an all too precious vote in the 21st century. And the actual diplomatic reality seems to speak for itself. The relationship between the United States and Israel is as strong as it has ever been regarding funding, intelligence and general cooperation (at least as it is reported to both to the public from both countries and those "in the know." (See this for one of many examples.) To deny that is to simply ignore the truth.  

If emotion, left unmanipulated by any political pandering, is permitted to thoughtfully interact with fact and reality, then I think it should be a powerful tool for expressing freedom in democracy.  But when pure emotional attachment and angst supercede the facts to the peril of intellectual honesty, we deny both sides of our identities, Jewish and American.  

In my estimation, a Jewish voter who ignores Israel as a impetus for how one votes does so at the expense of a core element of his/her Jewish identity, as well as our collective history.  

And a Jewish voter who necessarily elevates emotion over intellect, feeling over fact, does so to the neglect of his or her responsibility as an American voter.  

Both matter, both should be part of the discussion and both must be used judiciously. Regardless of for whom the vote eventually ends up being placed.