U.S. Jews Are Not 'One-issue Voters'

'One-issue voter' proposals do more harm than good, failing to reflect how Jewish voters see ourselves and how we function as Jews in America's democracy.

American Jews should become one-issue voters. They should decide for whom to vote in the Presidential election solely on the basis of which candidate is most likely to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. 

This is the thesis of Rabbi David Wolpe, in a much-discussed essay in Time entitled “Why I am a One-Issue Voter.” 

While he writes in the first person, Wolpe is clearly making the case that American Jews should follow his lead. Scholarly and thoughtful, a superb writer and a masterful advocate for Israel, not to mention the rabbi of a vibrant and creative Los Angeles synagogue, Rabbi Wolpe rightly commands attention and respect. And he does here too, with an argument that is provocative, radical—and, in my opinion, wrong.

I write as one who cannot sleep at night because of the hate-spewing leaders of Iran.  These fanatics threaten American interests, as well as Israel and the entire Middle East. Some pundits profess to find evidence of Iranian “rationality,” but I am not convinced.

Nonetheless, American Jews—like all Americans—should never approach Presidential elections as one-issue voters.  In our sprawling, complex, contentious democracy, we all have passionate convictions and concerns, but choosing a President is the time for a broader view of things. It is when we assert our values but feel one another’s pain; it is when we look out for ourselves but share one another’s blessings.  In other words, it is a time when we think expansively of the greater good and work to build a platform on which we all can stand.

Even if a single-issue voter in a presidential year is right about his issue (and I believe that Wolpe is right about the dangers of Iran), he is unlikely to persuade others of the virtue of his cause. No matter how noble her original intentions or compelling her case, she will be seen as having a narrow, self-interested approach to the nation’s welfare. As often as not, single issue voters do not convince; they repel.  (Think of unilateral disarmament voters or pro-gun voters.)  Other citizens of the Republic ask:  “Do you mean to tell me that you have no interest whatever in all of those other matters that concern me as I look at the candidates?”  

And not only that. As Andrew Silow-Carroll has tellingly noted, the Jewish tradition has a broad reach, and it pushes us to a more comprehensive set of concerns.  Torah has much to say about inequalities in society, about the Biblical imperatives to care for the least advantaged, and about taking responsibility for one’s life and one’s family.  Precisely what this means in terms of policy is a complicated matter, but Jews who take Torah seriously must make the effort to apply it to the many problems of our day:  to jobs, taxes, and America’s role in the world.  And yes, they must do so even in the shadow of the Iranian threat.

Finally, it seems to me that Wolpe is badly misreading the politics of the campaign. On every level, he is asking for things that are not going to happen.  American Jews care deeply about Israel and worry about Iran, but they have shown no inclination to make Iran the primary criterion for their presidential choice. Neither do the American people, who remain focused on the struggling economy, with foreign policy lagging far behind as a major election concern. And most tellingly, while both candidates have been reassuringly tough in their election rhetoric on Iran, expressing virtually identical positions, neither has provided the specifics that Rabbi Wolpe is looking for—and, given what they are hearing from the voters, there is very little chance that either will do so between now and November 6.  

My conclusion is not that we in the American Jewish community should forget about Iran. Rather, we should put aside “one-issue voter” proposals that will do more harm than good and that run against the grain of how we see ourselves and how we function as Jews in this great American democracy. And then, building on the hard work of the last three years, we should focus on “the day after.” No matter who wins, we will need to use every ounce of our political skill to foster an attitude of trust and cooperation between Israeli and American officials. We will need to educate an American public that is open to convincing but remains uncertain about an American role in a military attack on Iran. And we will need to push, respectfully but insistently, for a detailed understanding of how the sanctions are working and for when “enough is enough.” The Iranians must know, and so must we, that no matter what, there will be no Iranian bomb.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie served as President of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. He is now a writer, lecturer, and teacher, and lives with his family in Westfield, New Jersey.