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Of Cats, Mice and Men

Eytan Kobre

In embracing politics, we’re saying G-d needs our help

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

F

rum publications ran stories last week exulting over what was described as a momentous event: Congressional Republicans, with the enthusiastic backing of the secretary of education, introduced a bill to enact a $5 billion tuition tax credit for donors to state voucher programs for private schools. It’s a win-win idea, costing states nothing and siphoning off no monies from public schools.

What’s wrong with this picture? As these stories themselves concede, this program would not help the vast majority of yeshivah children, who attend schools in Democratic-dominated states like New York and New Jersey where voucher programs are a remote prospect.

But it’s much more than that. As of November 2018, the US House of Representatives has a Democratic majority, which is beholden to teachers’ unions and other fiercely pro-public school and anti-vouchers interest groups. The Democratic chair of the House Education Committee has already declared this bill dead on arrival, unlikely to get even a losing vote on the House floor. Perhaps this story should more accurately be called a momentous mirage.

And that, in turn, raises a more pointed question: During the 2016 campaign, the current president promised $20 billion in aid for private schools, and for two entire years preceding last fall’s Democratic takeover of the House, all the levers of the federal government were under Republican control. Why has this bill been proposed for the first time now, at just the very moment that its passage has been rendered a likely nonstarter? Perhaps even “momentous mirage” is too charitable a description; “cruel joke” is more like it.

This underscores an important lesson: We Jews need to live in reality rather than in an idealized bubble created by a talk-radio echo chamber. We need to approach current events, including the political sphere, by keeping uppermost in mind that G-d runs the world and all else is illusion. We are bidden to do appropriate hishtadlus within that world of illusion, while remaining forever aware that the so-called political players are actually pawns who are themselves being played.

I’ve written previously about the critical need for Jews to embrace neither right nor left too tightly, but to instead see our identity only as Torah Jews. There are two reasons for this. First, whether they are right, left, or center, the values and worldviews of non-Jews are not remotely similar to those of our Divine Torah, regardless of intersecting interests.

In addition, when we emotionally embrace political parties or philosophies, we’re effectively saying that G-d needs our help running the world, and we need to compromise on our Torah standards in order to assist Him. We’re prepared to look away from untruths and immoral behavior and hypocritical moral posturing because if not, what will be with the protection of genuine Jewish interests, of Israel?

What will be? Hinei lo yanum v’lo yishan Shomer Yisrael — that’s what will be.

The tax credit bill story rudely reminds us that in the world of physical hishtadlus, Democrats control the House, just as they now completely dominate government in New York and New Jersey and most every other large frum community. It is they who are calling the shots on vouchers and our schools’ educational curricula and much else. And it reminds us, too, that Republican dominance can end very quickly.

Perhaps, then, we ought to do less grandstanding about dead-end federal education bills and instead do more to find realistic ways to work with whoever holds the reins of power. The New York experience is instructive: It was a Democratic governor working with a Democratic assembly speaker who first opened a funding spigot through which the yeshivah community has received hundreds of millions of dollars in CAP payments, while all the pie-in-the-sky, pro-voucher rhetoric of a Republican governor’s 12-year tenure amounted to nothing.

And perhaps we’ll also recall all the areas in which frum Jews actually stand to benefit practically from policy stances Democrats support and Republicans oppose, whether in the realm of immigration policy or tax policy (Orthodox homeowners’ deductions for state and local taxes deductions and charitable contributions) or criminal justice.

My recent article on Moshe Margareten’s successful lobbying campaign for prison reform quoted Brett Tolman, a conservative former Utah prosecutor: “Democrats had always been supportive on this issue, but almost tragically, the Republican Party bought into the notion that criminal justice is about increasing penalties and locking more people up. It was very difficult to get them to abandon that mindset and some conservatives still haven’t, despite all the supportive data showing that reforms lower recidivism and reduce crime rates.” Whom do you think frum prisoners and their families side with?

But from reading Orthodox media, you’d never know any of this, because alongside the hopeless hoopla about the tax credit legislation are articles detailing the horrendous Democratic support for live-birth abortion and the shocking anti-Semitism of two freshman congresswomen and mainstream Democrats’ subsequent failure to single them out for censure, and on and on.

To all of which I say: If you’d like to consistently present the public face of the Orthodox community as writing off the Democratic Party — under whose rule the vast majority of us live — as anti-Orthodox, even bordering on evil, if you want to turn “Democrat” into a vile epithet, then understand the consequences. And when we’re faced with a real crisis, like government dictating the hours and content of our yeshivos’ secular studies, we’ll pin our hopes on a desperate attempt to elect an unknown Republican to an office with zero political power in a deep-blue city and state — and lose by a landslide. Let’s see how that works out for us.

Fundamentally, I’m as politically conservative as anyone reading these words, perhaps more so. My credentials on abortion are in order, with the thank-you letter from Nebraska’s attorney general for writing Agudath Israel’s amicus brief in a 1999 Supreme Court partial-birth abortion case still in my files.

My argument here isn’t on behalf of congressional Democrats, but for the understanding that G-d runs the world and that He bids us to take politics seriously, not like a big football game with opposing fan clubs. If we want to allow issues such as live-birth abortion to turn our community against Democrats, undermining our influence and derailing our hishtadlus on the real-world issues our community faces, we’re free to do so. But let’s be aware of the damage it does to our cause.

The majority of congressional Democrats, including its top leadership, are as solidly pro-Israel as ever. But when Majority Leader Steny Hoyer and Foreign Affairs Committee chair Elliot Engel call for annexing the Golan Heights (something the president hasn’t done), or the Democratic National Committee disavows the anti-Semitic Women’s March, those stories don’t get much frum media play. After covering every utterance of Cortez, Omar and ilk, they don’t have room for much else.

With the Democratic Party under intense pressure from a muscular progressive minority, it faces a moment of truth. We ought to respond by supporting the moderate, philo-Semitic majority, urging it not to cave, or at the very least, we can mourn the ominous transformation of half the American political spectrum. But instead, what one senses is a giddy celebration of this unfolding tragedy.

In the well-known parable of the homeowner who uses a cat to get rid of a mouse, he and the cat share the goal of catching the rodent, but in reality their aims diverge. The man just wants the mouse gone; for the cat, the more mice, the merrier. The newly empowered anti-Semitic leftists are the mice — do we Jews want to be the man or the cat?

It’s our prerogative to cheer the president on when he uses the vile comments of a Somali congresswoman about Jewish influence-peddling to cast the entire Democratic Party as “anti-Israel, anti-Jewish.” But Rockland County’s Jews can tell us about the real-world effects of anti-Semitic local Republican leaders named Day and Garvey. And the raucous town hall crowds that turn out to oppose eiruv installation and yeshivos in various locales have more than their share of MAGA types.

That the president — who in 2015 told a room full of Jews, “You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money. You want to control your own politicians” — would seek to make Israel and Jew-hatred wedge issues for naked political gain does not surprise. But should those with real Jewish interests at heart support him in that?

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 752. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com

 

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