Lessons from a fractious U.S. vote
Is it time for spiritual leaders to express optimism and encourage tolerance and civility? Or is it time for those concerned about pluralism and equality to act on those values?
I can’t recall a more acrimonious campaign than the recently concluded U.S. election. People are rioting on the streets and spewing vitriol online about the results. Friendships have been destroyed, and people don’t feel safe talking politics anymore.
Americans seem to be placing political and social ideologies above the basic respect and courtesy owed to one’s fellow human being. If I don’t agree with your politics, I’m not just mistaken – I’m either an idiot, an immoral sellout, a racist or a misogynist. What happened to civil and respectful discourse? What happened to engaging with someone who holds different ideas and views in the hope that we might learn from each other?
Do the events in America, not to mention the Brexit vote, reflect upon a larger social ill, that of a cavalier disdain for, and a readiness to discard, the “other”?
I think that people take the step of “discarding the other” when they themselves feel discarded. I am hearing a deep sense of vulnerability from friends in the United States who were the targets of vitriol during the campaign and now are fearful about what the next four years will bring. At the same time, we cannot ignore the economic malaise that led so many to take a chance on change. So what can a rabbi learn? One of the greatest challenges is knowing when to make peace and when to stand one’s ground. This has not been a normal election season, and I fear it will not be a normal aftermath. Those who have been around for more political cycles than I have assure me that we often think the world is ending, and it hasn’t yet.
Ironically, in both Brexit and the American election, there has been an emphasis on walls and borders. But I feel like our world is more permeable and interconnected than ever. I hope we can find ways to recover the good in those connections.
Your point is well taken that this malicious behaviour has taken place on both sides. Backers of Donald Trump have attacked and completely dismissed many on the left, while Hillary Clinton’s supporters have done the same to those on the right. No one’s hands are clean.
What surprises me about your response, though, is that this should in any way justify or legitimate the behaviours that we are seeing in the aftermath of the election. Just because someone is feeling scared or vulnerable doesn’t give them license to take to the streets, vandalize, and spew the same hatred to which they feel subjected.
Instead of sitting shivah in our shuls, as some rabbis have done, I think it’s time for spiritual leaders to express optimism and hope for the future. Instead of rejecting the elections, we should encourage our congregants to be positively involved in moving our world in a positive direction of tolerance and civility. While there are serious and legitimate concerns about our elected leaders, in the end, God runs the world, not the president of the United States.
You may be misreading me a little. I am indeed concerned for all those who are feeling left out in American society and all around the world. But I reject the equivalencies drawn between the Trump and Clinton campaigns and their followers. Yes, both were heated and personal, but only the Trump campaign stereotyped and targeted entire groups of people based on gender, nationality, race and religion.
The election is over. The results cannot be rejected. But we can respond. One way I am acting is through tzedakah – making donations to U.S. organizations such as Planned Parenthood, the Religious Action Centre, Define American and the American Civil Liberties Union.
My default mode is optimism, but I also think we need to take world events seriously. In many societies over many years, Jews have had their suitcases packed and felt safer with more than one passport. I don’t know if that’s necessary now, but I’m less certain than I was last month.
I think we see societies turning inward in a frightening way, and those of us who care about pluralism and equality are duty-bound to act. In the words of Reform Rabbi Ferdinand Isserman, “Pray as if everything depended on God; act as if everything depended on you.”