Democracy, Voting, and the Media Revolution

Yesterday was election day. Last night I was at a shul not far from my community. Before Aravit a rabbi got up and explained why he felt it was important to register and vote. He said that it doesn’t matter who we vote for, as long as our community votes and is noticed by the politicians. I also saw a Torah site based in Queens NY that said something similar. They also mentioned voting to help Israel.
Do you believe it is okay and even correct for Jews in Hutz L’Aretz to vote, or is it better not to (especially for a Jewish candidate even if they are good)? Or should we not vote in order to feel and act like strangers in galut.
Answer: 1. In principle, Jews should vote, as should all citizens. You cannot expect very much from the political system if the politicians believe that you are unlikely to either support them or punish them on election day. This is practically the only weapon citizens can wield against the complete corruption of the system. For this reason direct representation, where a citizen votes for a specific person to represent his/her interests, is superior to proportional representation, where one votes for a list. The difference can be summed up in one word: accountability. This lack of accountability, due to an electoral system based entirely on proportional representation, is one of the underlying banes of Israeli society.
2. In some countries voting is compulsory. Such laws are designed to deter apathy and non-participation which tend to diminish the legitimacy of the regime. This in turn can lead to increased crime and corruption, as well as a general societal malaise. This is not a desirable outcome. R. Hananya the Vice-Priest, who lived under Roman occupation at the end of the Second Temple period, taught: Pray for the welfare of the regime, since were it not for the fact that men live in fear of the authorities, they would swallow one another alive” (Avoth 3:2). The Talmud comments on this statement that were it not for the law and order imposed by the government, men would behave like fish: the bigger fish always swallows the smaller one (TB ‘Avodah Zarah 4a).
3. Having said that, we need to recognize that today the theory of democracy does not work as intended. In George Washington’s day, the average American voter was a farmer who carried a pocket Bible and a pocket Shakespeare in his overalls. And in the evening he actually read them. He may have had access to an independently published newspaper. He had a value system, could tell right from wrong, and was able to make an intelligent choice.
4. Enter television and mass media, which in order to turn a profit always appeal to the lowest common denominator, creating a pervasive popular culture which serves to lower societal standards. And then came the Internet. Today the average voter does not, and in many cases cannot, read the Bible or Shakespeare and is easily bamboozled by the media which is typically owned by a handful of immensely wealthy individuals and conglomerates that have their own agenda. Add to this advertising agencies and spin doctors, and you are confronted with a reality in which it is not very difficult to mind control the man on the street. In the BBC documentary The Virtual Revolution: Part 1 – The Great Levelling?, John Perry Barlow, a cyberlibertarian political activist and author of the Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, put it rather well: “You don’t have to control people much if you can control what they believe. And you can control what they believe if you control what they have access to. If you can control what they can know, the rest of it is a very simple matter.” And that, as Prof. Noam Chomsky and others have pointed out, is how you manufacture consent and engineer election results.
5. Nevertheless, I believe one should vote. First of all, nothing is gained by not voting; historical experience suggests that real change is never achieved simply by non-participation. Secondly, in some situations, doing nothing is as pernicious as doing something bad. Not voting is not, as some mistakenly believe, a choice to do nothing; it is a conscious decision to allow others to decide the outcome. Each non-vote for values and policies that are right and proper lends increased electoral weight to each vote for those opposed to such ideas. Thirdly, the system put in place by the media moguls is imperfect; large numbers of voters can sometimes stymie their best laid plans, particularly when the vote is close. Fourthly, it is not unknown for just one or two elected representatives to make all the difference. Former PM Ariel Sharon was able to implement his appallingly ill-conceived and criminally negligent policy of withdrawing from Gaza and exiling 10,000 Jews from their homes because of a majority of one or two MK’s; when it became clear that he had the slimmest of majorities, others, fearing political reprisals, sheepishly fell in line. (It is worth noting that the Israeli Right lost 40,000 votes in the elections prior to Sharon’s about-face because many foolish individuals insisted on voting for a party that had no chance of crossing the minimum threshold required. It is worth noting further that 40,000 votes at that time amounted to two K’neseth seats.) Ignoring such realities so as to avoid ‘dirtying one’s hands’ by participating in something ‘unseemly’ or ‘unclean’ is an ideological luxury that we can ill afford.
6. All of the above is true and valid for Jews everywhere, whether in Israel or in Galuth. For a Jew living in Israel the imperative is that much greater, for we are commanded in the Tora: “And you shall be for My purpose a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). Our responsibility to do our utmost to create a society based on the values and teachings of the Tora in the Land of Israel is infinitely greater than in the Galuth. Nonetheless, we should not lose sight of the fact that all societies should be based on the Tora in the limited sense of the Seven Noahide Laws; to the extent that a Jew in Galuth is able to influence such matters, he is obligated to do so.
7. The suggestion that Jews in the Galuth should refrain from voting “in order to feel and act like strangers in galut” is misguided; it involves the cardinal error of introducing an Hagadic notion into an Halakhic discussion. Of course a Jew must know that Galuth is exactly that: exile. And if a Jew does not feel that way, he/she has a problem. A serious problem. But this has no bearing on whether one should vote in the Galuth. I am reminded of the beautiful and powerful statement in Mishnath R. Eli’ezer (Parasha 3) that Jews living in Galuth should pray for rain according to the seasons and needs of Eress Yisrael and not those of their countries of residence “lest they see themselves as living in their own land. They should rather see themselves as temporary sojourners in a foreign land, and direct their hearts in prayer to Eress Yisrael”. A profound teaching indeed. Nevertheless the Halakha does not follow this view. Explicit statements in both Talmudim and nearly all the Rishonim state plainly that one always prays for rain according to one’s location.
8. It goes without saying that voting in order to help Israel and the Jewish Nation is very proper and to be encouraged. The fact that a candidate happens to be Jewish is neither here nor there. Wherever possible one should vote for the candidate most likely to be well disposed towards Jews and Israel (which almost invariably goes hand in hand with a more principled and morally healthy attitude in most matters).
Monday, 22 November 2010
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