We live in a hyper-partisan world. How we respond can make a difference. | Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle

We live in a hyper-partisan world. How we respond can make a difference. 

Perchik: There’s a question… A certain question I want to discuss with you.  

Hodel: Yes?  

Perchik: It’s a political question.  

Hodel: What is it?  

Perchik: The question of… marriage.  

Hodel: Is this a political question?  

Perchik: Well, yes. Yes, everything’s political. 

I’ve always loved this moment from Fiddler on the Roof. There is a sweetness to it but also a complexity that reflects a changing political landscape for the fictional little town of Anatevka. Here in Wisconsin, we too are experiencing a changing political landscape amid a presidential election, the Republican National Convention coming to Milwaukee, wars in the Middle East and Ukraine, and political tensions on campuses throughout America. Once again, the Jewish community feels swept up in the currents of world events and a precarious political situation that is rupturing what we think of as political norms. 

For rabbis in particular, election years are fraught with pitfalls. We know that it’s on everyone’s minds while our congregations are thought of by our congregants as equal parts a haven from the political currents of our day or a platform for each congregant’s own values. We might be asking ourselves, just as we do at family gatherings, do we address politics or not? It’s impossible to avoid. I agree with Perchik, “everything is political.” But political doesn’t mean partisan. 

Right now, we live in a hyper-partisan world. It feels like we are watching a pendulum working against gravity, swinging further to the left or the right with every swing. It seems that on the fringes of our political system, we are witnessing the realization of the horseshoe theory. Horseshoe theory suggests that the political spectrum isn’t linear but rather shaped like a horseshoe. In this model, the center occupies the curved part of the horseshoe, while the extreme left and right are at the ends. The theory posits that these extremes, instead of being opposites, actually share significant similarities. One such similarity is that, at the extremes, we are witnessing an old unifying hatred of the Jewish people. It’s a deeply dangerous place for our Jewish community to be, and we might be asking ourselves what we might do. 

One thing we might consider in navigating this tumultuous time is to model something different as a Jewish community than what we see in the external world. We have Jews who are on the political left and Jews on the political right, same as it ever was, but does that need to be viewed as a liability, or might we think of it as an asset? Most of the time, my experience has been that we as a community have viewed this as a liability, but therein lies a grave danger. 

We have confronted dangerous times before. There is a beautiful text about the parting of the sea, taught by Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg, that I think is particularly meaningful at this time. 

“The Jews are approaching the Red Sea and see the waters swirling before them. God tells them to have no fear. So the Jews go into the midst of the Sea, and then the Torah tells us: ‘V’hamayim lahem chomah – the waters were like a wall for them.’ ‘Mi’yiminam u’mismolam – on the right and on their left.’ And from seemingly out of nowhere, based on the fact that here in one place the Hebrew word ‘chomah’ – ‘wall,’ is not spelled as it usually is with a ‘vov,’ the rabbis tell us: read this not as ‘chomah’ – ‘wall,’ but ‘cheimah’ – ‘hatred.’ In that way, the verse should read: ‘The waters were like hatred for them. On the right and on their left.’ The rabbis are speaking prophetically when they tell us that down through history, the hatred is going to come both from the right and from the left. Our Jewish people will survive by walking together through the midst of the sea. Yes, sometimes it’s the right and sometimes it’s the left… and sometimes it’s both! And after all is said and done, what is the difference? There are people out there who hate us, and we must stand firm and united.” 

Sometimes it can be infuriating to be united when the people closest to us have different political views than we do. We might want to turn our backs. But people with different political views are still a part of our people. Jews with differing political views, standing together, is as much an enrichment of our community as it is a strategy for survival. We know that there are those who hate us on either side of the water, on the left and on the right, but we also have friends on either side, and right now, we need them more than ever. 

Navigating this political moment as individuals and as a community is undoubtedly painful and difficult. But we must not avoid it. Lean into the conversations that need to happen. Reach out to your friends and neighbors, both those who think like you and those who don’t. Resist the hyper-partisanship of this moment and strive to bring the pendulum back toward the center as much as you can. Reject the extremes. Yes, there is much that we disagree on (don’t give up on those values), but there is also much that I’m certain we agree on and can make common cause. 

By fostering dialogue and understanding within our diverse Jewish community, we can stand united against the hatred that seeks to divide us. Additionally, extend your reach beyond our Jewish community to build bridges with others. Engage with people from different backgrounds and faiths, working together to promote mutual respect and understanding. 

In these challenging times, unity and collaboration are strategies for survival and pathways to healing. By standing together, even when it’s hard, I know that we will see the other side. Let us all pass through this most difficult time and with firm steps walk into the land of our promise. 

Everything truly is political, but that need not divide us. 

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Rabbi Noah Chertkoff is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shalom in Fox Point.