How good for the Jews are the VP candidates

Tim Kaine, Democratic pick, stands up for Israel, social justice

American Jewish voters have naturally voted for Democratic candidates because it has meant voting to support strong social justice and a strong U.S.-Israel relationship. Hillary Clinton and her vice presidential choice, Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, will continue Democratic action on economic opportunities, education, retirement security, affordable health care — and Israel’s security and Middle East peace.

The Clinton-Kaine ticket promises to build upon a strong tradition of Democratic leadership, while the Republican ticket of Donald Trump and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence offers a reckless and dangerous blend of empty rhetoric and inconsistent positions that should alarm all Americans, particularly American Jews.

Clinton has deep knowledge of the history of the Middle East and a proven record of engaging with the leaders and peoples of this complex region. She also has a record of advocating for U.S.-Israel ties in the Senate and hands-on experience managing the relationship as secretary of state.

In contrast, Trump’s shocking inexperience and wild pronouncements — including suggestions that he would abandon commitments to key U.S. allies — has earned unprecedented repudiation by foreign policy experts across the political spectrum.

The distinction between the two parties’ vice presidential nominees is just as stark.

Take social justice issues. Pence’s long-held positions on reproductive freedom, fair immigration reform, environmental protection, civil rights, and LGBT rights place him far to the right of both the American Jewish mainstream and Kaine, a lifelong progressive who has fought for equality and justice throughout his career in public service.

On Israel, Pence is quick to profess his support for the Jewish state. But stated support alone is not sufficient.

In these dangerous times, a VP candidate needs a mature, deep understanding of the challenges facing Israel as it seeks avenues toward peace and security. What matters are ongoing, real-world ties to the Jewish community in this country and the leadership in Jerusalem. Kaine, who proudly identifies as a “strongly pro-Israel Democrat,” has demonstrated both throughout his career.

Kaine serves on the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, its Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South and Central Asian Affairs, and the Armed Services Committee, positions that give him a leadership role and a comprehensive understanding of fast-changing conditions across the region.

As the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, I have a front row seat to Kaine’s thoughtfulness, inquisitiveness and mastery of the complex issues facing the United States, Israel and our allies and partners.

He has had meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, traveled to Israel and visited an Iron Dome battery on the border with Gaza. He has stood up time and again for Israel in Congress, from emergency funding for its successful anti-rocket system to the U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Act of 2015.

Kaine was vocal in condemning the United Nations Human Rights Council for its decision to launch a one-sided investigation into Israel’s actions during the 2014 conflict in Gaza while ignoring the unprovoked rocket attacks against Israeli civilians by Palestinian terrorists that touched off the conflict.

Kaine knows that protecting Israel’s security also means ensuring that Israel has a healthy economy. As governor of Virginia, he worked closely with the Israeli Ambassador to the United States at the time, Sallai Meridor, resulting in a 2008 agreement to strengthen bilateral cooperation between Virginia and Israel on private sector industrial research and development. For Israel, the agreement was only the second it had ever entered into with a state government, and both parties have seen tangible benefits.

A nuclear-armed Iran would represent an existential threat to Israel, and Kaine has been a key leader in bipartisan efforts to ensure that Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon. He negotiated the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act that ensured Congress could review the nuclear accord and advocated for a resilient and fully resourced U.S. military so that “all options are on the table.”

Kaine knows that the threats emanating from Iran are about more than its nuclear program. Iran’s continued ballistic missile testing and state sponsorship of terrorism are equally troubling and threatening to Israel. He worked on a bill with Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut to extend sanctions on Iran until President Barack Obama and the International Atomic Energy Agency can guarantee that Iran’s nuclear material is for peaceful purposes.

Finally, Kaine understands that support for a safe, secure Jewish state goes far beyond easy slogans and reflexive criticism of its many foes. Farsighted U.S. diplomacy is critical in helping Israel reach its goal of a sustainable, secure peace. Like a strong majority of American Jews, Kaine remains committed to a two-state solution that has been the stated policy of Prime Minister Netanyahu and every recent Israeli government before his, and which is the critical prerequisite to the kind of peace that Israel’s citizens deserve and want.

If not built on a foundation of active support for U.S. peacemaking efforts, Kaine understands that tough talk about Israel’s security is just that — talk.

Close to home, it was Kaine who held the first Passover seder in the Virginia governor’s mansion. He has a long record of working closely with Virginia’s small but active Jewish community — unlike Pence, who as a member of Congress in 2009 told an American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference, “I know of no synagogues in my district.”

For the record, there are two synagogues in Pence’s former congressional district. Surely he would have benefited from knowing them better.

Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, is the ranking member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. This essay first appeared at jta.org.

Mike Pence, Republican pick, supports traditional Jewish values

With the presidential race heating up, a number of progressive Jewish commentators have portrayed the Republicans’ vice presidential candidate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, as a conservative extremist opposed to Jewish beliefs and values. As officers of the only statewide, grassroots Jewish and Israel advocacy organization in Indiana — who also have had the privilege of working closely with Pence and other Indiana legislators of both political parties to pass important pro-Jewish, pro-Israel legislation — we dispute this inaccurate portrayal.

In fact, there is strong reason to believe that such opposition to Pence is much less a reflection of his positions than an indication of how far many Jewish Americans have strayed over recent years from core Jewish beliefs.

Take for example Pence’s demonstrable attachment to the Jewish State of Israel, which he has called “America’s most cherished ally.” In sharp contrast to many of his critics, Pence is a vocal supporter of Israel’s right to defend itself against sworn enemies like Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas. While some of Pence’s opponents support the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, which opposes the existence of a Jewish state in any form, he recently signed into Indiana law what Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer, called “the toughest anti-BDS legislation in the nation.”

Why don’t Pence’s undeniably pro-Israel positions help win over his Jewish critics?

Douglas Bloomfield in a recent anti-Pence piece argued that “for most Jewish voters, support for Israel is not a determinative issue but is often around fourth of fifth on their priority list.” Bloomfield is correct when he observes that for far too many American Jews, the security of Israel is of little importance. Pence’s support for Israel doesn’t resonate because much of American Jewry has chosen to distance itself from the Jewish state.

Another example involves social issues related to marriage and family. As it turns out, Pence’s positions on these issues are largely in accord with traditional Jewish beliefs.

An important aspect of traditional Judaism involves discriminating or distinguishing between one thing and others. Of course, the type of discrimination we are referring to is not like the historical prejudice of whites toward blacks. But Judaism involves discrimination nonetheless.

Kodesh, the Hebrew word for holy, implies separating or making something distinct. For practicing Jews this concept applies to dietary practices, clothing, family and marital relations, and keeping the Sabbath. Making distinctions also requires making value judgments. Pence’s religious perspective, which shapes his positions on marriage and family, is also dependent on making distinctions. This type of thinking is disdained by liberal Jews, who have redefined Judaism as rejecting distinctions within the Jewish tradition and in their relations to non-Jews.

Another example involves religious liberty, a concept that has allowed American Jews historically unprecedented space and freedom to pursue their lives as Jews. Pence’s statesmanship has been grounded in the American constitutional tradition of individual rights and limited government, which are required for religious liberty to flourish.

Pence’s opponents, however, are opposed to these classic liberal ideals and support the use of government power to compel people to abandon their religious convictions in the public square. For traditional Jews this in effect means being forced to adhere to whatever happens to be the prevailing social norms. This type of behavior is akin to classical anti-Semitism, which demanded that Jews abandon their discriminating religious beliefs.

This issue arose with Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA, which Pence signed into law in 2015. Though Indiana’s RFRA is one of 21 state RFRA laws, Democrats have built an entire campaign against Pence by claiming that his RFRA was designed to deny LGBT civil liberties. At the 2016 Democratic convention, Nevada State Sen. Pat Spearman claimed that Pence “used religion as a weapon to discriminate.” U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts argued that Trump “picked a vice president famous for trying to make it legal to openly discriminate against gays and lesbians.” Hillary Clinton’s campaign characterized Pence as the “most extreme VP pick in a generation,” claiming that “Pence personally spearheaded an anti-LGBT law that legalized discrimination against the LGBT community.”

These claims have been echoed by some Jews. Rabbi Dennis Sasso, whose Indianapolis congregation is affiliated with the Conservative and Reconstructionist movements, asserted that Pence’s failure as governor is most evident in his support of RFRA, since it “allows a private business the right to restrict or limit services to LGBTQ persons on religious grounds.” The Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Council testified before the state legislature that if RFRA were adopted, “people could use their religion to justify almost any discriminatory action they choose to take in their public lives.” In his article, Bloomfield wrote that Indiana’s RFRA law permits “Indiana businesses (to) refuse to serve gays, lesbians and others by citing religious objections.”

In reality RFRA is nothing like what its critics claim. Indiana University law professor David Orentlicher observed that it was “designed to protect religious practice from discrimination by government.” Orentlicher, a Democrat, is himself a former Indiana state representative and currently a candidate for Congress. Law professor Douglas Laycock, who helped write the federal RFRA law, notes that religious freedom laws are mostly used for a wide range of reasons including “churches feeding the homeless” and “Muslim women wearing scarves or veils.”

“They’re about Amish buggies. They’re about Sabbath observers,” he said.

RFRA neither intends nor enables the wholesale denial of LGBT rights and does nothing to permit or promote discrimination against LGBT individuals as individuals in the marketplace. In fact, its critics are using it as a smokescreen to conceal their own wholesale rejection of fundamental constitutional and religious principles, including religious liberty. The real underlying issue that prompted such fury against Pence is that the RFRA may, depending on how the courts rule, permit individuals and businesses to adhere to their religious beliefs on how to define marriage. Supporters of RFRA believe in the classic liberal idea that government should not compel citizens to abandon the free exercise of their religious beliefs in the public square.

It is ironic that an evangelical Christian politician who has demonstrated tenacious support for the Jewish state of Israel, who advocates aggressively for religious liberty, and who supports the practice of traditional Jewish values has been so demonized by individuals and groups claiming to represent Judaism. As American Jewry drifts further from its traditional religious moorings, we should expect to see more of such rhetoric.

Elliot Bartky and Allon Friedman are the president and vice president, respectively, of the Jewish American Affairs Committee of Indiana. This essay first appeared at jta.org.