Rabbi David Saperstein began his Zoom talk on Saturday by thanking the television networks for announcing Joe Biden’s win just in time for his analysis of the election.
With 40 years at the helm of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, two years as the top U.S. diplomat on issues of international religious freedom during the Obama administration and his recent stint as interim president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, Saperstein is more than a standard Washington insider. He has personal relationships with faith leaders, political figures and Jews of all stripes around the world.
So it would not have been surprising if the networks’ timing was on purpose.
Saperstein spent nearly two hours Saturday afternoon analyzing the election, part of his two-day schedule as the virtual scholar-in-residence for Rodef Sholom in San Rafael.
Among the key lessons of the election, he said, were, on one hand, an extraordinary voter turnout indicating commitment to the democratic process, and, on the other hand, an electoral split that shows “this is an alarmingly divided, deeply divided nation; it is clear that on so very many issues, we see the country very differently.”
As a man engaged for so many decades in protecting religious freedoms in this country and globally, Saperstein is a strong champion of bipartisanship. Its deterioration in recent years is, he said, his “central concern” for the nation’s future.
“If the Republicans continue to hold the Senate, and if Mitch McConnell takes the position he did with Obama — that his primary goal was to make him a one-term president, so he implemented as few of his policies as he could — frankly, it will be a disaster for America,” he said.
And it will also be a disaster for America’s Jews, he continued.
“If you look back over the 20th century [and all of] the public policy achievements that the Jewish community fought for — the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the women’s rights movement, the environmental movement, the economic justice movement, the pro-Israel movement, the Soviet Jewry movement — all of them happened because of a bipartisan coalition of decency on Capitol Hill, and bipartisan, multiethnic, multiracial coalitions in communities all across America” he said. “We need that more than ever before.”
While Saperstein devoted most of his analysis to voting trends in general, he did address patterns in Jewish voting, and the future of U.S.-Israel relations.
Looking behind the estimated 70 percent of Jews who voted for Biden in 2020, he pointed to results of a Jewish voter survey conducted for the nonpartisan Jewish Electorate Institute in mid-September to show some of the reasons why they did. Among the findings:
• More than 80 percent of Jewish voters believe the rise of antisemitism and white nationalism are very important issues to consider when deciding which candidate to support, and nearly two-thirds of Jewish voters trust Biden more on antisemitism, while just one-quarter trust President Donald Trump.
• Most Jewish voters feel less secure than they did four years ago, and a majority said they felt they would be less safe if Trump was reelected.
Of the top 11 issues Jewish voters surveyed considered most important in choosing whom to vote for, the economy came first, closely followed by health care and the Covid-19 pandemic. Israel ranked at the bottom.
“That’s not because Israel isn’t an important issue to Jews,” Saperstein clarified. “It’s because they think both parties will be good on it, and therefore it’s not something they normally decide to vote over. That’s true even while Israel has become a more partisan issue.
“But part of it could be what the polls tell us is a distancing of the diaspora community in North America from Israel over the past 30 years, and that’s taking a toll,” he added.
Denominational affiliation continued to be significant in voting patterns. Polling by J Street between Oct. 30 and Election Day Nov. 3 showed that 90 percent of Reform-identified Jews voted for Biden, versus 17 percent of Orthodox. For those voting for Trump, the numbers were 7 percent of Reform Jews and 79 percent of Orthodox Jews.
Support for a continued U.S. role in the Israel-Palestinian peace process remains high, according to the J Street poll, with 91 percent of Jewish voters overall. Support for a two-state solution also ran high, with 75 percent of the Jewish vote overall. A recent AJC Jewish voter poll showed similar results.
Regarding U.S.-Israel relations under a Biden administration, Saperstein was optimistic. “I don’t think there’s going to be a huge breach,” he said. While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had what Saperstein deemed “terrible chemistry” with former President Obama, Biden “maintained a much better relationship with Bibi than President Obama managed to do, and one can presume that Bibi will play on that.”
But should Netanyahu fall in Israel’s next election, his replacement, Saperstein predicted, “will very likely be [politically] to the right of him,” complicating any progress in the peace process. “Clearly Biden will push on the Palestinian issue in a way that President Trump did not,” he said.
On the domestic political front, Saperstein predicted that under Biden, the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC “will restore its central role in the U.S.-Israel relationship,” after four years of Trump “giving it the runaround” in favor of working with “people like Mort Klein and the ZOA, the Republican Jewish Coalition, and Sheldon Adelson, the evangelicals, the Orthodox community, and sidelining many of the mainstream Jewish entities that had long been key interlocutors with Israel and the United States. So I think AIPAC will resume a more central and vital role, but probably this time alongside J Street. It would have been hard to imagine — before President Trump — J Street looming up to be akin to AIPAC as a player on Capitol Hill with the administration. But President Trump set in motion things that have brought that around.”
In the short term, Saperstein noted that much of what Trump accomplished via executive order, including weakening both work safety standards and protections for the environment, Biden can reverse using the same mechanism. Saperstein predicted Biden will move quickly to restore international trade agreements and tight relationships with U.S. allies that have been damaged in the Trump era.
But other things will linger, and to our society’s detriment, he lamented. “President Trump may no longer be here, but Trumpism is ingrained in the Republican Party,” he warned. And Jewish interests are better served, he said, when Jews are active in both political parties.
“Who will be brave enough to stand up and lead the party in a more traditional direction? In the first six months of the Trump administration, I would have said [Sen.] Lindsey Graham. But now, the truth is, I just don’t know.”