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November 6, 2020

Hearing The Other Half: Reflections On The Election

Angela W. Buchdahl

The election is moving towards the predicted result, 
But many of you were surprised and disappointed 
by the way that it happened.
After all the votes are counted, 
this looks like a victory for Joe Biden. 
But this was no landslide. No collective repudiation.  

It is more clear than ever that this country is deeply split—
and we are all pretty emotional about it.
This is not just about politics—
each side feels existentially threatened, angry, dug-in.
Here’s the good news: these high stakes brought out record voter turnout.  
Biden will end up with the most votes of any Presidential candidate in history ever.
But you should all know that Trump will end up with the second most votes of any candidate in history ever.

So half of this country is feeling deeply upset tonight
by the projected results of this election, 
To the extent that they accept the results at all.
But even the half that thinks it will win, is distressed.
I would even say—horrified and shocked (!)
that millions of Americans voted the way they did.
And our surprise requires a kind of reckoning.
Because—we missed it, Again.
We didn’t listen, Again.

Let’s put aside President Trump for the moment 
and people’s strong feelings there.
I want to talk about the huge number of Americans 
who voted for him. 
How could so many people be so unaware of the strength 
and breadth of Trump’s support?  
I certainly ignored some signs.
Like the conversation with my housekeeper, Natalie,
a religious woman from the Phillipines, 
who attends a Catholic Church in Queens.  
She told me that she doesn’t care for Trump 
but that the rest of her church was voting for him.
I said: “but they are all immigrants from Asian and Hispanic countries!
How can they vote for him?”
She said: ”abortion.”  
While this wasn’t enough to win her over, 
she was not surprised that this single issue 
was strong enough to justify their votes.

Or the notes I received from some of our own congregants 
who believe Trump’s actions in Israel and in fighting antisemitism at home
are not only admirable, but protect our very survival. 
“The question bothering me,” one asked, when discussing Biden-supporters,
“is how American Jews can vote contrary to God’s will, 
contrary to what is good for our own security?”

So many people in my bubble had it wrong.
Because we were quite committed to believing 
that “those people” voting for the other side, 
were not our people.
That they could not be anyone of color, 
or anyone with an education.
Both sides made disparaging caricatures of the other: 
it’s enough to give you whiplash:
“Those people” were selfish rich folks 
voting with their pocketbook, 
“Those people” were woke liberals 
oozing with moral superiority.
They were pro-Israel Jews 
excusing Trump’s stoking of white-supremacists;
They were social justice Jews 
putting anti-racism ahead of antisemitism.

No longer were people who voted the other box 
just people we disagreed with.
They were evil. Morally bankrupt. Racist. 
Classist. Callous. Naive.

It felt righteous to label them this way 
and even feels good to cut them off.
As one of my FB friends decried:
The idea that nearly 70 million Americans
who lived through the same four years as I have, 
wanted to see this *continue* has wrecked me.  
I can’t think, I can’t focus. 
Here’s where I’m at: I’m done with “those people.” 
I don’t care if they’re my countrymates, my friends, 
or even my family - 
I don’t want to hear from them, 
I don’t want to know them, 
I don’t want to share my country with them.

All this vilification and name calling blinds us.
This is not about disagreeing, vehemently, 
with another side.
Disagree! That’s what we Jews have always done.
Fight with everything you’ve got for what you believe in.
This is about how each side is ignoring, cutting off and demonizing the other side.  

And by “other side,” I mean half of America.

It’s dangerous and wrong.  And it’s not the Jewish way.
This week in parshat Vayera, 
we have the ultimate story of good and evil:
The story of Abraham in Sodom.
Now the Torah tells us this was a city
full of people doing morally reprehensible things.
God was ready to destroy the entire city.
But Abraham, the patriarch and founder of our religion, 
courageously stands before God and says—not so fast.

He challenges God that if there were even 50 righteous citizens,
that it would be wrong to destroy the city.  
When 50 cannot be found, he bargains with God to 40.
Then 30, 20, finally to 10 righteous people.

Why did Abraham do this?
Why does he care?
He could have just taken the few good people with him and left town.

But he is not willing to write off an entire city of people.
Even people he feels were doing something wrong.  
He had the radical optimism to believe 
that even a small number of righteous people 
could ultimately turn that city around. 
Abraham never accepted 
or condoned the Sodomites bad behavior,
but he never stopped seeing his fellow citizens 
as human beings—who were worth engaging.
Who could not just be discarded.
We all, right and left alike, 
need to do a better job of recognizing 
the humanity of our political opponents.

The danger of demonization
comes into sharp focus for me this week, 
as we commemorate the anniversary of Yitzchak Rabin’s assassination.
It was 25 years ago, but it feels like yesterday.
I was a rabbinical student in Jerusalem at the time.
The news was surreal. 
The prime Minister, was killed by a fellow Jew!
At a peace rally after singing Shir L’Shalom— 
the song we just sang after silent prayer.

Israel’s political atmosphere at the time 
was as similarly polarized as ours here today.
And with the signing of the Oslo Accords 
just a year before, tensions were high 
and each side felt existentially threatened.
The assassin, Yigal Amir was goaded, encouraged—
by political leaders, even some rabbis, 
and a culture that reviled the other side so viciously 
that Amir could believe the country’s leader 
deserved death.
A small radical group of Israelis celebrated him for his horrific act—
calling him a hero.  

But the overwhelming feeling in the streets at the time 
was remorse.  
Candlelight vigils and makeshift memorials sprung up around the country
with signs reading: Ani Mitbayeshet.  
“I am Ashamed.”
Israelis took a deep look at the polarizing and dehumanizing rhetoric 
in which they all participated 
and had taken self-righteous pleasure, 
which led to the murder of a Jew by another Jew.  
It was an amazing thing to be part of –
the profound, collective teshuva of the nation in that moment.

Now 25 years later, the tenor here is eerily familiar.
Before we point fingers at the other side, ask yourself: 
how have I contributed to the tensions and the hate?
How have I dismissed or disparaged “those people”?
Could we make this moment one of collective reckoning? 
And instead of writing off half the citizens of this country, 
get curious.
Start to listen.
Try to really understand.
What makes them care as much as you do? 
What do they fear? 

Many people felt that the soul of our nation 
was in the balance during this election.
But the soul of our nation is in the balance NOW.
After the election.
It will be shaped by how we will see the other, 
the stranger on the other side
And rebuild a United States of America 
that does not leave half of America behind.
Ken yhi ratzon. May it be so.

Watch our sermon above or on Youtube, listen on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, or read the transcript above.

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