Thursday, January 28, 2010

A British Rabbi reflects on the State of the Union & the political engagement of Reform Jews

Last night I sat and watched the State of the Union address, along with millions of others in the USA and beyond.  As I listened to what was surely an impressive speech - a call to action, a call to unity, outlining so many specifics with clarity, passion and care, I found myself reflecting on the nature of political discourse in the USA and contrasting it with my experience back in the UK.  There isn't really an equivalent in the UK - the closest might be Queen Elizabeth's speech to Parliament upon its opening.  Culturally, it could not be more different.  Take a look at this youtube of the address in November 2009 (and if you'd like to enjoy the pomp and circumstance of the ritual surrounding the opening of Parliament, you can click on the option to watch direct on the Youtube site, and then look at some of the related links):

In truth, I do not remember a year when I lived in the UK when I actually watched this.  It certainly was not a family affair; we did not sit and discuss, or listen to TV pundits dissecting the speech, or the response to the speech in the chamber (as you can see, there would be little to discuss on this latter point).

But it is the engagement with the political process, the amount of commentary and response to the content of the State of the Union speech, both immediately after and today in newspapers, blogs, and online magazines throughout today that, as an 'import' from the UK I find so engaging and interesting.  While there are times when I find the degree of political parsing here over-the-top and a barrier to good common sense where the priority is to get things done (which I was pleased to hear President Obama call attention to last night), the level of political engagement in this country is, by and large, quite remarkable.

I do not plan to offer my own thoughts on the specifics of last night's address - there are many others far better qualified to do so.  But I would commend listening to a selection of some of our leading Jewish activists respond by watching the youtube below - among them Rabbi Jonah Pesner of Just Congregations, and Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center.

Tomorrow, I leave with a group of this year's Confirmation class to our annual L'Taken Social Justice Seminar with the Religious Action Center in Washington D.C.  It is an exciting time to go, so close to the State of the Union speech.  Our teens will learn about some of the social justice issues that Reform Judaism engages with as we seek, as Jews, to improve our world, and how they take form in the political arena through the legislative process.  They will learn why Reform Judaism teaches about these issues, and how we read Jewish sources to create our visions, and they will learn how to lobby their Representatives in ways that demonstrate why we care about their votes on a variety of upcoming legislation.

Again, reflecting on my UK experience, such a program would have been unheard of when I lived there.  Jewish communities would speak out on issues that directly affected specifically Jewish things, but rarely would you see a community or a Jewish denomination speak on an issue that went beyond that narrow remit.  We might teach about the issues in general, but making a direct connection to the legislative agenda of Parliament at any particular time was rare.  But look at the issues that our students will have a chance to learn about this weekend:
Homelessness, Environmental issues, inequality for low-income households, reproductive rights, health care reform, GLBT equality in the workplace, immigration reform, and international relations.

All of these issues effect our lives, the lives of those in the communities where we live, our futures, and our world.  As Reform Jews in the USA, one of the strengths of our movement is our ability to speak with relevance on all matters that affect our lives, and we are called to do justice, inspired by the prophetic tradition, for all in the society we live in - especially the weakest and the poorest.  We want our students to grow up to be good citizens as well as good Jews.  We want them to be educated and empowered to take their place among those who were engaged in debate and analysis after hearing the State of the Union address last night, ready to respond to the President's charge: 'Let's get it done!'
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

1 comment:

  1. Regarding the political process in the UK, one must remember that it is a parliamentary democracy, not a republic with a president/versus the house situation.

    The Prime Minister (who directs the Queen's speech) is questioned EVERY week by house at PMQs, something no President of the USA is asked to go through, and then in a calmer way is questioned by a select committee monthly.

    Hence the amount of discussion in the high street in the UK is a lot less than in the US. Why? Because the politicians are empowered to do it on our behalf. They don't always do it well, and as with all politicians party politics gets in the way of intelligent scrutiny etc etc, but one cannot deny that the volume of scrutiny directly focused on the Prime Minister and is government, and in the house is way beyond that in Capital Hill.

    Hence in the USA it is almost a requirement that the public engage. Which is better? Well in many ways I love the passion people in the USA have for their politics, as opposed to the general apathy in the UK.

    At the same time, a system where the leader of the country and their ministers are regularly called to answer and debate with the directly elected representatives has its strengths too.

    Perhaps Rabbis, of all persuasions should regular under such scrutiny?

    Many do, one way or the other - others less so.