One Man’s View

By Eugen Schoenfeld

We have entered the election year. This process began almost a year ago with 16 candidates in one party and four in the other seeking the privilege of being elected president of this country.

More than ever during my sojourn in this country, the electorate is confronted with a diversity of candidates. The questions all of us must face before the Georgia primaries March 1: How will I chose? What are the criteria by which I will judge the candidate?

Nate Beeler, The Columbus Dispatch

Nate Beeler, The Columbus Dispatch

And judge I must.

As we make this choice, each of us must reflect on two essential criteria: the personality of the candidate and the ideals he or she espouses. Each of us uses our own experiences and ideals to make a choice.

What are mine? As an adult, I have been, and continue to be, influenced by Jewish heritage — that is, the qualities I gain from the teaching of our sages — and of course by my personal history, dominated by my Holocaust experiences.

As I listen to the news and to the candidates’ discourse and demeanor, I ask myself: What kind of character should a candidate have to make a good leader.

From a historical Jewish perspective, I look back at Moses. What made him the great teacher and leader? Our sages tell us it was his humility. Humility is a person’s acknowledgment that he or she does not have the answers to all questions.

Most important, I look at the advice given by our sages: A can that has but one dinar (silver coin) when shaken is loud, but one that is full of dinars even when shaken is quiet. Therefore, the more bombastic one appears, the less desirable he is as a candidate.

Overbearing loudness is a sure sign that a person seeks to compensate for lack of knowledge with noise. Quietude, not shouting, shows true self-assuredness. The wise man does not have to shout to become visible; his wisdom and lack of aggression make his qualities self-evident.

I have had enough of war. Though war is sometimes necessary, it is the least desirable way to settle disputes. We have created far too many widows and orphans and parents without the love of their children.

The most important ideal in Judaism is that of peace. I was taught that Aaron, the high priest, was not known because of his priesthood, but because he was a seeker of peace. But since the end of World War II, this nation has continually been at war.

It seems to me that for whatever reason, far too many people in this country believe that power is the solution to all problems. I constantly hear people lamenting that the loss of our prestige is the result of our lost power. We have become obsessed with the belief that a greater army and its use will not only solve the problem, but also give us dominion over the world and thereby prestige.

Many candidates believe that fear of the United States will ipso facto bring peace. Such people have not advanced in their views since Theodore Roosevelt and the ideologies advocated by colonialist countries. “Send in the army” is our solution to all political problems. But we have sent the army, and we have hardly solved any problems.

All the wars we have engaged in — Korea, Vietnam and the multiplicity of conflicts in the Near East — have not led to peace, but merely to a continuity of war and an increasing number of pseudo-heroes.

As an ancient Jewish sage asked in regard to the many wars Israel waged, I ask: Do we wish to make this nation a country of invalids (baaleh moom)? So many of our youths come back from these wars physically and emotionally impaired. I do not wish to vote for a presidential candidate for whom the solution to problems comes through power, confrontation and the subjugation of others.

Of course, there are conditions when war is inevitable. The last of such war ended with the defeat of Hitler — or the wars of self-defense that Israel fought for physical survival. These are wars for which one can say eyn brerah — we had no choice.

But most of our wars are the consequence of being boastful, using a declaration that is similar to one Goliath tauntingly directed at David: a boast of strength.

I seek in a president an understanding of the true meaning of tzedakah, one who has a true understanding of the principle of justice. The Torah teaches us that justice arises from a true concern with and understanding of the well-being of all. Justice starts when all people are given an equal chance at life.

I seek a person whose central concern is the well-being of all. This is rooted in the principle of soneh betzah, a person who is not affected by those with wealth. The function of a government is to equalize the playing field, to provide opportunities for all.

That principle was inherent in the Homestead Act, a law that advocated an ideal unique to this country: giving a person some land and leaving it up to that person to create his success. It’s the ideal of meritocracy.

I seek a person for whom human rights stand above property rights, which were designed for the perpetuation of wealth. I seek a person who believes in meritocracy and wishes to counteract the natural advantages of the wealthy.

I seek a person who believes that the wealth of a nation and its future are rooted in the achievement of the next generation. He who denies the opportunities to the children of the poor merely impoverishes the greatness of this country. Intelligence and creativity are not the sole domain of the children of the wealthy.

My final concern is to find a person who knows the meaning of tachliss, which is best translated as pragmatism. I grew up being confronted with the issue of pragmatism, with the question “Will it work?” Ideals and knowledge are important, but as Rabbi Gamliel taught, study and knowledge must be combined with worldly knowledge to translate ideals into action.

I have always been influenced by Durkheim, a Jewish sociologist at the turn of the 20th century, who said: “What good is science and knowledge if it cannot bring some comfort to people and a better place to live in?”

It is in this sense that a president must be able to translate ideals into achievable goals. That can be achieved only if a person is capable of making self-interest and class interests subservient to collective need.

Now my task is to decide which of the various candidates comes closest to possessing the qualities enumerated above.