Originally published in Sh’ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility, 2/38 (29 September 1972), pp. 137-9.
It would be a gross impertinence for one who is not an American citizen and ignorant of the American political scene to offer opinions on the specific problems raised by the Nixon vs. McGovern issue. But may I offer some thoughts on the more general issues involved in discussions of this kind, which take place naturally among Jews in Great Britain too? Certain basic principles can, it seems to me, be stated, though men of good will may differ as to how these principles are to be applied.
There must be limits to altruism
1) It is perfectly legitimate for individuals and groups to cast their vote for the candidate or party of their choice in the belief that this will be best for them, even though they might recognize that the rival candidate or party will be better for other individuals or groups. Excessive altruism in politics usually has the effect of promoting the welfare not of the community as a whole but of those sections within it whose interests are hostile to one’s own. To favor these at the expense of one’s own is to attempt to love the neighbor more than oneself, which neither the Jewish tradition nor modern democratic procedures consider viable. Any full-scale adoption of such a rule would mean that everyone is busy working perversely for others by harming himself. Kant’s categorical imperative operates here. And while Ahad Ha-Am’s dictum that altruism is only an inverted form of egotism is not necessarily correct in all circumstances it is applicable to the realities of political life.
Ethics for voting
2) It is also legitimate for the citizen of a country, when assessing his own interests, to allow his decision to be influenced by his concern for the policies of his country vis-a-vis other countries with which he has strong emotional and other ties. This would not, of course, apply where the interests of the other countries are detrimental to those of his own country. Here, quite clearly, his obligation is to the country of which he is a citizen. But where there is no enmity between the two countries, he is entitled to wish to be governed by the party which favors not alone his interests in the country in which he resides but also his wider interests on the international scene. Every voter rightly takes into account a party’s foreign policy as well as its record in dealing with internal affairs.
The ethical imperatives of Jewish voting
3) In the very rare instances in which a man’s own interests or the interests of his group are clearly opposed to the well-being of the community as a whole, and he knows this to be so, there can be no doubt that it is his painful duty to vote for the candidate or party that favors the general good. The alternative is the evil doctrine of each man for himself and devil take the hindmost. The whole Jewish tradition of social righteousness and just communal legislation is based solidly on the injunction against separating oneself from the community. The High Priest in the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur prayed, it is said, that the entreaties of the few merchant travellers, who required fine weather when the community as a whole needed rain, should not be allowed to enter into God’s presence.
It would seem to follow that the Jew is entitled to ask: “Is it good for the Jews?” before casting his vote. Indeed, it would seem that he is morally bound to do so. Included is the further question: “Is it good for Israel?” since Jewry has an obvious stake in Israel’s future and the most powerful brotherly concern for the safety and prosperity of Israel’s citizens. For the Jew to show his “fairness” and “detachment” by voting against a policy because it is good for the Jews (or for Israel) is to show neither fairness not detachment. It is thoroughly misguided and a complete failure to appreciate what democracy is all about. If, however, a certain policy is good for the Jews (or for Israel) but harmful to one’s nation as a whole or to the world community as a whole, then altruism is demanded. But it is extremely hard to see how such a contingency could ever arise.