Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain of Maidenhead Synagogue has prepared this guide to voting in the general election.
British Jews have never voted as a bloc, while there have been Jewish MPs and ministers in all three main parties. However, while it is inappropriate to lay down which party Jews should follow, it is possible to establish three principles for a Jewish approach to the forthcoming general election :
1. The religious duty to vote
The right to cast a vote only gradually became universal and was hard won after decades of persistent efforts at reform. The significance of those battles should not be spurned, while the ability to play a role in shaping the future of the country is a religious duty that should not be neglected. Another consideration is that, at a time when some parties are pushing divisive messages and pursuing racist policies, failure to use one’s vote allows extremist parties to claim a higher percentage of the national vote, or even gain seats.
The first century rabbi, Hillel, warned against ignoring what was going on in society at large: ‘Do not separate yourself from the community’. He also added the need to actively step in if others were failing to act properly: ‘and where there are no people of visionary courage, try to fulfill that role yourself’ (Ethics of the Fathers 2.5-6).
It should also be admitted that skepticism of political elite has long existed, and from that same period came the advice: ‘Be careful of those in power! For they draw no one near to them except in their own interest. They seem like friends when it is to their own advantage, but they do not stand by people in their hour of need’ (Ethics of the Fathers 2.3). However, this is not a licence to ignore the election, but makes it all the more important to vote for those who are people of integrity.
2. Religious values must be given political expression
The moral imperatives of Judaism must speak to all situations and not be limited to internal synagogue life. For the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, there was no area of public life in which religious values did not apply. The command to ‘Let justice roll down like water and righteousness like an everlasting stream’ (Amos 5.24) is a direct prescription for political and social action.
Jewish values include the pursuit of justice, the protection of vulnerable groups in society, concern for the environment, responding to the needs of oppressed asylum seekers, upholding human rights, working for international peace. These Jewish values may be identified at different times with particular political groups, in which case they should be supported, but that is coincidental to the pursuit of those ideals.
3. Priorities for voting
There are countless different issues that need to be considered, ranging from economic policy to foreign affairs to medical ethics to social harmony. Jewish voters should draw up a hierarchy of what they consider to be the most important topics, compare them to the party manifestos and judge them accordingly.
It is vital to consider the overall good of society, not one’s own personal situation, for as Jeremiah long ago advised ‘Seek the peace of the city in which you live, for in its peace is your peace’ (29.7). The issues can be divided into various categories, listed below. They are put in the form of questions – either for voters to ponder or for them to ask candidates seeking election.
It should be stressed that whilst viable economic policies are essential, they are not the only criteria by which parties should be judged, with the moral and social health of the country being equally important.
a) Social Issues :
Benefits – what changes to the benefits system should be made to ensure those truly in need receive adequate provision?
Carers – how should those caring at home for the sick, disabled or elderly be assisted?
Disability – what support should be given to the needs of disabled people?
Homelessness – what policies will remedy the on-going problem of homelessness?
Personal Debt – what controls should be introduced to prevent people from falling into serious personal debt?
Poverty – what is the best way of alleviating the plight of those living in poverty?
Racism – what measures can eradicate the various types of prejudice and discrimination in society?
b) Public Policy :
Asylum – how can immigration laws be changed to ensure that genuine asylum seekers are not hindered in their search for a safe haven?
Blasphemy Laws – should they be changed in view of the multi-faith nature of British society today ?
Faith Schools – should there be greater controls on what independent faith schools teach?
Pornography – what should be done to prevent the internet be used as a vehicle for pornography?
Public Broadcasting – should a higher degree of religious programming be guaranteed on television and radio?
Religious Education – should R.E. in schools remain “broadly Christian” or be more multi-faith
Social Media – what limits should be legally enforced on cyber bullying and racist comments?
c) Medical Ethics :
Abortion – does the current legislation protect a woman’s right to have an abortion when circumstances justify it?
Assisted Dying – should the current ban on euthanasia be relaxed or maintained?
Embryology – what safeguards should be implemented to control the cloning of human embryos?
‘Living Wills’ – should they be given legal force?
d) International Relations :
Arms Trade – what can be done to ensure that British arms are not sold to regimes known to be oppressive?
Israel – how can government policy best assist the peace process in the Middle East?
Foreign Policy – what criteria should be used to guide an ethical foreign policy?
e) Global Ethics :
Environment – what steps need to be taken to prevent further pollution before irrevocable damage is done to the environment?
Globalisation – how can local workers and trades be protected against international economic forces?
International Debt – what further action should the government take to help the chronic debts of some of the poorest countries?
f) Issues particular to the Jewish community
Anti-Semitism – how can the government give the strongest possible message that this is both morally unacceptable and harmful to society at large?
Religious freedoms – where is the balance between protecting certain freedoms (eg circumcision) and banning others (eg FGM) and how does that apply to other issues ( kashrut, the burkha etc).