Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
Well, folks, here we are. Just a few days out from arguably the most important election for the future of the United States that any of us have ever seen. And I’m tired. Tired of the endless media coverage. Tired of being unable to discuss any other important topic. Tired of a campaign that has dragged on for well over a year. But perhaps most of all, tired of false claims of moral equivalency.
Moral equivalency (AKA false equivalence) is “a form of equivocation and a fallacy of relevance often used in political debates. It seeks to draw comparisons between different, often unrelated things, to make a point that one is just as bad as the other or just as good as the other. ” It may be used to draw attention to an unrelated issue by comparing it to a well-known bad event, in an attempt to say one is as bad as the other.” This election has been inundated claims of moral equivalency where, essentially, we are told that while one candidate may have character flaws, so, too, does the other candidate so there isn’t a real difference between them.
In my opinion, Hillary Clinton is an imperfect candidate. She lacks charisma, appears rehearsed and borderline robotic, and is overly secretive. She made a clear error in judgment in using a private email account and server while she served as secretary of state, and erred even more by deleting emails and failing to be forthcoming about the circumstances behind doing so.
Donald Trump’s flaws, however, are categorically different. He has openly and publicly demonized Muslims, Latinos, judges, journalists with disabilities, and countless others. As one article succinctly summarized:
He threatens the First Amendment, demonizes minority groups, cozies up to white supremacists, championed the birther movement, invites Russian interference in the election, promises to arrest his political opponent, lies constantly, lacks the most basic interest in and knowledge of public policy, says he may not accept the results of the election because he believes it to be “rigged” — the list goes on and on.
And this doesn’t even include Trump’s comments from a leaked 2005 interview in which Trump made obscene comments and bragged about sexually abusing women.
Any attempt to equate Clinton’s reserved demeanor and email imbroglio with Trump’s exponentially larger set of egregious statements and actions is not only false, it is absurd. [Or, if you prefer slightly more salty language about this false equivalency, see this link from Bill Maher’s HBO show.]
But why am I writing about this on a Jewish blog? How is this question of false equivalency a Jewish issue rather than a political or media one?
In short, it is because Judaism compels us to act out in such circumstances. Exodus 23:3 reads: “You shall not follow a multitude to do evil; neither shall you bear witness in a cause to turn aside after a multitude to pervert justice.”
Rashbam, a 12th- century French scholar, explained the meaning of this verse: “If, in your opinion, the majority are about to commit an error in judgment, do not remain silent because they are the majority, but state your view.”
The error here is enabling moral equivalence to blind us to the stark differences between Clinton and Trump. These differences transcend the typical Democrat-Republican divide. This is why so many prominent Jewish conservative intellectuals, from Bill Kristol and John Podhoretz to Brett Stephens and Dan Senor, have repudiated Trump and urged their fellow Republicans to do the same. As Michael Medved, the popular conservative talk radio host and Orthodox Jew remarked:
I actually believe that Trump represents the very, very worst elements of our politics and would be very threatening and damaging for the future for my kids, the republic, our economy and our national security—and really, more than any other candidate in my lifetime he represents a threat to the viability of the United States of America.
If these Jewish conservative leaders have the courage to reject false equivalence claims and oppose Trump even at the risk of Republican party ostracization and and social media demonization, shouldn’t we, as a Jewish community, be willing to do the same?
On Rosh Hashanah, the original Day of Judgment, we are called upon to conduct a heshbon ha-nefesh, Hebrew for an honest accounting of our souls. Next Tuesday, it is time for us, as American voters, to do our own heshbon ha-nefesh about the differences between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. To reject claims of moral equivalence and urge our friends and family members to do the same. To stand up for our principles and reject the politics of demonization, fear, and hate. It is no contest.