Why Jews Are All In on the New Voting Rights Act

There is something quintessentially American and quintessentially Jewish about voting -- and fighting for the right to vote. After all, voting is an act of faith. It's a ritual, part of belonging to the community.
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There is something quintessentially American and quintessentially Jewish about voting -- and fighting for the right to vote.

After all, voting is an act of faith. It's a ritual, part of belonging to the community. Like all rituals, we may find them inconvenient when they interrupt our daily schedule, but we also hold them dear. It may not feel sacred in some moments -- filling in little bubbles or pulling little levers -- but it connects deeply with our past and our core sense of who we are as a people. And ultimately we do it because we believe in something bigger than ourselves, something that we can't see directly and are taught to trust in -- in this case, a sense that all of us, doing this little ritual, adds up to a government of ourselves, by ourselves, for ourselves, that stands up for liberty and justice for all.

So what if I took that away from you? Are you an American?

This is not just a philosophical question. Fifty years after Martin Luther King's march on Washington, voter discrimination is sadly alive and well. Last year's U.S. Supreme Court Shelby County v. Holder gutted the enforcement mechanisms in the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA), allowing states and localities that had been under strict federal monitoring the right to make drastic changes to voting laws without federal restraint. In the weeks after the ruling, many of these jurisdictions rushed out and did just that, making changes to election law that could deny the vote to thousands of citizens.

There's an effort underway now to fix this -- members of Congress from both parties have come together to propose a modern, forward-looking bill, a "VRA for Today," that would update the law to address the Supreme Court's objections and reinstate the federal government's power to vigorously enforce non-discrimination standards. The bill isn't perfect, it's a compromise and many people are hoping for stronger protections. Nonetheless it's a crucial effort and it's being championed by an impressive coalition of civil rights groups, many of which were leading the fight fifty years ago, such as the NAACP and the ACLU.

Also part of that coalition, then and now, was a once-strong force that's now resurgent -- the passionate, powerful, progressive American Jewish community.

Rabbi Heschel marched with Dr. King in Selma, and Rabbi Prinz had the honor of introducing him to the crowd at the Lincoln Memorial. The original Voting Rights Act in 1965 was drafted in the basement of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s was, after all, less than twenty years after the full brunt of the Holocaust. We saw clearly the danger. If any one of us could be silenced, than all of us could be silenced.

American Jews have always valued the vote. As they fled pogroms and persecution, our ancestors who came here found a country where they, even if they were not always welcome or even fully protected under the law, nonetheless had a legal right to exist, pursue their own affairs, and be part of our political system at the basic level.

Taking away someone's right to vote in America is casting them out of our society. It is saying they are not welcome in the most basic ritual of our American culture and not welcome in joining us to determine our path forward as a country. It is branding them as someone who doesn't really count, who is less -- an un-person.

As Jews, we find that very chilling.

And so, as I said, casting a vote became very Jewish too -- at least very American Jewish. Civic engagement became a core value for many of us to learn at our Bubbe's knee. The numbers bear this out: 87 percent of American Jews are registered to vote, compared to 78 percent of Americans nationally, according to Pew. Hard numbers on voting turnout can be hard to find, but it is frequently estimated to be around 80 for Jews, compared to about 60 percent in the general population.

Were we Americans? Yes. We may have still faced discrimination at times, but we were Americans in a way that deeply counted. We could vote. We could be part of the quintessentially American ritual.

What animated us then is animating us now. Thousands of Jews across the nation, in our organization and others, in synagogues and on campuses, are joining the fight to pass this updated Voting Right Act through Congress this year.

Because we understand this is a real problem, right here and right now. North Carolina is one example. Just a month after the Supreme Court ruling, that state's legislature passed a bill, now law, that slashes early voting, ends third-party voter registration drives, makes it easier for outside groups to intimidate voters in heavily minority precincts, and makes it harder for counties to accommodate elderly voters.

The reasons for these changes may or may not be as nakedly racist as they were fifty years ago. But they are certainly just as cynical and malicious. Many proponents have been clear their motives are based on suppressing votes to win partisan election contests. Regardless, the results of these changes are clear -- they will make it harder for communities of color, women, first-time voters, the elderly, and the poor to cast their vote.

That isn't American. It isn't Jewish. And it isn't right. Our community, for one, will not stand for it.

Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice, is a national organization inspired by Jewish values and the steadfast belief that Jewish Americans, regardless of religious or institutional affiliations, are compelled to create justice and opportunity for Americans.

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