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Can You Be Jewish and Apolitical?

I am just not that interested in politics. Sure, when it comes time to vote I read up and get educated before heading over to the ballot box, but the idea of politics being a year-round, full-time hobby suddenly makes … Read More

By / January 6, 2010

I am just not that interested in politics. Sure, when it comes time to vote I read up and get educated before heading over to the ballot box, but the idea of politics being a year-round, full-time hobby suddenly makes cleaning my apartment look fascinating. At a party, there’s nothing that sends me rushing back to the keg faster than someone opining about their political party of choice and how they’re voting on some appropriations bill. When my newspaper comes on Sunday morning, I toss Sports and Politics in the recycling bin and head straight for Arts and Leisure. Most of the time, I can chalk peoples’ interests and passions up to mere preference – some people like reality TV, some like football, some like reading. But disliking politics – something that affects my life whether I want it to or not – is harder to justify.

In America, a democratic country where people can choose from 20 flavors of toothpaste and at least seven kinds of generic corn chips, voter turnout is usually low, especially in years when there’s not a presidential election. It seems silly that we’d rather cast a ballot for a national office than for a local one who actually makes desicions about what goes on in our neighborhoods. Perhaps it’s a problem of relative ease and affluence – in a country with relative peace and a somewhat steady economy (OK, not lately, but bear with me), we feel secure. Politics in the United States aren’t usually a matter of life and death, perhaps excepting specific referendums on hot-button social issues like California’s Proposition 8 regarding same-sex marriage. But when you see TV coverage of women in Iraq walking for miles and facing possible family discord in order to be able to get their vote counted, you realize that not everyone takes politics for granted.

Awhile ago, I told an Israeli friend that I really loved Etgar Keret’s writing, and my friend (we’ll call him Tal) said that he wouldn’t read Keret’s books because they stood on different ends of the political spectrum. "What do his politics have to do with whether he’s a good writer?" I asked. "His stories aren’t even about politics." But Tal wouldn’t budge. He went into a detailed rant about how Keret’s philosophies seep into his characters’ lives, whether intentionally or unintentionally, and how that bothered Tal so much he couldn’t read further. "I love Byron’s writing even though he was a sexist douche," I said, but Tal wasn’t interested in my literary protestations. "Everything in Israel is political," he said, "even things that aren’t political."

Is my disinterest in politics the result of being a relatively privileged American, a person who lives in a country that isn’t constantly on the brink of attack or war? Maybe. But there are issues I’m passionate about – a woman’s right to choose, stewardship of the environment, gay rights – and I donate time and money to organizations that I think do good work in those fields. But that doesn’t mean I want to talk about it all the freaking time.  When I go out for drinks with friends, I’d much rather discuss everybody’s sex lives or what projects we’re working on than whatever the political issue of the day is. However, many of my Jewish friends don’t feel the same way. For them, politics – specifically related to Israel – is incredibly important. For many, Israel is the number-one issue that influences who they vote for. "Israel will always be an issue as long as people want to bomb it off the map," one friend told me, "so you can’t just not care or pretend it doesn’t matter."

I think part of my reluctance to discuss politics in group settings is that I’m a moderate, and it seems (even though it’s not true) that the only people talking are extremists from one side or the other and that I’ve been burned by a few too many conversations that ended in yelling or insults. When a friend asked me if I supported a two-state solution recently, I said, "I haven’t really made up my mind. I don’t know." She was shocked. "What do you mean you don’t know? You can be for it or against it, but you have to be something."

To be honest, I feel like there are a lot of people out there who are way more knowledgeable and passionate about political issues than I am, and I’d rather listen to experts than spout off about something. If you want to talk about Etgar Keret’s writing, though, I’m totally game.

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