Jewish Values and Ethics in Politics at Elected Officials’ Town Hall

It’s rare for a Jewish community the size of Cincinnati to have political representation at the state, local, and federal levels. Recently though, the Jewish Community Relations Council and Cincinnati chapter of the American Jewish Committee brought those leaders – City Councilman Mark Jeffreys, State Rep. Dani Isaacsohn, and Congressman Greg Landsman – together for a town hall at the Mayerson JCC.

“This feels like it is a once-in-a-while and maybe a once-in-a-lifetime type of occasion,” said Rabbi Ari Ballaban, JCRC director. “This isn’t just a town hall where we can talk about politics and policies. This is also you with your community to be viewed as a whole people.”

The JCRC and the AJC organized the “Jewish and Elected” town hall event, where the elected officials spoke about their Jewish identities, how they deal with political polarization, and how they view the challenges to democracy in Ohio.

“I think politics and policy is a translation of values,” said Jeffreys. “For us as individuals living lives rooted in Jewish values means not just [having] our obligation to ourselves, but our obligation to act on issues of injustice and inequality when we see it.” 

For Isaacsohn, the answer was rooted more in Jewish history. “[When I think about my Jewishness] I think about legacy all the time,” he said. “And I think that the history our people have been through, and what it took to get me to Cincinnati [and then] to the Ohio legislature.” 

Landsman said he was rooted in scripture – which for him is written onto his body with a tattoo of Micah 6:8, from the book of Nevi’im (Prophets): “Do Justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your G-d.”

“I think about all the time how I interact with my family, my friends, my community, and as an elected official,” said Landsman. “And to add to what Mark [Jeffreys] mentioned, we pursue a policy that reflects our values: pursuing lovingkindness, and justice.” 

AJC Director Justin Kirschner asked how Democratic politicians stand up to progressive members of their party who seek to “demonize and apply double standards to Israel.”

Landsman emphasized that he tries to build relationships and trust with those he disagrees with, rather than be antagonistic towards them. 

“You sit down and talk through it, and I’ve done that with several of those 11 that voted against that most recent bill,” said Landsman, referring to a House resolution that establishes a special envoy for the Abraham Accords in the state department. The resolution passed 413-13, 11 of the members of congress who voted against the resolution were progressive members of the Democratic party. 

“I’ve been building a relationship with these folks, [like] [Rep. Ilhan] Omar and Representative [Alexandria] Ocasio-Cortez…it goes back to Micah 6:8 – lovingkindness,” he said. “There is a warmth about both of those two, and the progress [I’m trying to make on Israel] is rooted in building those relationships so that ultimately, you can get to a place where somebody sees the world a little bit differently.”

Jeffries agreed with Landsman’s approach and related something that happened after the Cincinnati City Council adopted the IHRA definition of antisemitism in March.

“After we passed [IHRA] I was approached by somebody a day later,” Jeffreys said. “She said, ‘Thank you for passing it, I read through everything…and I didn’t understand the definition [of antisemitism] until now, because I now can recognize it.’ That’s great to see. It is one person, but even that one person can make a difference.”

Isaacsohn also emphasized trust-building. “We know that as fear goes up so does antisemitism, and we need to show them we are proud and good people,” he said.

The officials spoke about the state of democracy. They fielded questions about Issue 1 which would amend the Ohio constitution to make it harder to pass a citizen-sponsored amendment on the election ballot. Landsman spoke about what he views as an “existential” moment for our democracy. 

Many critics of Issue 1 say it is a response to a citizen ballot initiative to place reproductive rights like abortion, and contraception access in particular abortion on the ballot in November. 

“I think Issue 1 is about as cut and dry as it gets,” said Landsman. “It is a very simple question about whether you’re for democracy or against democracy. I’m pro-democracy. [Democracy when voting is] 50% plus one, it just is. It isn’t anything else. Anything else is undemocratic and un-American.” 

He added: “If we lose our democracy, which we will lose a huge piece of if Issue 1 passes…you can rest assured that a whole bunch of other freedoms will be gone, including reproductive freedom.”

Jeffreys and Isaacsohn agreed, noting the current supermajority the Republican party holds in the Ohio state government. 

“I spend a lot of my time in the Super minority, trying to emulate what Greg was talking about, building relationships with Republicans,” Isaacson said. “If we want democratic reforms, if you want minimum wage, reproductive rights, if you want to deal with these issues, the ballot initiative is our best bet.”

Each official also offered advice to any Jews who wanted to run for office. 

“What I would say is, I would say to anyone…whether you’re Jewish or not, is just understand the why,” said Jeffreys.

For Isaacsohn, holding elected office is about being able to make a positive impact on as many people as possible. 

“If you care about helping people, think about all the ways you can impact that issue as an individual and think about how many people you can help in a year or two working as hard as you can, and think how many more people you could help in the office,” he said.

Landsman ended the evening coming back to Micah 6:8, that it is on all of us to protect our democracy. 

“It’s on us to protect and strengthen this democracy,” he said. “It’s going to be a hard and long multi-year fight to get our democracy as strong as possible. I believe that we outnumber those who want to hurt it.”