In the wake of the presidential election, American Jews must once again ask a fundamental question that seems to defy both societal trends and a clear resolution: why do Jews overwhelmingly support the Democratic candidate, year after year, election after election?
That is not to say that the Torah conflates with the Republican platform, but rather that the lack of balance in the Jewish world is striking.
This is not something new, but has been the pattern for more than eighty years. (Late-nineteenth century Jews voted primarily for Republicans, being especially fond of Abraham Lincoln.) It was the late sociologist Milton Himmelfarb who several decades ago noted that “Jews earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans,” i.e., they are part of the richest demographic but vote like the (then) poorest.
What continually fascinates is that, like the lure of Pennsylvania to Republican presidential candidates – it seems like it should vote for the Republican but never does – the Jewish vote tantalizes Republicans but never seems to materialize. Based on our race, status, education, employment, etc., Jews should be voting for Republicans but rarely do in significant numbers.
The Jewish vote remains the chimera of the political conservative. For more than eight decades the Jewish vote has averaged 75 percent for the Democrat, rarely deviating more than 5 percent above or below that figure. But until Herbert Hoover’s election in 1928, the Jewish vote fluctuated and was relatively balanced.
It needs to be emphasized that the focus is not on those Jews who are capable of choosing a candidate in either party (as I have done on occasion), but on the significant number of Jews who can never vote for a Republican and will always vote for the Democrat. Their polling booth needs only one lever. It just cannot be that the Democrat is always the superior candidate to the Republican.
In the 2012 election, nearly 70 percent of Jews voted for President Obama, slightly down from the last election (78 percent) but very much in line with other immigrant communities like Hispanics (71 percent) or Asians (73 percent).
But Jews are no longer a predominantly immigrant community, so why do the voting patterns of newcomers, or outsiders to the political system, persist among the Jews, who are in the mainstream of the establishment? And why are Orthodox Jewish voting patterns almost the mirror opposite of the non-Orthodox, with more Orthodox Jews voting for Mitt Romney and, give or take a particular race, for Republicans generally?
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First, Democrats are widely perceived as the party of the poor, the downtrodden and the outcast, and Jews – persecuted for most of our existence – have a natural sympathy for the underdog. As charity is a great virtue (and a fundamental commandment) in Jewish life, Jews especially are drawn to a system that appears charitable on the surface – the redistribution of income from the wealthy to the poor – and government is seen as the vehicle of that charitable distribution.
The weakness in that argument, of course, is that Jews do believe in charity, but primarily as a private endeavor. The tithing obligation, or the dispensing of gifts to the poor in biblical times, were all private ventures, and not publicly coerced.
Notwithstanding that at different times in history the Jewish community itself intervened and assessed wealthy members a sum of money to care for society’s poor, that was always considered a last resort and not particularly efficient. The king never levied taxes to care for the poor, though the religious establishment might. Charity as a private act lends moral perfection to the donor; the same cannot be said for a coercive taxation system that distributes only a small sum of the monies collected to the poor.
(Those who view taxation as a form of charity are certainly welcome to pay the higher tax rate proposed by the administration, which is indeed permissible under federal law and would entirely eliminate the current controversy in Washington about the best means of avoiding the fiscal cliff.)
Of course, it would be unacceptable in a Jewish context to have a permanent impoverished class – multi-generational families of welfare recipients – as it should be in an American context. The trillions of dollars spent since Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society initiated the War on Poverty has in fact exacerbated poverty, not alleviated it, with more poor in both real and proportionate terms today than when the programs started.
It should not be difficult to ascertain why. Handouts degrade the recipient and create a dependency – today called an entitlement – that is not easy to terminate. We know as well that the greatest form of charity under Jewish law is finding a job for someone unemployed, or lending him money so he can start his own business. For the recipient, that is both dignified and effective in the long-term, but for some reason Jews feel better giving someone a fish than teaching him how to fish; perhaps the latter would cut into the market share of the Jewish-owned fish companies, if there were Jewish-owned fish companies. But current policies are demeaning and debilitating to the recipient, even if they satisfy the compassionate emotions of their advocates.
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Second, Jews have been enamored with the Democratic Party since the days of FDR, who nurtured the identity politics that Barack Obama has perfected – appealing to a variety of different groups rather than to Americans as a whole. FDR won a landslide second-term victory in 1936 even though the economy had worsened on his watch (higher unemployment, steep drop in earnings) because he blamed Herbert Hoover for everything (sound familiar?) and patched together a coalition of interest groups – farmers, labor unions, Jews and women – that would be sufficient for victory.
But it is not just that FDR created the modern welfare state; he also cultivated Jewish support. For the first time in U.S. history, an American president surrounded himself with Jews. An unprecedented 15 percent of Roosevelt’s executive appointments were Jews. That shattered the brick wall that the WASP establishment had erected around the levers of power, and forever endeared him to Jews.
Of course, none of that symbolism mattered when the Holocaust came, and FDR did little to help the Jews of Europe and much to thwart immigration, rescue and relief efforts. Indeed, FDR remained a hero to most Jews notwithstanding his pathetic record on Jewish issues – even famously refusing to meet a delegation of rabbis who came in 1943 to plead for assistance to the beleaguered European Jews being systematically exterminated by the Nazis.
That disconnect – between rhetoric and reality – has persisted until today.
Harry Truman was rightly lauded for recognizing the nascent state of Israel in 1948 – after much hesitation – but Thomas E. Dewey, the Republican governor of New York and Truman’s opponent in the 1948 presidential election, was on record even before as supportive of Jewish national rights. JFK openly threatened Israel over its Dimona reactor, LBJ pressured Israel not to open fire in 1967 despite the Arab provocations that led to the Six-Day War, and it is now crystal clear how Jimmy Carter felt about Jews and Israel.
(Others too: Former Israeli diplomat Naphtali Lavie wrote in his memoirs of the stridency and harshness with which then-Vice President Walter Mondale dealt with Israel before and during the Camp David summit, leading Israel’s then-Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan to comment: “Isn’t he supposed to be a friend of Israel? With friends like him, who needs enemies?” Similar backstage accounts elsewhere depict the current vice president, Joe Biden, as antagonistic to Israel during negotiations while he was a senator, despite the public smiles and laughter.)
Conversely, presidents as diverse as Nixon, Reagan and George W. Bush were immensely supportive of Israel, and at critical times. That their records were not “perfect” – whose is, and how would we even define perfect? – and that we can quibble about a policy decision here and there is a cogent reminder to the American-Jewish community that these men were, after all, presidents of the United States, not prime ministers of Israel.
At times, the interests of America and Israel will diverge; that is natural and understandable. But Nixon made historically important decisions (e.g., the re-supply of Israel’s armaments during the worst period of the Yom Kippur War, and over Kissinger’s strong objections) and Reagan and Bush II were preternaturally well-disposed to Jews and Israel.
Nevertheless, the curious love affair between Jews and Democrats that began with FDR has not ended. Today, it is trapped in a time warp. Jews contort themselves like pretzels to try to pretend that today’s Democratic party is the same as the party of yesteryear. But today’s Democrats head governments in which funds are handed down not to assist people short-term but to sew up their votes long-term; the inclusion in the party platform of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and God Himself was roundly booed at the party’s national convention; and polls show that support for Israel among Democrats is well below 50 percent and among Republicans well over 70 percent. Facts are stubborn things.
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That engenders the third reason why Jews remain tenacious Democratic voters. The fact is, few Jewish Democrats vote with Israel as their main concern, or even as a major concern. There are also Jews who, by reasonable standards, can be construed as anti-Israel. They make common cause with Israel’s enemies, support boycott of and divestment from Israel, oppose Jewish settlement in the heartland of Israel and favor the establishment of another Palestinian state, and/or are openly hostile to Israel exercising its right of self-defense – ever, under any circumstances. Some Jews even oppose the Jewish national idea, and think Israel itself is illegitimate.
The one common denominator is that all those Jews vote for the Democratic Party. They are not the only Jews who vote for the Democrat, but all such Jews do vote for the Democrat.
Thus, the fourth reason why most Jews are Democrats – since Israel’s fate is of tangential interest to many – is that they are more aroused by the social agenda than by any other concern, including Israel. Many Jews are obsessed with abortion rights, and see it as a sacrament – an iconic act of freedom and self-expression. They are fanatics about individual rights and freedoms and loathe any constraints on personal behavior. Jews, in fact, seem uniquely intimidated by the so-called threats to these newfound freedoms. And they are in the forefront of transforming traditional society – supporting same-sex marriage, alternative lifestyles, and the abolition of any notion of objective morality. Strange, one might think, because Jews introduced to the world the concept of objective moral norms transmitted to us by the Creator of the universe.
But most Jews are widely estranged from their faith – fifth reason – and do not perceive their Judaism as shaping or influencing their world view, except insofar as they distort the Torah’s values and ideas and assume they correspond to The New York Times editorial page. Most can speak of Jewish values only in the most amorphous terms – and perceive as uniquely Jewish the platitudes (“be a good person”) that are common to every religion. Most have limited exposure to Torah. That is why the Orthodox voting patterns are almost the complete opposite of the non-Orthodox. The closer one is to tradition, the more one will gravitate to conservative ideals. That there are exceptions, of course, only proves the rule.
A sixth reason bores into the credibility of the statistics and raises the great enigma of Jewish life today: How many Jews actually live in the United States? The survey questions are asked with trepidation, because a large percentage of American “Jews” are not Jews according to Jewish law. As we know, a Jew is defined according to tradition as a person born of a Jewish mother or converted according to halacha, Jewish law.
With intermarriage in the non-Orthodox world hovering around 70 percent, how many of the “Jews” counted in these surveys are in fact Jews? For example, the children of non-Jewish mothers are not Jews according to Jewish law, even if they feel Jewish and were bar-mitzvahed. Likewise, the children of Jewish mothers who intermarry are Jews – but are they really representative of Jews in terms of ascertaining a “Jewish” vote – especially since most intermarried children by far are not raised as Jews or educated as Jews?
It might very well be that if we exclude hundreds of thousands of halachic non-Jews from our count as Jews, the differences in voting patterns between Jews and other mainstream groups as revealed by the polls might not be as dramatic. Since it is difficult to count Jews in America, the surveys themselves are suspect. It would explain, though, why support for Israel has dwindled as a major issue for Jewish Democrats.
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Finally, most Jews today are committed secularists who are uncomfortable with any expression of faith in the public domain. The Democratic Party is therefore their natural home, even if American history and politics have been informed by faith from the very founding of the country. The Democrats have moved on from that premise, and in their desire to transform the United States, have disconnected it from those roots.
But those roots should be attracting Jews, if they truly understood their faith. The growing trend of Jews moving to conservative ideas is reflective both of the attractions of tradition and the ongoing disappearance of the secular Jew. It also makes political sense. Jews are marginalized because party professionals realize their votes are not really in play, which limits any leverage Jews might have on the political system.
Despite the gradual move to the right that reflects Jewish population patterns, it is as yet not enough to counter the allure of nostalgia for an idyllic liberal past that really never was and in any event will not be seen again.
About the Author: Rabbi Steven Pruzansky is the spiritual leader of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun of Teaneck, New Jersey, and the author most recently of “Judges for Our Time: Contemporary Lessons from the Book of Shoftim” (Gefen Publishing House, Jerusalem, 2009). His writings and lectures can be found at www.Rabbipruzansky.com.
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