American Jews: Living Republican, Voting Democratic and Not Repentant

American Jewry is virtually a one-party state and all the talk about a drift toward the GOP has little basis in reality. Liberal values are in the Jewish DNA, it seems.


While the Adas Israel Synagogue was hosting the president of the United States last Friday, the right-wing blogosphere went hysterical. Still trying to regain its balance after years of throwing itself against the wall like madmen in a padded room, trying to prove that the president is a foreigner, a white-hating Marxist and radical Muslim anti-Semite, commentators parsed Obama’s speech to death, looking for hints of Israel-bashing.

The fact is, the president gave a very hamish talk, displaying a greater intimacy with Jews and Israel than most of the pro-Israel firebrands of the Republican right, none of whom are likely to know that the plural of kibbutz is kibbutzim or have many Jewish friends with a net worth of less than a billion dollars.

Ostensibly Obama came to Adas Israel to mark Jewish Heritage Month. The real reason was to buttress support among Jewish voters for his administration and for the Democratic Party ahead of the 2016 election. And more than that - Obama is a friend to the Jews and to Israel, and wanted to yet again demonstrate his true feelings amid an onslaught of accusations to the contrary.

Cool to Israel?

The conventional wisdom holds that the Democrats are losing the support of America’s Jews because Obama is perceived to be cool to Israel and even cooler to its prime minister, and is intent on signing a nuclear agreement with Iran, which is nothing less than a mortal danger to Israel’s security.

It is true that Obama pulled in fewer Jewish votes in the 2012 election than he did in 2008 (69% versus 74% or 78%, depending on the survey). A Gallup survey estimated that the percentage of Jews identifying themselves as Democrats or leaning to the party declined from 71% in 2008 before Obama came into office to 61% last year. Those putting themselves in the Republican camp grew from 22% to 29%.

But these numbers should be taken in context. Americans in general have been drifting away from the Democrats, which is not surprising since the starting point of the decline was the end of George W. Bush's eight disastrous years in office during which he led America into two problematic wars and the worst recession since the 1930s. Arguably 2008 was the low water mark for the Republican leadership and from there, it had nowhere to go but up, including its standing with Jews.

By nature, American Jewish support for Democrats has had its ups and downs, ranging from 80% for Bill Clinton in the 1990s to a low of 45% for Jimmy Carter when he ran for re-election in 1980. But overall, Jews are overwhelmingly Democratic because they are overwhelmingly liberal: 49% described themselves that way in a Pew Research Center poll taken last year, versus 21% of the general public. Only 19% called themselves conservative, half the rate for the general public. Obama’s approval rating – including his attitude toward Israel – was much higher among Jews than among Americans as a whole.

The big exception to the rule is Orthodox Jews. They disapprove of Obama’s performance more than Americans in general, although interestingly, are less disapproving of the president than evangelical Christians and Mormons.

Closet Republicans?

The amazing thing about all of this is that by any usual measure, America’s Jews should have become Republicans a long time ago. America’s Jews are among the country’s top income earners and have joined the ranks of the business and political establishment. Going by their economic status, Jews should have long since turned a deaf ear to calls for social justice, racial equality and interventionist government in favor of the status quo in which they have so much invested.

In fact, GOP leaders have been talking about how to win the Jewish at least as far back as 1972, when Richard Nixon was running against the ultra-liberal George McGovern. Although his attitude toward Israel was highly suspect, McGovern took home two-thirds of the Jewish vote (and lost resoundingly to Nixon anyway).

Jews remains loyal to their liberal heritage, and the GOP strategy of focusing on Israel won’t change that, because the great majority of American Jews don’t put Israel at the top of their voting priorities -- certainly not the muscular Israel promoted by Adelson and the Republican right. Most American Jews support a two-state solution and don’t regard the settlements as vital to Israel’s security.

One can’t help but suspect that the GOP’s infatuation with Israel is less about Jewish voters, whom its candidates know won’t support them regardless of how strongly they come out for Israel, and is a lot more about the money of a handful of Jewish billionaires. The Jewish-GOP connection is thin, to say the least.

Moses and gay marriage

A lot of analysts have tried to explain this strange partnership between Jews and liberal values. Some trace it to the radicalism and socialism of eastern European Jews, who, when they arrived at the welcoming shores of America, transmuted it into liberalism. Others note that educated Americans tend to vote Democratic, and since Jews are supremely well educated, they’re simply fitting into demographic.

But very wealthy Jews are liberal, too, which doesn’t fit. It also doesn’t explain why Orthodox Jews have drifted away from the liberal tradition.

There’s an endless debate about whether the Torah, and the Jewish tradition that arose from it, is essentially conservative or liberal in values. Moses, the prophets and the rabbis did not frame themselves in terms of modern political discourse so their words can take on different interpretations. Laws on boundary stones can easily be interpreted as a supporting the sanctity of private property and calls for justice as a defense of gay marriage, for instance.

But the truth is the core of Jewish life as expressed in the Torah and the rabbinic tradition is more in line with liberal values. It acknowledges private property, but it places (often very onerous) restrictions on it and has a lot more to say about a Jew’s obligations to others through charity and other obligations than about his personal autonomy.

Jewish life by its nature is communal. Note the difference between these two founding myths. America was settled by solitary pioneers carving out their homes and farms from the wilderness, an ideal that still informs many Americans’ self-image and explains the GOP ideal of the rough-and-ready, tax-and-regulation-hating entrepreneur. Israel was built by kibbutzim planned communities, and has socialist, communal ideals that remain strong even as the country drifts politically to the right. Israel has plenty or right-wingers when it comes to the settlements and the Palestinians, but it has absolutely no Tea Party favoring smaller government, lower taxes and unbridled free enterprise.

The great majority of American Jews are clueless about Jewish tradition in the sense of having learned it from the sources, but they have imbibed it indirectly, taking it in from their parents, from their peers and from community leaders. The feeling is so strong that it defies their economic self-interest and assimilation -- at least for a generation or two. What will happen after that we’ll see, but in the meantime, Obama and the Democrats need not worry.