Opinion

Are U.S. Jews Going to Become Political Orphans?

It's not the danger of an anti-Semitic wave that should worry American Jewry, rather a new reality in which its ties with Israel could be problematic

People mourn the loss of life as they hold a vigil for the victims of Pittsburgh synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S., October 27, 2018.
John Altdorfer/Reuters

The reactions to last month’s massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue have reflected the political tribalism of the United States.

Liberals accused President Donald Trump of creating a political climate that encourages racism and anti-Semitism. The right argued that Trump’s support for Israel makes it ridiculous to accuse him of anti-Semitism and said the focus of concern should be on the anti-Israel trends among the left.

Israelis speculated that spreading anti-Semitism will cause Jews to move to Israel, and perhaps the aliyah of hundreds of thousands of liberals could tilt the political balance of power in Israel in the left’s favor.

But even the biggest pessimists don’t think a wave of anti-Semitism is about to sweep through America. The attitude toward Jews among both the elites and the general public continues to be extremely positive. Moreover, politicians and other public figures harshly condemn any display of anti-Semitism.

Contrary to the impression created by the statistics Jewish organizations have published about the rise in the number of anti-Semitic incidents and the extensive media coverage given to “alt-right” groups (which attract teens who pound computer keyboards from their parents’ homes) – membership in racist organizations in the United States has declined sharply in recent decades.

The Ku Klux Klan had some six million members at its peak in the 20th century; today, it has about 8,000. Leaders of the coalition of white nationalists that had planned to hold a rally in Washington postponed it after realizing that the number of policemen guarding them would be greater than the number of demonstrators.

On one hand, we should be skeptical of the claim by right-wing Jewish activists that Louis Farrakhan – the black Muslim nationalist who voices hatred for Jews – reflects a rise in anti-Semitism, antipathy for Israel and criticism of it on the left, especially among millennials, blacks, Hispanics and people who define themselves as progressives. These activists argue that the distancing of the American left from Israel verges on anti-Israelism and has a connection to anti-Semitism.

However, the other side of this right-wing narrative is that the enthusiastic support for Israel by Trump and Republicans in general is proof that their policies align with the interests of American Jews – which raises the question of why the great majority of those Jews don’t support Trump, and even see him as an existential threat.

But what seems like a paradox turns out to be nothing of the sort when you examine the demographic changes in the United States. The generation whose worldview was formed in the aftermath of World War II – when the trauma of the Holocaust and Israel’s war for existence played a central role in the political and media agenda, and political establishments were controlled by white Christians – is beginning to leave the stage. It is being replaced by a generation whose ties with the Jewish community and attitude toward Israel are more ambivalent.

The aging Democratic Party establishment, which has been American Jews’ political home since the early 20th century, supported liberal values that enabled Jews to reach positions of power and influence in the political system. The Republican Party, in contrast, sought to protect the interests of businessmen both large and small, and never won more than 40 percent of the Jewish vote in any presidential election. But the foreign policies of both parties were still based on America’s active involvement in global affairs, and therefore also in ensuring Israel’s existence.

From this standpoint, it isn’t the danger of a wave of anti-Semitism that ought to worry American Jews, but a new reality in which they could become political orphans and their ties with Israel could become problematic.

The Republican Party is acquiring a more nationalist and theocratic tint. The irony is that the most pro-Israel voters – evangelical Christians, who also constitute that party’s electoral base – challenge the principle, sacred to most American Jews, of separation between church and state.

At the same time, the Democratic Party is becoming the home of black, Hispanic and Muslim activists: They are gradually becoming the electoral base of the party, making it less dependent on support from Jews, whose numbers are shrinking. These and other groups see Israel as a Western outpost in the Third World and are suspicious of it based on the view that it oppresses native-born populations and is supported by the remnants of the white establishment in both U.S. parties.

And here’s another irony: Many young liberal Jews feel at home in the new Democratic Party. And when they have to choose between their commitment to progressive and universal values and their support for Israel, they will probably prefer their black and Hispanic allies to Jews who are ostensibly becoming more nationalist and theocratic.

It’s important to remember that until World War II and the Holocaust involving European Jewry, most American Jews opposed Zionism. Such a process may recur. The Orthodox Jewish minority could continue to place its faith in Israel and support the Republican Party in cooperation with evangelical Christians, while liberal Jews like Bernie Sanders are liable to turn the Democratic Party into a political spearhead of criticism of Israel.

Dr. Leon Hadar is a journalist and commentator on global affairs and a former research fellow at the Cato Institute who teaches political science at American University