In a U.S. presidential election campaign season in which particularistic Jewish concerns have been almost invisible, American Jews are united – at least for the moment – in their almost universal revulsion at the thought of a Donald Trump presidency. If he is not toppled from within the Republican party, the outcome of Trump’s success coupled with Bernie Sander’s eventual surrender will likely to drive two groups of American Jewish voters – despairing Republicans and disappointed young progressives – into the arms of liberal mainstream Democrats in supporting Hillary Clinton.
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Trump’s appeal to white working and middle class disgruntlement, his embrace of sexism, racism and anti-immigrant feeling, don’t sit well with American Jews. Ironically, Trump’s few comments on Israel have been reasonable – that while he is a committed friend of Israel, he would try to act impartially during negotiations to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, rather than as an Israel-booster dismissive of the Palestinians, in order for those negotiations to have any chance at succeeding – but, unsurprisingly, those very positions have alarmed Jewish Republicans.
I have no pity for the morass Republicans have created for themselves nor for the Jews who gravitated to the Republican Party because of its knee-jerk support for Israeli government policies in general, or for Benjamin Netanyahu in particular. But now that Republicans see that the anti-government obstructionism of the Tea Party – the dangers of Ted Cruz rival those of Trump – can also lead to celebrity no-nothingness and yahoo-ism, the Jewish electorate should refocus on its more natural home - in the Democratic Party.
Jews vote overwhelmingly Democratic in presidential elections. Since Al Smith received an estimated 72% of the Jewish vote in 1928, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt garnered between 82% and 90% in his four presidential victories, Jewish support for the Democratic candidate for President has dipped below 65% only 4 times; in 1988 – 64% for Mike Dukakis; in 1980 – 45% for Jimmy Carter; in 1956 and 1952 – 60% and 64% respectively for Adlai Stevenson. Walter Mondale clocked in right at 65% in 1984.
In each of these cases, the Democratic candidate also lost the election, not because the Jewish vote was so significant, but because the candidate had never earned the trust of the general electorate (Dukakis and Stevenson), had lost its trust (Carter), or was running against a very popular Republican contender with extremely broad support (Ronald Reagan and Dwight D. Eisenhower).
Barack Obama’s Jewish support was higher in his first term – 78% – than in his second – 69% – but that shouldn’t be parsed as the result of the poisonous Obama-Netanyahu relationship. George W. Bush managed to climb from 19% to only 24% of the Jewish vote, despite granting carte blanche to Israel’s government on settlement building and in our shooting wars with Gaza and Lebanon.
Presumably, the liberal Jews who voted Obama have rallied to Hillary Clinton, as they have in her past campaigns and as they did to her husband. Clinton’s liberal on issues that matter to American Jews: women’s right to choose, the separation of church and state, empowering minorities – and is devoted to Israel. She still believes, like most American Jews, that the two-state solution is best for the Jewish people. Jewish financial support for the Democratic candidate will likely be disproportionately high.
I’m guessing – I haven’t seen any data – that the Jewish supporters of Bernie Sanders skew younger, more progressive and universalist, worrying less about Israel’s security and more about social justice and the general welfare of the nation, about America’s underprivileged immigrants and minorities, about Black Lives Matter, and about global warming. Their liberal values make them far more likely to make common cause with other progressives than with AIPAC.
Like Bernie Sanders, they would have felt right at home in the Rothschild Tent Camps of Israel’s 2011 Social Protest, triggered by exorbitant housing costs in Tel Aviv, and led by the Ashkenazi middle class, with the intention of benefiting Israel’s working class as well. But Israel consistently misses the opportunity to bind these young American Jews to its cause through these shared values – because they are not the Israeli government’s values. The only agenda our leaders promote is nationalist chauvinism and the rejection of Palestinian aspirations, excoriating anyone who does not sign on blindly as anti-Semitic.
Sander’s Jewish supporters might also identify with Bernie as an assimilated American, unaffiliated with the organized Jewish community and at the same time proud of being Jewish, but rarely relating to his Jewish identity in public unless someone else mentions it. Someday, these young activists will assume positions of power and the dissonance between their values and the Likud-AIPAC Israel does not bode well for future support.
No one outside the Jewish community has made much of Sanders’ Jewish origins. No less striking is how little heat Sanders has taken for declaring himself a socialist. For his younger followers socialism probably doesn’t carry the baggage of the 20th century; they mean fairness, more equitable opportunity for all Americans, rather than a forcible redistribution of existing wealth. Sanders is hardly Eugene V. Debs, the socialist candidate for President and founder of the Industrial Workers Of the World, who received more than 900,000 votes in the 1920 election, and who was memorialized in the call letters of New York’s Yiddish radio station – WEVD.
The Jewish neocon braintrust will never get behind Hillary: They hate the Clintons, abhor promoters of the two-state path to peace, and despite her steadfast support for Israel, will never forgive Clinton for kissing Suha Arafat. But other Jews, more recent Republican converts who’ve felt stung by the Obama White House’s criticism of Israel and blame only the Palestinians for the lack of peace, will still feel nauseated by Trump’s hate speech and will find little remedial comfort in his offer to be an unbiased mediator in a Mideast deal.
Like Jewish Republicans, Sanders’ supporters will face a dilemma if the choice is Trump or Clinton. Younger white democrats, even women under 40, are having trouble recognizing Clinton’s progressive bona fides – championing women’s rights, health care, equal opportunity – or grasping why African-Americans trust her so much more than any other candidate. It can’t be her age alone, since Sanders is older, so Sanders’ consistent jibes at her ‘establishment’ status have stuck, as well as the scandals that have dogged her career and distracted from her achievements. Bernie supporters see Clinton as tied to Wall Street, while imagining themselves to have moved beyond the compromises that makes liberalism so disappointing to ideological stalwarts.
Fearful of selling out, they won’t go canvassing for Hillary, and more worryingly, they may consider not going to the national polls at all. But against a galvanizing negative figure like Trump, they will, hopefully, swallow hard, and vote with her.
Don Futterman is the Program Director for Israel for the Moriah Fund, a private American Foundation, which works to strengthen democracy and civil society in Israel. He can be heard weekly on TLV1’s The Promised Podcast.