Given the attention lavished on American Jewish liberalism, one could sensibly conclude that it ranks alongside Stonehenge and Bigfoot as one of the world’s greatest mysteries. Indeed, the “phenomenon” has inspired countless theses, lectures, surveys, and symposia, not to mention innumerable familial quarrels. Norman Podhoretz, the former longtime editor of Commentary, even dedicated an entire semi-autobiographical book to excoriating the “irrational” political behavior of his co-ethnics/co-religionists: Why Are Jews Liberals?
And, of course, in the months preceding every national election, dozens of articles and essays spring forth, prophesying about the political destiny of American Jewry. With U.S.–Israel relations at an all-time low, the Punditry Express arrived at the station exceptionally early this cycle. Here is merely a taste of what has appeared of late: Seth Lipsky, “How Long before Democrats Lose the Jewish Vote to a Pro-Israel GOP?” (New York Sun, February 4); S. E. Cupp, “Will American Jews Keep Voting Democratic?” (New York Daily News, February 11); Ed Rogers, “Why Don’t Republicans Get More Jewish Votes?” (Washington Post, March 20); Lauri B. Regan, “Are Jews Finally Finding a New Home with the GOP?” (American Thinker, April 23); Steve Sheffey, “Will American Jews Continue to Vote Democratic?” (The Hill, May 14).
Despite the ink spilt, most assessments of the Jewish electorate are flawed because they make at least one of the following errors: 1) mistaking top-level voting shifts for permanent party realignments; 2) neglecting certain sociocultural causes of Jewish political behavior; and 3) overlooking two major hypocrisies that result from Jewish patronage of the Democratic party. (Spoiler alert: The hypocrisies involve neither Israel nor “pocketbooks.”)
First, there has been a lot of fuss about declining Jewish support for the Democratic party over the past seven years. According to an oft-cited Gallup study, 61 percent of American Jews identified themselves as Democratic or leaning Democratic in 2014, down from 71 percent in 2008. But declining Jewish electoral support for the Democratic party does not mean rising Jewish ideological support for the Republican party, let alone for conservatism as a distinct constellation of ideas and principles. That is what the chattering classes have failed to grasp. The 10-percentage-point swing from left to right indicates little more than this: The Obama administration’s posture toward Israel, ranging from aloof to hostile, has irritated Jewish Democrats to the point where some are willing to temporarily break the mold and express their frustration through polls and national elections.
So the GOP should not be busting out the bubbly over a victory in “diversity outreach.” The swing has chiefly been a switch-hit, an adjustment to a repositioning of the players on the diamond. Many of the Jews who crossed over remain discernibly liberal on most, if not all, policy issues. And this must be emphasized: The Republican party’s pick in 2016 might be the most unambiguously pro-Israel and sincerely philo-Semitic presidential candidate in American history, but that will have a minimal effect on the Jewish vote. For Jews, the default mode is “D.” Those Jewish voters who have swung right during the Obama administration will snap back to the left next November as long as the Democrats’ White House seeker is at least slightly more Zionist than Louis Farrakhan.
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The second error impairing evaluations of the Jewish electorate is a tendency to miss certain sociocultural dynamics that pull Jews toward the left. They are regularly missed, I sense, because they are intimately embedded within communal life, and, therefore, their influence is difficult to measure quantitatively. But before addressing those dynamics, it is necessary, for the sake of comparison, to recap what experts and casual politicos alike have already come to correctly identify as sources of Jewish liberalism.
Above all, Jews who lean markedly to the left — and that is a significant segment of Jews — tend to be much like other Americans who lean markedly to the left: educated, secular, and middle- or upper-middle class. Yet there is also a unique historical factor at play: Jews separate past protectors and past persecutors along partisan lines. Lo and behold, the forces that long oppressed European Jews — those associated with church and monarchy — are seen as having been on the right because they defended tradition. Conversely, the forces that promised European Jews civil rights are seen as having been on the left because they embraced the values of the Continental Enlightenment. Perhaps inevitably, many Jews, in concert with many of society’s other marginalized groups, were lured by the latter’s romantic vows to construct a “rational” civilization of equality through the dismantling of the ancien régime’s distinctions based on race, religion, ethnicity, and class.
Eastern European Jewry — far less educated, prosperous, and assimilated than its Western counterpart — was especially enchanted by the Left’s struggle for the poor, the working class, and the vulnerable. And it was Eastern European Jewry that overwhelmingly constituted the mass wave of Jewish immigration to America from 1880 to 1924. Ever since their arrival in the Home of the Brave, Jews have been consistently and disproportionately represented in the leadership and rank-and-file of far-left movements. For example, during the 1930s, around 100,000 Jews joined the American Communist Party, and, at any given time during the decade, half of the Party was Jewish.
That being said, Jewish leftism, particularly since the end of the Second World War, has been middle-of-the-road, or rather “liberal.” “Die velt, yene velt, und Roosevelt” (“This world, the next world, and Roosevelt”) was the famous Yiddish slogan during the Great Depression. The only presidential contest since 1916 in which the Republican candidate bested the Democratic candidate among Jewish voters was in 1920, and that was because the Socialist candidate, Eugene V. Debs, captured 38 percent of the Jewish electorate! (The Democratic candidate, Ohio governor James M. Cox, pulled in a meager 19 percent.)
Make no mistake about it, within American Jewry, leftism has become an heirloom, carefully handed down from one generation to the next.
Make no mistake about it, within American Jewry, leftism has become an heirloom, carefully handed down from one generation to the next. A reluctance to enthusiastically accept it presents the risk of not only familial ostracism, but also communal excommunication like that endured by Baruch Spinoza in 17th-century Amsterdam. My own grandmother, every four years in November, warned: “If you vote Republican, your right hand will wither and fall off!” I did not yield to the threat, and I still have all my limbs.
Those were the conventional, and I would venture to say “safe,” explanations for Jewish liberalism. But they form only part of the picture. I would like to offer some relatively unorthodox explanations distilled from extensive experience within various parts of the American Jewish community. In case it is not evident by now, my lens is trained on “mainstream” American Jewry, the 90 percent of the population that is not “Torah observant,” meaning Orthodox.
In my opinion, Jewish attraction to liberalism flows in part from a basic survival instinct that over time evolved into an emotional yearning. Jews, since the ghetto walls began to crumble during the Age of Reason, estimated that survival would be contingent upon acceptance among the broader populace. For the better part of the past two centuries, acceptance, particularly in Western Europe, was thought to have been subject, first and foremost, to the abandonment of some, if not all, aspects of Jewish identity. Depending upon time and place, the abandonment of Jewish identity — and the Torah as a heavenly document — ranged from modest acculturation to total assimilation. This strategy was, overall, an unmitigated disaster. Take the micro cases of Karl Marx and Alfred Dreyfus and the macro cases of the Soviet Union and the Weimar Republic.
In America, Jews decided that if fully erasing Jewish identity was still not enough to eliminate anti-Semitism, it was time for a novel approach. During the civil-rights era and the rise of identity politics, Jews bet on progressivism, figuring that by loving everyone else, they would cause everyone else to love them forever in return. (Or at least, if times ever got truly hairy again, they would have adequate allies to rush to their defense.)
This approach too necessitated deserting faith in the Torah as divine. For if one believes that the Torah is divine (i.e., not created by man) and that failure to observe its teachings involves eternal repercussions, then one cannot easily support gay marriage or abortion. These are just two examples that show that to unwaveringly stand for the Torah is to inescapably stand against, oppose, and — God forbid — offend others. For Jews who have thirsted to be applauded as “open-minded,” “tolerant,” and “cosmopolitan,” liberalism, to a degree, had to replace Judaism as religion. There is no way to be fully in tune with popular culture and, at the same time, to believe that the Torah is directly, word for word, from the Lord of Hosts.
There are already signs that this contemporary approach of aspiring to please other groups will work to the detriment of Jews. For instance, the relationship forged between Jews and African Americans during the civil-rights movement was rather swiftly shattered. African Americans increasingly viewed Israel as a colonial enterprise after the Jewish state prevailed militarily in 1967. They hurled invectives at Jews during the race riots in American cities in the late 1960s. And they actively excluded Jews from public institutions after securing “local control” (e.g., the Ocean Hill–Brownsville school district in Brooklyn in 1968).
To judge from certain initiatives of the Anti-Defamation League, “the nation’s premiere civil rights/human relations agency,” the American Jewish community seems terribly eager to mend its relationship with the African-American community. The African-American community, however, seems far less inclined to reciprocate. Will people of color, when they become the majority in the United States in 2040, lobby for affirmative action to benefit Jews, who will be less than 2 percent of the population?
The past several years have witnessed an extraordinary manifestation of the Jewish craving for acceptance. Jews now form a significant percentage of the membership and leadership of organizations affiliated with the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement, which ultimately seeks to end the Israeli “occupation.” For the most part, these far-left partisans swear that they are pro-Israel — despite stamping Israel an “apartheid state.” But if human rights are really their paramount concern, then why the obsessive focus on the Jewish state, a country categorized as “free” by Freedom House? Why not instead reprimand one of the several dozen countries explicitly, methodically, and intentionally engaged in crimes against humanity? Because the sanctimonious cocktail of self-flagellation, complete sublimation of self-interest, and devotion to the Palestinians is the only way to prove both to the world and to themselves their absolute universalism. And here we have yet another botched go at acceptance. The Jews of BDS, aiming to heal the wounds of the international polity, have in fact fostered a global setting that is more perilous for Jews of all denominations and political stripes, including the BDS members themselves.
In 1972, Irving Kristol opined that liberalism is like “amateur poetry,” in the sense that it is often “more concerned with the kind of symbolic action that gratifies the passions of the reformer rather than with the efficacy of the reforms themselves.” He was correct — to an extent. Acts of empathy for “neighbors” carried out by those on the left are, notwithstanding avowals to the contrary, usually less than selfless. But the appeal of liberalism is about more than gratifying passions. It is about creating a feeling of importance. And how does one go about creating a feeling of importance? Step 1: Identify a problem. Step 2: Assign oneself the responsibility of fixing the problem.
For many American Jews, the need for the feeling of importance is acute because it is driven not only by a survival instinct and an emotional yearning, but also by a compelling and concise Hebrew mantra: tikkun olam (“repairing the world”). Indeed, for much of American Jewry, the entire world is broken, and it is the community’s distinct moral imperative to repair it. To put things into perspective for those not familiar with the concept of tikkun olam, the two words are for mainstream American Jewry what the two words “hope” and “change” were for progressives in 2008: a clarion call.
Tikkun olam features — among other places within the Jewish canon — in the Aleinu (“it is our duty”), a prayer traditionally recited daily in the morning, afternoon, and evening. Largely unknown to previous generations of Reform and Conservative Jews, tikkun olam is today ubiquitous within the Jewish world, broadcast from the bema (“pulpit”), imparted in Hebrew school, and plastered over traditional and social media. From Boston’s Temple Israel to San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El, it provides the veneer of theological validation for every progressive cause under the sun, from increasing the minimum wage to using alternative energy sources. Through the rose-colored Warby Parker lenses of the local rabbi, subsidizing the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program through electoral support for the Democratic party is now seen as being almost as noble as lending a hand at a soup kitchen.
How did all this happen? Jewish spiritual leaders started freaking out over the rate at which their membership rolls were dropping because of assimilation and declining observance. In an attempt to remain relevant — not to restore Judaism — they decontextualized tikkun olam in order to equate it with the chic notion of “social justice.” (Tikkun olam actually turns up within the phrase “to repair the world under God’s sovereignty.” The second half, referring to the supernatural, has been shed out of secularist convenience.) The rest, as the saying goes, is history.
As for the 613 commandments of the Torah, they have become little more than haunting reminders of dark and dogmatic bygone times. According to the Public Religion Research Institute’s 2012 Jewish Values survey, a paltry 17 percent of American Jews responded that “religious observance” was the “quality most important to Jewish identity.” By the same token, the Pew Research Center’s landmark 2013 study found that 35 percent of American Jews identify with Reform Judaism, which customarily denies that the Torah is the direct word of God, and 30 percent do not identify with any particular denomination. In addition, a scant 13 percent of American Jews claimed that they “understand most or all of the words when they read Hebrew.” There is an old joke that an American Jew touring Israel inquires of a local, “How do you say tikkun olam in Hebrew?”
With theological knowledge and Hebrew language skills so diminished, it is hardly surprising that tikkun olam has been able to plant such sturdy roots. For only those who have studied the Five Books of Moses — leaving aside for the moment the infinitely more erudite Oral Torah written in ancient Aramaic — are equipped to underscore the forgotten caveats of tikkun olam. The Torah, for example, advises that generosity should not be indiscriminate. In Genesis, Lot’s offering of his virgin daughters to the mob in Sodom was considered excessive hospitality. Overtures of kindness, the Torah also instructs, must be reciprocated with initiative. While Exodus teaches that we should help a stranger struggling to unload his donkey, the Oral Torah appends that the stranger must not be twiddling his thumbs. Furthermore, the Jewish sages stipulated that givers must try to envision the short- and long-term effects of their compassion. “Sometimes,” counseled the 18th-century sage Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, “the action in itself appears to be virtuous, but since its consequences are bad, one would be compelled to discard it.”
Alas, Republican Jewish organizations have proven themselves dazzlingly inept at stemming the tide of leftism within the American Jewish community.
Alas, Republican Jewish organizations have proven themselves dazzlingly inept at stemming the tide of leftism within the American Jewish community. What, for the past several decades, has been their grand strategy for bringing Jewish Democrats over to the other side of the aisle? Fixate on international security to the near exclusion of all domestic issues and paint Jewish Democrats as fools and collaborators for not adequately caring for Israel. Besides being notably ineffective, this myopic strategy has also turned attention away from two genuine hypocrisies of Jewish Democrats.
The truth is that Republican Jews who still carp about their co-religionists/co-ethnics casting ballots against their “self-interest” have not come to grips with reality. That reality is that Jewish Democrats have long placed “social justice” before the Jewish homeland. The Public Religion Research Institute’s survey revealed that Israel was the “most important” voting issue for a mere 4 percent of Jews in 2012. Likewise, a J Street poll conducted around the same time showed that only 10 percent of Jews listed Israel as one of their top two “voting issue priorities.” Republican Jews who continue to stress Israel — and just Israel — are far from winning new hearts and minds. They are pushing liberal Jews even further away from the conservative philosophy.
As it happens, these Republican Jews have completed only one half — and it is the easy half — of the evangelical mission. They have spotlighted the defects in the Democratic party, but they have yet to take the next step by building a coherent case for conservatism. Why? Because a lot of them came over from the left themselves. And, crucially, they — unlike some well-known neoconservatives — came over because of an emotional response, as opposed to an intellectual awakening stimulated by, say, Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, and Russell Kirk. Plain and simple, they ditched the Left because they felt that the Left had ditched Jewish interests. (Think George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Jesse Jackson, and Al Sharpton.)
In the greater scheme of things, it is incredibly helpful that Republican Jewish organizations are fighting for Israel. But by reducing “Jewish conservatism” to the survival of the Jewish state, they are rapidly losing touch with Republican Jews not old enough to have witnessed 1967 and 1973 and for whom the defense of Israel is but one of many reasons to side with the right. Also, by this reducing, they have blinded themselves as well as others to the real duplicity of Jewish liberalism, a duplicity that arises from endorsing the perpetual expansion of government and of a broken and undiscriminating welfare system. These endorsements audaciously disregard Jewish history and the nature of Jewish achievement.
For the past century, American Jews have loyally supported the Democratic party — the party predominantly responsible for augmenting government and encroaching on the Second Amendment — in spite of the fact that their ancestors and relatives were slaughtered under fascism and communism, the two forms of totalitarianism. Perhaps even more striking is that Jews loyally supported the Democratic party while simultaneously involving themselves with left-wing institutions and movements that resisted government overreach and corruption.
With labor unions, Jews tussled with a government that coddled robber barons. With Marxist factions, they battled against a government that orchestrated the global capitalist order. With the counterculture, they rebelled against a government that protected a stuffy moral code. With the New Left, they rebuked a government that waged a felonious war in Vietnam. With Occupy Wall Street, they condemned a government that fueled cronyism. Yet always death, taxes, and the Democratic party. In Pew’s study, 72 percent of Jewish Democrats disclosed that they “prefer a bigger government that offers more services.” How quickly we choose to forget.
Jewish liberalism’s other neglected hypocrisy, the funding of a morally insolvent welfare system, derives from either narcissism or, once again, willful memory loss. According to the Jewish Values Survey, 37 percent of Jews “mostly” agreed that “government should do more to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor,” while 27 percent “completely” agreed. Doggedly determined to succeed in America, most Jewish immigrants and their children hurdled every obstacle they encountered without anything resembling permanent government assistance. If Jewish Democrats today have not forgotten their bold lineage, then they have succumbed to “the soft bigotry of low expectations.” For they seem to believe that Jews possess the ability, drive, and intelligence to overcome adverse circumstances, while others lack the agency to control their own fates.
Moving forward, conservative pundits and strategists must dig deeper into Jewish American culture in order to see the Jewish American electorate as it actually exists. Rather than just blasting Jewish Democrats, Jewish Republicans need instead to pose the proactive question, “Why should Jews adhere to conservatism?” (For one answer, it is advisable that they explore the natural affinity between the ethos of the Torah and that of classical liberal thought.) As for Jewish Democrats, they should dispassionately reevaluate whether the outcomes of their public policies affecting the less privileged align with their original intentions. Only then will their urge to repair the world begin to be channeled toward truly effective ends. And only then will tikkun olam itself be tikkuned.
— Jonathan Bronitsky is the founder and managing director of Gradis Group, LLC, a communications firm. His doctoral dissertation in history at the University of Cambridge examined the origins and evolution of neoconservatism. You can follow Jonathan on Twitter @jbronitsky and read his writings at jbronitsky.com.