Sunday, February 08, 2009

# Posted 11:38 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

WHY DO JEWS VOTE OVERWHELMINGLY DEMOCRATIC? That's the question at the heart of Shmuel Rosner's essay in the new issue of Commentary (subscription required). In 2008, more than 75% of Jews voted for Obama, compared to 53% of all Americans.

Why? First of all, Jewish voters are "less concerned with Israel and its fate than they were in the past", according to recent survey data. More importantly, even though Jewish voters want their candidates to be pro-Israel, their standards for what counts as pro-Israel have become very lax. According to Rosner, "all one has to do to qualify as 'pro-Israel' is not actively agitate for the country’s demise

I respectfully disagree with this hypothesis. To my mind, the overwhelming reason that Americans Jews vote Democratic is their cultural liberalism and their suspicions of evangelicals.

To begin with, I disagree with Rosner's premise that "the GOP can honestly claim it is a far better friend to Israel and the Jewish people than its rival." I think it's certainly fair to say that Republicans are more hawkish than Democrats on Israel, but American Jews have considerably sympathy for the Democrats' approach, an approach often shared by Israel's Labor governments.

In my experience, a good half of American Jews hold Bill Clinton's efforts to negotiate an Israeli-Palestinian peace treaty in high regard. Many of them -- my Republican self included -- wish that Yasser Arafat had cooperated seriously, instead of undermining Clinton's efforts and unleashing a new wave of terrorism. Many American Jews also look back very fondly on the Israeli-Egyptian peace of 1979. Jimmy Carter isn't terribly popular in the Jewish community these days, but there is good reason to be thankful for what he achieved.

In spite of robust Jewish support for American peace initiatives, I don't think this factor alone comes close to explaining why 75% of Jews will vote not just for Obama, but for considerably less impressive Democrats like John Kerry. This is where cultural liberalism comes into play.

In political terms, American Jews are profoundly secular. They are hardliners when it comes to the separation of church and state, because they believe that even the slightest encroachment represents a threat to religious minorities. And what really puts the fear of God into my fellow Jews is the Christian right. From a Jewish perspective, the evangelical agenda amounts to a persistent effort to impose Christian values on the rest of us by making them law. Jews fear that the Christian right is not interested in rational argument because it considers Scripture to be sufficient justification for its political projects.

I believe that Jewish concerns about evangelicals are extremely exaggerated. Yet such concerns are extremely hard to overcome because American Jews tend to have so little contact with evangelicals. In addition, the historical experience of being oppressed by Christians continues to resonate deeply. I'm referring just to severe repression in Europe, but to the ugly prejudice that was widespread in this country even forty years ago. To a certain extent, Americans Jews still live in this past because they have so little first-hand knowledge of today's evangelicals.

One reason that Jews don't interact much with evangelicals is that Jews are overwhelmingly blue-state residents. Although numerous Jews live in swing states like Ohio and Florida, they tend to live in the bluest parts of those states, usually in major metropolitan areas. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if geography explains almost the entire Democratic advantage among Jewish voters. I don't think it would be a hard proposition to test. Just look at the exit poll data and see if Jews voted differently from those in their county or precinct, as opposed to comparing the Jewish vote to the national results.

In the final analysis, I don't think there is much potential for change in Jewish voting patterns. The community's geographical distribution doesn't seem to be changing much. Although the Democratic base (especially the netroots) is much less pro-Israel than the Jewish community, Democratic politicians are just as fervent in their professions of support. I don't expect that to change soon, either.
(1) opinions -- Add your opinion

Any discussion of the Jews and Israel is fraught with landmines. The "self-hating Jew" may be a caricature, but it is also real and fairly common. And anti-zionism is often used as a cover for anti-semitic assertions. It can be difficult to separate the legitimate from the Freudian.

The fear of envangelicals may be part of the Jewish tilt to the left, but a great many Jews are historically culturally left of center. As an embattled minority that often lived in ghettos and had to stick together to survive oppression, Jews have a natural sense of group obligation, to support the poor, for communes, for socialism. Liberalism is a more natural fit for their historical posture.

To some degree, I think conservatism can be attractive to these people, but conservatives have to make a better argument that their vision of government will do more to help more people and conservatives have to be more amenable to establishing a safety net for those who can't make it in a conservative society. (As well as embrace religious freedom for all instead of just for Christians.)

Conservatives may decide they don't want to do that, and that's fair, but they write off much of the Jewish vote no matter how enthusiastically they support Israel.
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