The often cited quip that “Jews are the only ethnic group that lives like Episcopalians but votes like Puerto Ricans” is borne out by the analysis provided by Henry L. Feingold in his fascinating book, American Jewish Political Culture and the Liberal Persuasion. The Jewish electorate tends to vote against its own “pocketbook interests” and be committed Democrats and key supporters of liberal causes. Feingold reports that a 1995 study estimated Jewish voting patterns to be “9 to 15 percentage points more liberal than other white ethno-religious groups” after controlling for demographic characteristics.
According to Feingold, Jewish willingness to support and advocate for liberal causes dates back to the very first Jewish settlement in New Amsterdam in 1654. The settlement was composed of Sephardic Jews who had a “distinctly Jewish political voice.” They demanded “equality of status” in their dealings with Governor Peter Stuyvesant despite the fact Stuyvesant characterized Jews as the “deceitful race” and objected to any settlers who were not members of the Dutch Reformed Church.
Feingold does a masterful job in describing the social and historical forces that contribute to shaping the Jewish “liberal persuasion.” The factors include the Jewish commitment to Tikkun Olam, or fixing the world to make it a better place; the biblical injunction to be kind to strangers because we were once “strangers in a strange land;” the sense of being a distinct ethno-religious group eternally subjected to anti-Semitism; a commitment to Jewish equality promulgated in the early nineteenth century in the European Enlightenment and promoted by the German Jewish immigrants; notions of socialism, revolution, and Zionism pervasive in the waves of Eastern European Jewish immigrants; and the wrenching effects of the tragedy of the Shoah. All these factors and more have contributed to the Jewish voter stressing the importance of the role government can play in creating and maintaining a just society. These forces in the Jewish community translate into voting for liberal candidates and causes.
One need not be interested in politics to thoroughly enjoy this book and come away with a greater understanding of Jewish history and factors shaping Jewish political activity. Index, notes.