The political behavior of America’s Jews has been among the greatest anomalies in American political history. In contrast to other ethnic groups which have moved to the right politically as they have ascended the economic and social ladders, Jews have largely remained wedded to the left-of-center politics of their parents and grandparents. Kenneth D. Wald’s provocative book seeks to answer this conundrum — why Jews, one of America’s most affluent and upwardly ethnic groups, have continued to vote against what would appear to be their class interest. Wald is a professor emeritus in political science at the University of Florida, and the stronger parts of his book are derived from the findings of other social scientists rather than his own forays into American Jewish history.
One problem faced by those seeking to explain the relationship between Jews and liberalism is defining liberalism. Wald argues that, “American Jews have attributed their success to political climate steeped in classic liberalism.” The “classic liberalism” of the nineteenth century, which looked askance at activist government, has little in common with twentieth-century liberalism. For the first half of the twentieth century, self-proclaimed liberals focused on such economic objectives as strengthening labor unions and farm cooperatives, advancing social welfare legislation, instituting steeply higher taxes on the wealthy, and increasing the size and scope of the federal government. Since the mid-twentieth century and on, this economic liberalism has been supplemented by a social liberalism, espousing equal treatment of homosexuals, affirmative action in behalf of aggrieved ethnic and racial groups, abortion on demand and other feminists objectives, the strict separation of church and state, and protecting the environment.
Thus, one wonders what Jews mean when they describe themselves as liberals to pollsters. For Wald, it largely involves a commitment to the political values and practices enunciated in the United States Constitution which created a secular state, as well as a concomitant revulsion from a politicized Christianity which has surfaced at various times since 1789, particularly in the 1980s with the appearance of the Christian Right. The prominence of the Christian Right within the Republican Party, he claims, “renewed Jewish fears that the United States was going to be defined in religious terms and that Christian values were going to be implemented in public policy.” Wald is undoubtedly correct that these fears of being marginalized in a Christian America intensified the Jewish commitment to liberalism, but it does not explain the commitment of Jews to economic and social liberalism prior to the 1980s. One suspects that his distaste for the Christian Right influenced his reading of American Jewish history and is responsible for his dismissal of other interpretations of American Jewish politics.
Certainly there are other “foundations” of American Jewish liberalism besides the determination to eliminate all barriers to equal participation in the public sphere. Wald is certainly correct that Jews are attracted to the Democratic Party because they see it as “an advocate of the secular state and classical liberal values.” But they are attracted by the Democratic Party for other reasons as well. It is characteristic of Wald’s approach that there is only a brief mention of Jewish socialists in America and no mention of the importance that socialism played in the lives of many Jewish immigrants from central and eastern Europe. Nor does he mention the socialist Jewish Daily Forward, the most important American Yiddish newspaper and the foreign language newspaper with the largest circulation in American history.
Another problem in explaining the politics of America’s Jews is delineating Jewish “interests.” It is questionable whether Jewish interests can be equated solely with civic equality and the sharp separation of church and state. America’s Jews, Abba Eban once famously quipped, are a people who can’t take “yes” for an answer. Antisemitism and the Holocaust still loom large in their psyches, and their interests encompasses deeply felt emotional concerns derived from centuries of persecution as well as more mundane political matters. It should not be surprising that many Jews continue to see themselves as a potentially beleaguered minority, or that they identify their fate with that of other immigrant, racial, sexual, and economic minorities.