The Pol­i­tics of Amer­i­can Jews

  • Review
By – October 30, 2020

Her­bert F. Weis­berg, a pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of polit­i­cal sci­ence at Ohio State Uni­ver­si­ty, has writ­ten an inci­sive and inter­est­ing analy­sis of one of the great conun­drums of Amer­i­can Jew­ry. For over a half cen­tu­ry, polit­i­cal sci­en­tists, soci­ol­o­gists, and his­to­ri­ans have attempt­ed to explain why — despite their rapid ascent up the eco­nom­ic and social lad­ders — Amer­i­can Jews have remained a left-of-cen­ter vot­ing bloc. (At the same time, oth­er writ­ers have peri­od­i­cal­ly pre­dict­ed an immi­nent right­ward-shift of the Amer­i­can Jew­ish polit­i­cal pro­file, only to be dis­ap­point­ed.) Weisberg’s vol­ume is the lat­est con­tri­bu­tion to this body of lit­er­a­ture; it is a care­ful analy­sis of recent sur­vey research on the response of Jews to a host of polit­i­cal fig­ures and issues includ­ing abor­tion, Israel, immi­gra­tion, affir­ma­tive action, gen­der roles, and gov­ern­ment spending.

The title of Weisberg’s last chap­ter, The Pol­i­tics of Tra­di­tion,” is an apt head­ing, since vot­ing Demo­c­ra­t­ic has long since been the norm for Jews. In 1932, six­ty-eight per­cent of Jews vot­ed for Franklin D. Roo­sevelt and, in 2016, more than three-quar­ters of a cen­tu­ry lat­er, sev­en­ty per­cent of Jews vot­ed for Hillary Clin­ton. This trend, Weis­berg writes, is based on the fact that Jews have pros­pered under the poli­cies and eco­nom­ics of a lib­er­al, plu­ral­is­tic soci­ety[,] and that it is much safer to main­tain their polit­i­cal alle­giances than to take the risks inher­ent in mov­ing to a less-reg­u­lat­ed econ­o­my and to more cul­tur­al­ly con­ser­v­a­tive politics.”

Weis­berg makes use of past expla­na­tions as to why com­mit­ment to the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty has become part of the DNA of Amer­i­can Jews to puz­zle through cur­rent sta­tis­tics. The­o­rists have boiled it down to three things: iden­ti­ty, inter­ests, and val­ues. Keep­ing these in mind, Weis­berg points out, it is not sur­pris­ing that Jews would look askance at a Repub­li­can Par­ty in which evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tians were seek­ing to ele­vate the place of Chris­tian­i­ty with­in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics. Nor is it unusu­al that Jews, who by and large still see them­selves as a vul­ner­a­ble minor­i­ty, would be attract­ed to the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty, which seems more sym­pa­thet­ic to the plight of undoc­u­ment­ed His­pan­ic immigrants.

There is, how­ev­er, a sig­nif­i­cant minor­i­ty of Jew­ish con­ser­v­a­tive vot­ers. Many are from with­in Ortho­dox enclaves in New York and New Jer­sey, or are immi­grants from Israel and Rus­sia. Weis­berg believes that these dis­senters cur­rent­ly com­prise any­where from one-fifth to one-quar­ter of the Jew­ish elec­torate, and that their num­bers could increase. But any sub­stan­tial change will occur quite slow­ly, he says, because lib­er­al pol­i­tics and Demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ti­san­ship have become embed­ded in most Jews’ social iden­ti­ty as Jews.”

Left unstat­ed in Weisberg’s thought­ful analy­sis of the Amer­i­can Jew­ish polit­i­cal pro­file is the sig­nif­i­cance of the top­ic. Is there such a thing as the pol­i­tics of Amer­i­can Jews”? Polling indi­cates that Jew­ish-inter­est issues abroad have been far less impor­tant in deter­min­ing how Jews vote than domes­tic issues, par­tic­u­lar­ly those involv­ing the state of the econ­o­my. And, as the Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion has shrunk per­cent­age-wise in the Unit­ed States, so has the impor­tance of their votes. Jews no longer com­prise key vot­ing blocs in states with a large Jew­ish pres­ence; Flori­da, the quin­tes­sen­tial bat­tle­ground state, is the only excep­tion. This is not to say that Jews are unim­por­tant in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics. While their sig­nif­i­cance in vot­ing has declined, they con­tin­ue to have key roles in fundrais­ing, media, and polit­i­cal advo­ca­cy, but their par­tic­i­pa­tion dif­fers lit­tle from that of oth­er Americans.

Edward Shapiro is pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry emer­i­tus at Seton Hall Uni­ver­si­ty and the author of A Time for Heal­ing: Amer­i­can Jew­ry Since World War II (1992), We Are Many: Reflec­tions on Amer­i­can Jew­ish His­to­ry and Iden­ti­ty (2005), and Crown Heights: Blacks, Jews, and the 1991 Brook­lyn Riot (2006).

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