Why the Jewish Vote Swings Toward Obama

Many acquaintances ask why Jews support President Obama in light of his treatment of Israel? Most people that I am familiar with recognize my dedication to Israel’s survival. I am also an unabashed capitalist. I have served as my synagogue’s President and I am presently on the Executive Council of the Board of Trustees. I also serve on the Executive Board of the local Jewish Federation. Generally, Jews have managed as a group to earn in excess of the national median income of $50,000 per household. They have the largest percentage of wage earners making in excess of $100,000. Some would expect the Jewish population to be overwhelmingly pro-business and Republican in party affiliation. However, this is not the case. Why does this incongruity exist?

During the long history of the Jewish people many disruptions have devastated their communities and created historic memories that are indelibly etched into the genetic persona of the present day members. In America the lack of prejudice and assimilation of population into the greater community has resulted in the modern voting trends. Most Jews are registered Democrats who tend to vote with the more liberal candidates. During the great migration (2-2.5,000,000) of Jews at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century most Jews migrated from Eastern Europe (known as Russian, Slavic, or Polish Jewish migration). They brought with them their collective experiences from their ancestors. In this case, the Russian tsars used the Jewish population as scapegoats for the inequities in Russian society. Feudalism ended in the Russian and Polish territories later than in the Western European countries. This left the peasants poor and without any sense of a financial future. Allowing pogroms (government sanctioned attacks) by disenfranchised Russian peasants with the approval of the Russian Orthodox Church kept the smoldering animosities under tap. Eventually this anger was expressed through the Russian revolution and communist takeover of society. Additionally, the early communist leaders encouraged support and participation by Jewish rebels. As with the purging of Leo Trotsky, eventually ancient animosities arose and the Jewish leadership was thrust to the side. Therefore, the socialist memories are those that resonate with positive undertones for American Jews.

As these poor refugees arrived at Ellis Island they sought jobs in lower Manhattan ghettos where they found jobs in the garment industry. These factories treated young girls and women badly. The 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire helped lead to unionization of the industry. Jews participated in this endeavor and rose to the leadership. In the earliest part of the 20th century this became a collective memory. It continued through the unionization of the teachers union in New York City. As Jews migrated to other parts of the country, they took this antipathy toward management with them. This trend would continue throughout the century with Jews supporting the civil rights movement as it moved toward helping to give African Americans greater equality in our nation. This bond between two formerly slave communities (Jews during the Biblical period in Egypt and Blacks until only 150 years ago in these United States) represents a shared experience of inequity. Though most Americans associate Jews with retail businesses, commerce and banking as the owners, this represents the minority of the population. As educational opportunities have afforded Jews professional (in accounting, law, medicine, dentistry teaching, journalism, entertainment, and management) careers, they have in large numbers gravitated away from traditional retail commercial ventures. Liberal or progressive tendencies have been cultural heritage from this experience. Many of the brain trust supporters of FDR were Jews with strong socialist leanings. Such motivated people have risen to higher positions in politics in both parties, but the press has emphasized those within the Democratic Party.

The earliest Jewish immigrants were Spanish or Portuguese Jews escaping religious persecution in Europe during the 1600’s and 1700’s. They numbered only 2500 until the 1700’s and reached 14,000 by 1800’s. Jewish immigration during the mid 18th century came from Western Europe, generally German speaking, which brought the number to about 250,000. These, predominately educated immigrants, escaped the discrimination and war torn countries, so they could leave the schtetls (or walled ghettos). They remembered that the offer of citizenship once came from Napoleon’s proclamations in the early 1800’s, but was halted with the defeat of his revolution. Yet, in France, many reforms remained despite the Restoration. Until the 1800’s most countries forbid Jews from ownership of property. Hence, commerce and banking were among the few careers opened to them. These Jews also created Reform Judaism in Germany as a way of giving the ancient religion a more modern feel and blending into the existing European culture. This religious liberalism helps underlie the willing acceptance of progressive ideology. Today in modern American synagogues, “social justice” underscores many programs. Most Jews support abortion, though orthodox Jews only permit this procedure to save the life of the mother. In 1921-24 immigration laws were changed and by the Great Depression migration of Jews was severely restricted. In the 1970’s thanks to the efforts of Democratic Senator Jackson, many Soviet Jews were allowed to immigrate into our country.

Jews clearly care about Israel. However, this is not their primary affiliation. Further, they have willingly allowed ideology to blur their vision regarding political treatment of Israel’s future. This can be seen as the development of lobbying efforts on behalf of Israel. AIPAC, a traditional entity, has been considered too bellicose and conservative by many liberal Jews. As a result, J Street was created to offer a more peaceful alternative viewpoint. The conflict is significant since they often disagree on issues related to the Palestinians and Islam. In 1968, the Six Day Way was seen as an effort for survival. However, complacency has resulted in a lessened fear for Israel’s survival. Today, most American Jews see Iran as a threat, but don’t expect the mullahs to attack a militarily strong Israeli. This may be foolishness.

In 2009, Norman Podhoretz tried to answer the question, “Why Are Jews Liberals” in his book. He concluded that liberalism does not flow from admonitions of the prophets to care for the community, much as others argued. Progressives have been willing to conflate these ideas, but this is a simplistic analysis. The Me’ah program created by the Hebrew College of Boston (which I attended), detailed the four phases of Jewish history: Biblical or ancient Israelite religion (with redemption provided through a sacrificial Temple) , Rabbinic or Talmudic Judaism (which created the present prayer based religion with redemption through “acts of loving-kindness”), Medieval (with the establishment of legal restraints), and modern era (with new freedoms and the restoration of Israel by non-religious Jews). The complexity of the question as to why Jews are liberal is matched by the conundrum as to how they survived two millennia of Diaspora (loss of homeland), discrimination, and many battles for survival. The most powerful empire two thousand years ago (Rome) destroyed Jerusalem (in 70 CE) but did not survive the Visigoth invasions of the 5th century. No doubt the Jewish vote for Obama which was 78% in 2008 will be lower this year. The principal cause may be the poor state of the economy and not the future of Israel.