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August 30, 2010 9:15 pm

The Politics of Judaism

avatar by Morgan P. Muchnick

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President George W. Bush meets with Jewish leaders. Photo: Eric Draper.

As a Jewish Republican, I often meet non-Jewish Republicans who do not understand why Jewish voters continue to back the Democratic Party when it has abandoned its strong support of Israel, while at the same time the Republican Party has unapologetically stood by Israel.  I share my fellow Republicans’ frustration at this lack of electoral progress. However, there are some encouraging signs that the GOP might finally be able to shake its brand’s stigma among Jewish voters.  If so, the likelihood of GOP electoral success in states with significant Jewish populations, such as Ohio, Florida and California, will be greatly enhanced.

As a Jew raised in Southern California, I took as an article of faith that “Jewish values” are antithetical to Conservatism.  In fact, my mother and uncle were both teachers and active members of their respective teacher’s unions, a dependable bulwark of the Democratic Party.  My first vote for president was for William Jefferson Clinton. In my limited universe, the term Republican was synonymous with rich, mean-spirited bigots. This was all I knew.

This view carried on until the most enlightening period of my life — undergraduate education in America.  At UCLA, I quickly was introduced to the radical liberalism of academia, on the part of both professors and student activists. The angry upper middle class, mostly white, liberals were upset about many issues, including free trade agreements, environmental issues and the like.  Interestingly, the one issue that unified all leftists within the campus environment was their universal hatred of Israel.  I found this incredibly frustrating, not only because I support Israel, but because of the utter silliness of the liberal groupthink.  Thus began my slow transition toward conservatism.

Although the answer seemed evident to me, I had to ask myself: Why would the Jewish Community support a political movement like the left and its manifestation in the United States — the Democratic Party — when logically Jews should be more supportive of the GOP?  Sadly, there is no one answer that would allow for an easy GOP electoral strategy.  The phrase “Tikkun Olam,” or “repair the world,” taken from the Talmud, has been a galvanizing mandate for many liberal American Jews, who are ironically the most personally secular.  This emphasis on social activism causes Jews to remain loyal to the Democratic Party despite its lackluster support for, or even open hostility toward, Israel.

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Jewish leftism has its roots in Eastern Europe, from which most of the American Jewish population traces their family origin. Following the wave of Jewish immigration to the United States in the early 1900’s, the newly-minted Americans quickly and enthusiastically adopted the “can-do” self-reliance that defines the American dream.  The new immigrants forged an unusual mix of intellectual socialism, which they knew from Russia and the East, and pragmatic individualism.  Jews in America worked extremely hard and focused like a laser on education.  They did not wait for a government program to advance their place on the socioeconomic ladder.  Rather, they did it for themselves.  This is still true today.  Unfortunately, Jewish Americans, while living like conservatives, vote like liberals.  In short, the Jewish brain is conservative but the Jewish heart is liberal, and far too often Jews think and vote with their heart.  In their heart, it is simply un-Jewish to be a conservative.

The genesis of the Democratic Party’s lock on the Jewish vote can be traced to the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration.  Before FDR, Jewish leftism was nebulous and not directly in line with the mainstream Democratic Party.  In fact, many were active in the now-defunct Socialist Party.  However, FDR’s activist governmental involvement in social welfare, coupled with his bringing the US into WWII and eventually ending the Holocaust, cemented American Jewish politics as synonymous with the Democratic Party.  While the American Jewish community had been leaning left for at least a generation before FDR, the trend became codified during this era.

However, the left in America has changed dramatically from the Democratic Party of the 1940’s – 1960’s.  The party of JFK, Harry Truman, and Scoop Jackson is dead and the party that once stood for spreading democracy and liberty abroad has changed. The current Democratic leadership, embodied by Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and Barack Obama, have very few similarities to the Democrats of that era.

Philosophically, the liberal value system supported the pro-Israel community until 1967, when Israel emerged successful from the Six Day War.  Following Israel’s decisive victory, the Jewish nation emerged as the dominant military power in the region.  Almost overnight, Israel went from a darling of the Left to an oppressive power.  Since 1967, the Jewish community has struggled with this political tension.

This is in direct contrast to the mainstream Republican view that Israel is a free market- driven, modern Democracy, with robust rights for women, homosexuals and minorities, within a sea of totalitarian Islamic and Arab dictatorships.  Does Israel make mistakes as it fights to balance its democratic ideals with realistic national security policies? Sure.  However, as Larry Elder wrote, referring to the recent flotilla issue, “Western countries once again fail to distinguish the arsonist from the firefighter.” This failure to apply an accurate moral compass is far too common among the left, including the current U.S. administration.

American Jews will face a very difficult dilemma this November, and in November 2012.  The Republican Party, rightly, argues that we are spending far too much money on failed social spending that helps very few while exacerbating our crippling national debt. Furthermore, the GOP platform will never call for expanding abortion rights, nor should it.  Unfortunately, a large percentage of American Jews will not be able to overcome their emotional support for these issues. For many Jewish Americans, unfettered access to abortions is elevated to the top of their policy positions when deciding between political candidates.  It is simply a bridge too far for many Jews, especially the older generation and women, to vote for a conservative who might circumscribe abortion access, no matter how modest the restrictions may be, and regardless of how pro-Israel their policy stance.  Not surprisingly, demographic studies show Jewish women and older Jews remain stalwart Democrats.  For many Jews, it comes down to Israel vs. unfettered abortions, and far too many Jews choose abortion.

However, polling data shows that the youngest Jewish voters (18-34) are moving away from the Democratic party at an rapid pace, eschewing their stereotypical role as unquestioning party loyalists.  In addition, Jews donate large amounts of money to the GOP, far larger than their voting numbers would suggest.  At times, such as 1980 when Jews voted for Ronald Reagan at a 39% rate, it looked like the GOP brand was becoming less toxic.  However, more recently George W. Bush was vilified by much of the Jewish community in spite of his unflagging support for Israel.

Recent polls suggest Obama’s support among Jewish voters has fallen by over 30%. This, admittedly, should be taken with a grain of salt, as Obama’s support across most demographic lines has also fallen.  Furthermore, there is a long time between now and 2012.  However, for the first time in my lifetime, there is hope that Jewish voters can no longer be taken for granted by the Democratic Party.  The Jewish vote, in the near term, is still the Democrats’ to lose.  However, if Jewish Republicans continue to make the case to vote Republican, eventually our community will play a historic role in the likely-upcoming GOP wave, starting this November.

Morgan P. Muchnick is a 2001 graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.  He previously served as professional staff to Senator Fred Thompson and as a volunteer for Senator Thompson’s presidential campaign.  In addition, Mr. Muchnick served as chief speechwriter for Daniel Ayalon, former Israeli Ambassador to the United States, and as a policy analyst for various organizations on Capitol Hill.

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