Rabbi Denounces Krugman New York Times Column as ‘Noxious,’ ‘Bigoted’
“Donald Trump is bad for the Jews,” a headline over an article by New York Times opinion columnist Paul Krugman declared recently.
The column accused Trump of “peddling an anti-Semitic stereotype.” As an authority on antisemitism, Krugman leaves something to be desired; in 2003, the executive director of the American Jewish Committee, David Harris, faulted Krugman for a Times column that “rationalized the hateful anti-Semitic remarks of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia.” Krugman had blamed President George W. Bush for Mahathir’s antisemitism, but, as Harris noted, and as The New York Sun had also observed, “Mahathir has held this view for years, long before the Bush administration, seen by Mr. Krugman as contributing to the problem, came to power.”
This latest effort by Krugman is comical in many ways, not least because it concludes with a sentence that says, “most of my ethnic group, I believe, understands that Trump is bad for the Jews, whatever tax bracket we happen to be in.”
Note that Krugman is talking about Jews as an “ethnic group,” rather than as a religion. This is pretty funny, because in the days after the Krugman column was published, there was a huge Twitter freakout about a Times tweet clumsily reporting that Trump planned to “define Judaism as a nationality, not just a religion.” (The Times article itself, a scoop, was more carefully phrased.) Somehow, when Krugman defined Jews as an “ethnic group” rather than as a religion, the uproar was mostly absent.
A more interesting and subtle aspect of the Krugman column is his claim that “American Jews are much more liberal than you might expect given their economic situation.” Krugman elaborates that claim by writing, “you might expect American Jews, who are in fact considerably more affluent than the average, to lean right. But they don’t. In fact, only 17 percent of them voted Republican last year.”
The expectation that economic situation alone dictates voting may neatly fit the assumptions of the Marxist readers Krugman imagines as his audience, but reality is more complicated than that.
There are a whole series of variables — frequency of religious service attendance, urban or rural residence, regional geography, education level, age — that influence voting behavior. These “confounding variables,” as social scientists call them, make it more difficult to argue that Jews are more liberal voters than are other otherwise similar largely secular US voters who live in places such as New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, South Florida, Boston and other metropolitan regions in which there are large populations of American Jews.
Now, one can argue that Jews choose to live in such places because they want to be with fellow liberals and live under liberal regimes. Or one can argue that Jews have been influenced by their liberal surroundings. But scratch the surface of such an analysis, and it’s difficult to argue that Jews are as left-leaning as Krugman’s “only 17 percent” number suggests.
Exit polls are suspect because people do not always tell the truth to exit pollsters and because Jews are such a small percentage of the overall population that they can be hard to sample accurately. But the conventional wisdom, probably accurate, is that Jewish voters have helped to elect Mayor Giuliani in New York City, Governor Pataki in New York State, Governor Jeb Bush in Florida, Governors Weld and Baker in Massachusetts. These politicians are all centrist-to-liberal Republicans but are centrist-to-conservative on the overall American political spectrum. There are pockets of the Jewish population — Orthodox Jewish men, immigrants from the former Soviet Union — that lean even more predictably conservative.
There’s yet another problem some have identified with the Krugman column. Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, not a partisan flamethrower by any stretch, described it as a “noxious statement from @paulkrugman — so if you don’t like the policies of the Netanyahu government then Judaism is a religion of repression. A bigoted leap that would no doubt be welcome on many college campuses.”
All of which is a long way of saying that Krugman is no more reliable an authority on American Jewish politics than he is on antisemitism. Even his definition of the Jews as “my ethnic group” is suspect and poorly worded; my trusted Webster’s Second Unabridged Dictionary lists as the primary definition of ethnic “heathen; pagan; pertaining to groups neither Christian nor Jewish.”
Ira Stoll was managing editor of The Forward and North American editor of The Jerusalem Post. More of his media critique, a regular Algemeiner feature, can be found here.