Opening the Discussion of American Jewish Political Conservatism

Article excerpt

It is a truism that American Jews are prototypical liberals. Jewish voting patterns and a considerable body of historical as well as popular literature supports this wider understanding.(1) There is little reason to challenge this view Even though the 90 percent Democratic majorities of the 1940s among Jewish voters have declined somewhat--reaching that figure only in the 1964 election when Lyndon Johnson defeated Barry Goldwater-Jewish support for Democratic presidential candidates has remained consistently high.(2) As a Republican or, perhaps more accurately, a conservative political trend took shape reaching a peak in the two Reagan administrations and the Republican takeover of the House and Senate in 1994, Jews continued to defy it. Despite such clear cut, political patterns, a significant, conservative, Jewish, political tradition indeed exists. The virtual absence of a historical literature on political conservatism in this country has tended to obscure this but more about this in a moment.

At this point, it may be useful to define conservatism as the term is used here. Like such broad characterizations as "liberalism" or "the Left," it consists of many strands, a number of which are at war with one another. Here, it denotes that body of thought that sees the needs of society and the individual best served by emphasizing the right of the individual to follow his or her private desires. The government should interfere as little as possible. The conservative tends to be suspicious not only of government interference in the lives of the citizenry but with the economic mechanisms of the society. Socialism is viewed as a failure and capitalism credited with having provided for the material well being and growing individual freedoms of increasingly larger numbers of people. Conservatives worry, also, about the breakdown of traditional norms or standards in the society as reflected in the growth of crime and violence, the emergence of a drug culture and a new, and destructive, sexual morality they trace to the halcyon days of the New Left and the 60s counterculture. The definition of conservatism can be broadened also to include communitarians who seek to bring governance closer to people (in contrast with "big government)," and religionists striving to broaden the impact of the spiritual in American life.

Many of these concerns, of course, are shared by liberals as well. The fuzziness of the terms liberal and conservative and the evolving perspectives of both groups over time tend to make these distinctions admittedly somewhat arbitrary. This said, this brief and perhaps over simplified definition is useful, I believe, in understanding certain basic, social and political divisions in our society.

As has been suggested, a vast literature exists on the origins and nature of American, Jewish, liberalism. This special issue of American Jewish History is meant to identify and open up a discussion of a hitherto neglected topic: the American, Jewish, political, conservative tradition. I shall attempt to explore here what little is known historically about the subject, touch on some of its highlights, its internal stresses and strains and suggest, at least preliminarily, some areas of further research and study.

A number of historians recently have traced the Jewish conservative tradition to biblical roots and medieval and other commentators. At the heart of this tradition, David G. Dalin suggests, is the concept of self-help. Jewish liberals are correct, he writes, in believing the tradition requires them to care for the poor and the needy, but they have misunderstand the principle of Tzedakah (charity) so central to that tradition and equate it with "the policies and programs of the welfare state."

"Throughout the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century, Dalin reports, "Jewish communal leaders steadfastly opposed any and all government assistance and intervention in Jewish charitable work. …