The Changing Jewish Political Profile

By Friedman, Murray | American Jewish History, September-December 2003 | Go to article overview

The Changing Jewish Political Profile

Friedman, Murray, American Jewish History

The tendency of Jews to support Democratic candidates and liberal ideas is well known. This "liberalism shows no signs of flagging," Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab wrote in 1995, "because Jewish defensive needs, domestic and foreign, have been so congruent with the nature and program of the more liberal party." (1) Among the most recent books to discuss the origins and nature of this subject are Marc Dollinger's Quest for Inclusion: Jews and Liberalism in Modern America (2000) and L. Sandy Maisel's and Ira N. Forman's Jews in American Politics (2001). (2)

Jewish political behavior, however, has been and is becoming more complex than the conventional wisdom suggests. There has been little examination of the Jewish conservative political tradition. More recently, however, a number of political scientists and historians, including Jonathan D. Sarna, David G. Dalin, Jerald S. Auerbach, and the late Charles Liebman have begun to explore this dimension of American Jewish life. Among other origins, these writers trace it to biblical roots and medieval commentators, most especially Maimonides. (3)

Here in this country during the early years of the twentieth century, German Jewish leaders like Jacob Schiff, Louis Marshall, and Julius Rosenwald were conservatives politically. Even the broader body of Jews divided their vote equally in national elections between Republicans and Democrats. In 1916 and 1920, for example, some 45 percent and 43 percent, respectively, voted Republican in presidential elections. Of the eleven Jews elected to the House of Representatives in 1920, save for one Socialist from New York and two urban Democrats, the rest were Republicans. (4)

As is well known, the historic Jewish Democratic breakthrough developed during the Roosevelt and New Deal years. Jews played a prominent role in shaping New Deal social welfare policy, funded and staffed many of the nation's leading civil rights organizations, and were deeply involved in securing passage of postwar anti-discrimination laws. (5)

The years following the war until the early 1960s marked the highwater mark of the Jewish liberal tide. The battle against Nazism had been fought and won, the United Nations created to assure that such devastation would never reoccur, and what many saw as a solid basis laid for social progress was based on liberal ideas and strategies. With Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kennedy signaling a New Frontier and Lyndon Johnson promising a Great Society, Jewish Democratic majorities grew in 1964. And although the Jewish Democratic vote declined somewhat as recently as the 2000 election, former vice president Senator Albert Gore managed to gain the support of more than 80 percent of Jewish voters.

What this article seeks to address is whether a new set of circumstances has emerged which finds Jews moving away from traditional liberal moorings and becoming more conservative. It suggests that such a trend has been underway for some time. At the heart of this shift lies a growing sense of threat that many Jews have come to feel both at home and abroad, coupled with the softening of the image and performance of leading conservative figures. But this is getting ahead of the story.

Historian Michael E. Staub has identified a "crisis of Jewish liberalism" beginning during the postwar years, or what some historians have called the "golden age" of American Jewry. Even as Jews were participating in disproportionate numbers in various civil rights demonstrations and supporting other liberal causes, it was becoming clear there were growing reservations, he writes. The basis of concern grew out of the civil rights revolution coming north, and the uneasiness felt by many Jews about the movement of African Americans into their neighborhoods. These fears were exacerbated by the policy of busing African American children into white neighborhoods to achieve greater desegregation. Staub cites a number of Jewish, civic-agency officials critical of Jews on this score, including the present author's January 1963 essay in the Atlantic Monthly entitled "The White Liberal's Retreat. …

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