Jewish Political Conservatism: The Emergence of Republican Jews
By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.
Jewish conservative thought has deep roots in the American political tradition. In more recent times particular emphasis has been given to the presence and growth of Jewish Republicans, sparking a renewed discussion of the place of conservative political ideas within contemporary Jewish life and within American society. Today, Jews who are Republicans must be seen as an active component of the Jewish communal story.
Globally, Jews have been operating historically in a conservative political frame. Today Jewish voters in Europe, Israel and elsewhere have demonstrated a higher degree of support for right of center political parties than has been the case within the American context. There is ample evidence as well that conservative political practice defined how Jews understood their place and role in feudal and authoritarian societies in which they would reside during much of their Diaspora historical experience, often aligning themselves with politically entrenched players as a means of securing protection against the rule of the mob.
From the Thirteenth Century, Jews in many countries held the legal status of servi camerae (servants of the royal household), making the feudal monarch or lord their legal protector. As Yosif Hayim Yerushalmi would note a myth would be created framing this Jewish political axiom as a “royal alliance.”
During the Middle Ages Jews would often identify with the power and safety of the government against those social forces that threatened their status and security. In turn they would construct liturgy designed to pray for the wellbeing of public authorities, calling upon God to “bless, guard, protect, help, exalt, magnify, and highly aggrandize” the royal court.
“The prayer’s manifest content is, nevertheless, highly conservative, and it bespeaks the unique and necessary relationship that frequently developed over the years between the Jewish minority and the ruling authorities-a relationship based on the widespread Jewish assumption that “kings, and royal officials generally, are always ardent protectors of the Jews against the attacks of the rabble.”
The Conservative Jewish Journey in America:
With the arrival in 1654 of the first Jewish settlers to New Amsterdam, all indications are that Jews embraced the same traditional, conservative political tactics that had been practiced in Europe. The Dutch West India Company provided a three-part political covenant: “He behaves quietly and legally, gives no offense to his neighbor and does not oppose the government.” The arriving community accepted these conditions, embracing the values of deference, and “as merchants and traders what they prized above all else was security and stability.”
In 1760, Congregation Shearith Israel of New York would observe a day of “General Thanksgiving”. For that occasion a prayer of paying honor to the King George II was offered, demonstrating the loyalty and fidelity of the Jewish community to the British Monarchy. This piece of liturgy would emulate the traditional prayer, referenced above, for the government, with its specific blessing to the king and the royal household. The themes reflected here on the part of colonial Jewry paralleled the same civic values demonstrated by their fellow citizens.
For many of these early American Jews their primary aim was to insure the welfare and security of the new nation. As the German-Jewish immigrant merchant Jonas Phillips put it in his letter to the 1787 Constitutional Convention meeting in Philadelphia, “the Israelites will think themself happy to live under a government where all Religious societies are on an Equal footing.”
Did Jews remain loyal to their “natural conservatism” which characterized much of their historic experience?
“In a highly influential article, published back in 1948, Morris U. Schappes indicated that early American Jews changed their politics, linking themselves with the liberal Jeffersonians in opposition to the conservative Federalists. Late I8th century Federalists, he contended, were not only ‘anti-democratic, anti-immigrant, [and] anti-Negro,’ but ‘antisemitic as well’.”
With the unfolding of the American Revolution, one finds a “divided constituency” among American Jews. Writing on this idea, Historian Jonathan Sarna would note:
“What is certain is that the American Jewish community was politically divided in I800’s: there were staunch liberals…, staunch conservatives…, and not a few Jews whom we can identify as political independents, for they moved back and forth. This pluralism-this diversity of political positions within the Jewish community-is to my mind the most important legacy of the American Revolution.”
Mordecai M. Noah (1785-I851) was possibly the most prominent Jew during the post-Revolutionary era. Noah would propose a colony for Jews (“Ararat”) on Grand Island, New York. He would embrace the views of the Whig Party, using his New York-based newspaper the Evening Star to defend his ideas for a smaller federal government while embracing the rights of the states to manage their affairs. Supporting such notions as self-control, discipline, and “good government”, Noah embraced freedom of religion, attacking those within his political circles who were anti-Catholic and anti-Mormon. On social issues, including slavery, he would write: “The bonds of society must be kept as they now are.” “To emancipate slaves would be to jeopardize the safety of the whole country. ”
Lincoln’s Presidency would generate a strong Jewish Republican following, as his impact would influence national voting patterns, policy options, and social values covering a period of nearly fifty years.
In examining various historians writing on the Jewish political condition during the closing decades of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th, one finds some revealing observations. Writing about Russian Jews in America, George Price in 1893 would offer the following perspective concerning Jews and politics, when he noted that these new American refugees “did not form an independent political party but they divide their allegiance among all of them.” Robert Rockaway reached a similar conclusion in his study of Jewish politics in Detroit, “up to 1914 the Eastern European Jewish immigrants … remained splintered politically and were cultivated by candidates of all political persuasions.”
During the closing decades of the 19th Century and the early periods of the 20th, American Jewish leaders not only voted their passions but also articulated a well-founded conservative political and economic philosophy. The late 1800’s would see a number of Jewish business leaders embracing the notion of “sound money” and a commitment to align the dollar to the gold standard. Jacob H. Schiff (1847-1920), the community’s major philanthropist embraced the Republican Party, as he publicly supported “conservative methods,” even as he feared “social revolution.” A staunch believer in the Puritan tradition and the ‘American dream,’ Schiff lived, according to his biographers, “by a sense of duty and strict morality.”
Louis Marshall (1856-1929), the lawyer who played a central role in the formation of the American Jewish Committee, would invoke a socially conservative orientation in managing the Jewish affairs of this era. Marshall even considered it “unpatriotic” to desert the Republican Party, when in 1912 so many other prominent Jewish leaders, including Jacob Schiff, voted for Woodrow Wilson. “I am absolutely convinced,” he wrote, “that the Republican Party presents the only hope against the onslaught which is now in process against our cherished institutions. ”
Many of the established Jewish leaders of the early 20th century were deeply committed to several key traditional economic principles that aligned their business and financial interests with broader positions of Republicanism. The Party was seen as pro-business, committed to the support of banks and railroads, while also endorsing the gold standard and the imposition of high tariffs as a way to protect American industry.
The Ballot Box and Jewish Candidates:
When reviewing the course of American history, one can identify a number of Jewish Republicans who would be elected to national, state and local positions; these key political figures included:
- Governor Edward S. Salomon (Washington Territory, 1870-1872)
- Senator Joseph Simon (Or. 1898-1903)
- Congressman Julius Kahn (Ca. 1899-1903)
- Congresswoman Florence Prag Kahn (Ca. 1925-1937)
- Senator Jacob Javits (NY. 1956-1980)
- Mayor Edward Zorinsky (Omaha,1973-1976)
- Congressman Ben Gilman, (NY. 1972-2003)
- Congressman Bill Gradison, Jr. (Oh. 1975-1993)
- Senator Warren Rudman (NH. 1980-1993)
- Congresswoman Bobbi Fiedler (Ca. 1980-1986)
- Senator Chic Hecht (Nev. 1983-1989)
- Senator Rudy Boschwitz (Minn. 1978-1991)
- Congressman Dick Zimmer (NJ. 1990-1996)
- Congressman Jon Fox (Pa. 1994-1998)
- Congressman/Former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (Va. 2001-2014)
- Governor Linda Lingle (Hawaii, 2002-2010)
- Senator Norm Coleman (Minn. 2003-2009)
- Congressman Lee Zeldin (NY. 2014- )
Building a Republican Jewish Base:
The basis of Jewish Republicanism was formed around a series of different access points to the GOP. “Embedded” Republicans or sometimes identified as “Red State Jews” reflect those American Jewish families who have a deep connection (rootedness) to a political base. Political scientists have focused on voters who emulate in their political practice the mantra, “being like the Joneses” where specific voting blocs or advocacy groups take on the behaviors and social characteristics of the majoritarian culture or groups that are perceived as “winners” within the society.
Jews have come to their Republicanism based on particular political ideas and values. For some, their rootedness in the GOP can be traced to “family tradition”, where there have been longstanding connections to the party. Yet, for others, their “conversion” to the Republican Party is tied to a specific policy area, possibly linked to their economic philosophy or conceivably aligned to their set of religious or social values (i.e. opposition to gay marriage or disagreement with “abortion on demand”). There is evidence that for others, the Republican position on church-state has evoked a particular commitment to supporting religious and educational initiatives that embrace the notion of the application of religious values and practices to the wellbeing of the social order. And for other Republican Jewish voters their connection to the Party is specially tied to national security concerns and their pro-Israel commitments. For certain advocates their ideological opposition to “big government” has positioned them to support the Republican Party.
The Changing Political Environment:
“…there is some evidence that younger Jews do not hold the same degree of loyalty to the Democratic Party (as their parents) and, as a result, are more likely to register as Independent or Republican. Thus, the Republican Party may have a better chance of picking up (parts of) the Jewish vote in the towns inhabited by young professionals in northern New Jersey than in the retirement communities of southern Florida. While these numbers do not indicate a definitive generational trend, it does appear that both Orthodox Jews and Jews who are from more secular backgrounds tend to vote Republican more frequently than do other Jewish constituencies, clearly for different ideological, political, and cultural reasons.”
Jewish voting patterns are also distinctively different in state and local elections. In larger metropolitan areas with significant Jewish populations, such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Philadelphia, one finds Jewish voting patterns in local and statewide campaigns driven by self-interest with respect to financial, security, and specific public policy concerns. Similarly, the attractiveness of particular candidates may contribute to altered voting patterns. Centrist Republicans in local and state elections, as evidenced in a number of mayoral and state-contested campaigns are often able to attract significant Jewish support.
Two cohort groups within the Jewish community show particularly significant voting patterns. The growing Orthodox community is distinctively Republican and is contributing to the reshaping of political outcomes in some local and state elections. Correspondingly, Jews raised in households with a non-Jewish parent and who identify nominally with Judaism also tend to vote Republican, according to data extracted from various Jewish surveys.
Another essential part of the GOP base, according to The New York Times, are “Blue State Republicans” of whom Jews are becoming increasingly important.
“… the blue-state Republicans still possess the delegates, voters and resources to decide the nomination. In 2012, there were more Romney voters in California than in Texas, and in Chicago’s Cook County than in West Virginia. Mr. Romney won three times as many voters in overwhelmingly Democratic New York City than in Republican-leaning Alaska. Overall, 59 percent of Romney voters in the Republican primaries lived in the states carried by President Obama. Those states hold 50 percent of the delegates to the Republican National Convention, even though they contain just 19 percent of Republican senators. Just 11 percent of House Republicans hail from districts that voted for President Obama.”
Mobilizing Jewish Republicans:
The emergence of the Republican Jewish Coalition (1985) has served to organize and publicize the distinctive voice of the Jewish community within the GOP. The RJC has sought to create a “strong, effective and respected” voice of Jewish Republicans that can influence activities, policies and ideas. The group’s policy platform objectives include a broad array of policy concerns including national security, United States-Israel relations, the Middle East peace process, immigration, energy policy, education, school prayer, affirmative action, crime, taxes, welfare reform, health care, Medicare reform, Social Security reform, and government reform.
The Rise of the Jewish Neo-Conservatives:
The rise of the neo-conservative political camp in the late 1960’s grew out of reaction to the perceived excesses of the political left. Neo-cons saw themselves as liberals disenchanted with the “radical poisons” that had been infecting the Democratic Party during this period. Many felt abandoned by the “New Left” as a result of their attacks on Israel. Similarly, black anti-Semitism in part resulting from the Brownsville-Oceanside (New York City) school controversy of 1968, would deeply divided Jews and blacks.
Some of the core ideas that have framed the neo-con political base can be extracted from both the writings of political philosopher Leo Strauss and former President Woodrow Wilson’s international agenda. The hard line foreign policy perspectives of Democratic Senator Henry (Scoop) Jackson (1912-1983) balanced with his commitment to a domestic social welfare agenda appealed to many within this movement. His political beliefs were characterized by support of civil rights, human rights and safeguarding the environment, but with an equally strong commitment to oppose totalitarianism in general, and communism in particular. The political philosophy of Scoop Jackson represented a particularly significant influence on neoconservative policy and action.
The political framework of the neoconservative camp has been tied to these principles:
- Religion should play an important role in the moral and social fabric of democracy.
- While endorsing the essential features of the civil rights movement, the idea of merit in the minds of neo conservatives needed to be preserved. Therefore, neo conservatives opposed quotas and the affirmative action agenda.
- Whereas many conservatives were seen as isolationists, neoconservatives saw a distinctive and essential role for the United States in the world by advancing democracy and protecting national security and political interests, while providing support for key allies of the United States.
- Joining with conservatives, the neoconservative community embraced a series of policies that include preserving the ownership of property, decentralizing of government, and supporting the prerogatives of religion, the family, the private corporation, and the neighborhood.
The emergence of the neoconservative movement would provide a countervailing political force to Jewish liberalism. Neoconservatives have articulated the case that the Jewish communal interests would be best served by embracing a politics of “cultural nationalism.” Among the early Jewish neo conservatives who helped to frame the philosophical and policy implications of this movement were Norman Podhoretz and his wife, Midge Decter, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Irving Kristol and Charles Krauthammer. Commentary Magazine, whose editor at the time was Podhoretz, would serve as the ideological staging area for advancing the thinking of this constituency.
Neoconservatives have been especially critical of the liberal political agenda in several areas while also arguing that the Jewish community ought to affirm its self-interests, as a litmus test for defining its political interests. Jonah Goldberg would critique Jewish liberalism in the following terms:
“Why are Jews liberal? …The liberalism of American Jews is…what social scientists would call an over determined phenomenon. Some of it has to do with broader social trends that Jews are not immune to. The over-educated often drift toward liberalism out of the arrogance that they’re smart enough to have all the answers. …Secularism is one of the most reliable indices of liberalism and many Jews seem to think that secularism is a religious imperative.”
Republican Jewish Political Behavior:
“In Pew Research surveys conducted since 2000, the partisanship of Jews by religion has shown some variability, but they have always identified with the Democratic Party over the GOP by large margins. Roughly two-thirds of Jews by religion have identified as Democrats or Democratic-leaners over the past decade, and there has never been a year in which support for the Democratic Party has dipped below 62%. “…The percentage of Jews who identified as Republican or leaning Republican grew by 2 points between 2007 and 2014, from 24 percent to 26 percent. Concomitantly, the proportion of Jews who identified as Democrats or leaning Democratic fell from 66 percent in 2007 to 64 percent in 2014.
There has been increasing data to suggest that there has been some movement in this direction among American Jews. To be clear there is no ground swell of conservative political engagement among Jewish voters, yet there has been increasing data covering the past ten years to suggest some movement to the right among American Jews.
The social values proposition has been a central feature connected to a particular wing of the Republican Party. As a result the GOP would historically draw its support from the religious sector to “purge sin from the society.” As a result the party would adopt a social values proposition in opposing alcoholism, slavery, and polygamy.
Among denominational Jews, one finds a significantly higher percentage of Orthodox Jews identifying with the Republican Party:
But while Jews overall are a strongly liberal, Democratic group, there are pockets of conservatism and Republicanism within the Jewish population. Orthodox Jews identify with or lean toward the Republican Party over the Democratic Party by a 57% to 36% margin. And 54% of Orthodox Jews, including 64% of Ultra-Orthodox Jews, consider themselves politically conservative. On these measures (partisanship and ideology), the only other U.S. religious groups that are as conservative and Republican as Orthodox Jews are white evangelical Protestants and Mormons.
Traditional Jews exhibit a distinctive political orientation that is best portrayed by introducing these specific measures:
“Orthodox Jews are more critical of Obama’s handling of these (critical) issues than are other Jews. Roughly one-third of Orthodox Jews approve of the way Obama is handling the nation’s policy toward Israel (36%), 27% approve of the way he is dealing with Iran, and just 22% give Obama positive marks for his handling of the economy.”
As this writer has noted elsewhere:
“The emerging cohort of angry Jewish activists has taken on the political characteristics of “red-state voters.” They have done this through their support of single-issue concerns, a values-based and at times a faith-defined political agenda, and a specific hard line position on American security and military defense issues. These Jewish voters have opted to support candidates who more definitively support their policy views and who in turn question the current state of American democracy and politics. In particular, this group has sought to critique the Obama administration for what it perceives as its less than full support of Israel within the international community.
The divisions that now define American Jewish voting patterns are framed by a number of elements. The presence of a new generation of voters includes a significant Orthodox cohort, along with a growing presence of Russian, Iranian and Israeli activists, who generally reflect a more conservative political bent. An emerging base of support on the right can now be found among male baby boomers (55-64), whose voting patterns have increasingly trended right. This political transition is particularly significant among Jewish voters, as this age-cohort dominates the Jewish population-base. Not only worried about their own economic status, this constituency is deeply concerned by what it sees as eroding support for Israel. These trends have been confirmed by recent polls that show a shift of party loyalties among certain Jewish constituencies.”
Measuring Republican Jewish Financial Clout:
The financial clout of Jewish Republicans ought to be seen as a particular strength and niche of influence within conservative political circles. Jewish supporters are playing a significant role in financing Republican candidates involving both national and state campaigns; in some national races this level of commitment accounts for 25% of the GOP’s fundraising. As with Democrats, once candidates assume a more heightened profile based on national polling and within the electorate, Republican Jewish funders tend to bundle their support to increase their access and leverage. This acceleration of high-end giving is being generated from the Wall Street sector, corporate executives, and from a growing base of Orthodox Jewish interests. There is a strong base of prominent Jewish Republican “funders” including such players as Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, Seth Klarman, Paul Singer, Bernard Marcus, Mel Sembler, Howard Jonas, Henry Kravis, Norman Braman, Gary Erlbaum, and Richard Roberts.
The Contemporary Political Scene:
Prominent journalists and commentators today not only represent the interests of Jewish Republicans but also are seen as ideologues of the broader conservative political agenda. William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary; columnists Charles Krauthammer, Jonah Goldberg, Jennifer Rubin, Michael Medved, and Dennis Prager, and media personalities David Savage and Mark Levin represent but a small sampling of this cadre of commentators who today reflect conservative political opinions. Other prominent Republican Jewish voices on American politics have included Ari Fleischer, former White House Press Secretary; Eliot Abrams, and Ken Mehlman, former Chair of the Republican National Committee.
As America’s Jews move into the 2016 elections, the presence of an organized, embedded Republican Jewish constituency will represent an integral part of the Jewish political story. While Democrats still hold a significant advantage among Jewish voters, the Republican story is one that needs to be both documented and studied. Unpacking the Jewish Republican experience involves these six principles:
- A Jewish conservative historical record as part of this nation’s political story
- The presence of a well-organized Jewish Republican infrastructure
- The financial clout of Jewish Republican activists
- A growing constituency, comprised of a cross-section of Jewish voters
- A significant and influential body of Jewish political thinkers, spokespersons and writers
- The emergence of Jewish Republican candidates for public office
Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles. His 2014 book, “The Quest for Power: A Study in Jewish Political Behavior and Practice” and his articles & blogs examining the 2016 campaign serves as the basis for this piece. For more of his writings, please visit: www.thewindreport.com.