By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.
As the impeachment proceedings wind down and as the election season begins anew, once again we are introduced to questions about the Jewish vote. Why are Jews liberal? What distinguishes Jewish voters? Are Jews Libertarians? What changes are politically redefining Jews?
Jews are seen as high-profile political actors reflected in their strong voting record, financial support for candidates, causes, and their political activism as candidates and commentators. In the 1970’s Milton Himmelfarb noted “Jews earn like Episcopalians, but vote like Puerto Ricans.” Part of the dilemma in understanding the unique political characteristics of Jewish Americans is bound up in part, by how one defines Jews.
In the recent writings of two prominent political scientists, Kenneth D. Wald, The Foundations of American Jewish Liberalism, and Herbert F. Weisberg, The Politics of American Jews we are introduced to a number of critical insights that help to unpack the Jewish voter. Indeed, there are numerous explanations put forth in connection with the voting patterns of America’s Jews. In this article we will be exploring a number of theories related to Jewish political behavior:
Lawrence Fuchs (1956) posited that Jewish values informed their political behavior. In particular, three ideas, Tzedakah, Tikkun Olam, and a commitment to Torah study, were central to an understanding of their liberal orientation. Based on a number of studies, including Ronald Inglehart (1977) and others, American Jewish social values of equalitarianism and liberalism emerge as significant influencers and are seen as aligned with Jewish prophetic ideals.
A second approach introduced by William Spinrad (1990) suggested that Jewish liberalism was aligned with the socialist influences that had dominated Eastern European Jewish political thought. Under this theoretical model, Jews are continuing to act on these progressive ideas as part of their historically based worldview.
Minority consciousness often generates a political response, especially if Jews fear the rise of anti-Semitism, the political influence of the Christian Right, or orchestrated attacks on the integrity and welfare of the State of Israel (BDS). Peter Medding (1977) argued that self-interests define Jewish behavior. Perceived threats to their security and political interests determine their voting preferences. Katherine Cramer (2016) has suggested that self-interests must be seen as subjective. Specific priorities, she suggests, including economic factors, religious liberty concerns, security, and social acceptance frame core Jewish concerns.
Memory plays a significant component as well in behavioral politics. In recalling Jewish history, Leonard Fein (1988) noted that what the right “had done to them” was offset by what the left had “promised to do for them.” This historical argument had been introduced earlier by Werner Cohn (1958).
Making the case that Jews have thrived in a liberal political environment, Kenneth Wald (2015) suggested: “Jewish political behavior seems consistent with an overriding concern to defend the liberal citizenship regime.” Benjamin Ginsberg (2001) recognized “the benefits they have derived from membership in the liberal democratic coalition.”
Charles Lieberman and Steven Cohen (1997) noted the “selective” character of Jewish liberalism. “The Jewish liberal tilt does not extend to all issue areas.” As other writers have noted, Jewish liberalism often can be seen as moving along a continuum, where at times Jewish views are more embracing of liberal notions than with reference to other concerns, with affirmative action and immigration reflecting two such examples. The basis of Jewish “distinctive liberalism” on social issues, differs according to these authors, from conservative Christians, as most Jews are not bound by conservative religious views on sexuality. “They (Jews) associate conservative morality in the public square with obstacles to their full inclusion in American society.”
Political messaging, according to John Zaller (1992), generally reinforces one’s existing attitudes. This is particularly the case, when operating within a homogenous community, and as such groups share political values. The repetition of ideas merely garners support for one’s existing political beliefs.
Herbert Weisberg (2019) has introduced “triad theory” where Jewish political positions “depend on which collective threats (Israel, economic, or cultural) they consider most serious.” The “politics of tradition” serves as a binding force for many Jews in anchoring their political identity inside the Democratic Party.
When seeking to describe Jewish political behavior, what is particularly evident is the complexity associated in giving definition to how and why Jews perform as they do within the American civic arena. While we know a good deal about locating Jews on the political spectrum, what continues to mystify and interest researchers are the motivational characteristics and social forces that inform and shape the “Jewish vote.”
American Jewish political behavior must not be seen as a “static” idea, as Jews seek to acculturate within this society, their politics reflect their desire to accommodate to the larger culture and to their own shifting identities. Yet, as the data would suggest Jews remain deeply loyal to a set of political values and retain a commitment a number of core self-interest issues.
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 in Los Angeles. His writings can be found on his website, www.thewindreport.com