The Great Jewish Divide: Jews Have Stopped Talking to their Fellow Jews; What It Means for America, Israel and our Jewish Community

By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

There are two “Americas!” Indeed, there most likely are many “Americas” based on how Americans see themselves in relationship to one another and this nation. The 2016 election defined the radical geo-political divide among Clinton and Trump voters. The New York Times would graphically describe this electoral fissure pitting urban enclaves against rural communities/small towns; the former earmarking Clinton’s turf, while the latter depicted “Trump Country.” This scenario denoted that college-educated Americans are in a contest with high-school graduates; middle class professionals waging a battle with working class citizens.

Is there a similar divide that defines Jewish American voters? Most certainly, but the categories and breakdowns would appear to be quite different.

Indeed, there are pockets of “Red State Jews” scattered across small towns situated in the mid-West and South. But there are “Jewish Republicans” in urban areas that in fact make up the most significant base of Jewish Republicanism in this country. With Jewish voters, “the divide” is less geographical and more ideological.

Jewish Republicans Jewish Democrats
Composition: Russians, Persians, Israelis, Orthodox Jews, and a selected group of entrepreneurs along with disillusioned Jewish Democrats comprise the Republican Jewish base. Composition: Middle class Jewish baby boomers, generation X’ers, and millennial voters comprise much of the Democratic Jewish base.
Issues: Maintaining our national security, fighting terrorism and anti-Semitism, and protecting Israel. Issues: America must be seen as a global partner in advancing human rights, fighting terrorism, and promoting peace.
Expectations: Jewish Republicans are hopeful that the new President will fulfill his campaign commitments to Israel, countering Iran, defeating ISIS and pursue his other agenda items designed to restore America’s position as a “winner.” Expectations: While discouraged with the outcomes of the 2016 election, Jewish Democrats are seeking to join with others in resisting efforts to change core policies that would, in their opinion, alter this nation’s focus on promoting a just society.
Financial Support: Jewish Republicans are supporting political candidates and causes that they believe re-enforce the social, economic and political values. Financial Support: Progressive causes and candidates that are committed to advancing social progress and political equality and access; committed to preserving the rights of women and the LGBTQ community.
Israel Factor: Israel’s security is paramount to all other considerations. Israel is a strategic ally of the U.S. and must be supported. Israel Factor: A two state solution is an essential ingredient for peace; Israel must be seen as a democratic and Jewish state.
Orientation: The world is a dangerous place and for Jews and the Jewish State. Having a proven friend in the White House is an essential formula in fighting anti-Semitism. Orientation: A vital, just society is dependent on the political and social inclusion of all Americans. Jewish Americans need to push back against efforts to marginalize minorities and women.

The important point here is that whatever one side believes or supports, it is quite apparent that the other simply does not view these propositions in the same manner. In today’s partisan climate, each side has dismissed the political orientation of the other, at times even questioning its intent.

Just as President Obama was praised by one segment of America’s Jews, currently President Trump is being embraced by another. As a result of these competing perspectives, there are few points of connection between these two distinctive viewpoints.

The political divide speaks to a larger set of questions that Jews need to consider. Six of these core issues are introduced here:

1. Does the liberal Jewish mainstream share any common political ground with its more politically conservative co-religionists? How might we find ways to open such conversations?

2. The political divide around Israel is a central element in the battle over the Jewish future. As American Jews what should be our relationship with the Jewish State? Two different perspectives are driving this debate.

3. American Jewish political conservatives are embracing closer ties between the current administration and Israel’s political establishment, as they seek to advance Israel’s security . Liberal Jews are seeking to push back against the expansion of settlements, promoting a Palestinian-Jewish dialogue, and advancing a human rights agenda as a way to ensure Israel’s long-term security. What, if any, are the common threads here for a shared discussion?

4. Who is permitted to critique Israel? The political right would argue that the prerogative of criticism belongs only to the citizens of the Jewish State; its counterpart, the Jewish progressive community, has argued that Jews across the world are partners in the task of building and defending the State of Israel and as such ought to be able to participate in a conversation concerning the nature and character of the Jewish political enterprise.

5. How do we negotiate the Jewish religious divide? One of the core issues to this division is centered on Jerusalem and the question of the “Kotel.” Will Jews find a way to negotiate shared accommodations in response to their different religious inclinations?

6. Finally, what does it mean to be “Jewish” in a 21st century environment where the scourge of anti-Semitism, racism and ethnic hatred has re-emerged? In light of this uptake in political anti-Semitism, will Jews find common ground in order to unite in this battle? We are reminded that the enemies of the Jewish people do not distinguish between the Jewish left and its counterpoint, the Jewish right.

Little today binds America’s Jews together. Can we even be defined at this point as a community? “Community” implies a set of shared values and common goals. But is there anything that aligns these divergent factions? The underlying question is whether such deeply entrenched political divisions create a problem for our community to achieve its long-term interests?

Friendships have ended over political disagreements, and organizations have been pressured to “take positions” as these battle lines intensify and sharpen. As I have written elsewhere, “Civility and consensus have given way to name-calling and political separation.”

Is this the first time in Jewish history where our community seems fractured? No! In fact, the pathways of Jewish history would suggest that Jews have been constantly in contention with one another. Some have argued that this has been an asset, as contentious debate and controversy has stimulated creative responses, great literature and thoughtful commentaries, as well as significant Jewish heroes and leaders. Others have viewed these divisions with grave concern, judging our historic infighting as being destructive over the centuries to our people’s wellbeing.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks gives special attention to this corrosive issue, when he writes:

“Recent history – the Holocaust, and the sense of involvement that most Jewish throughout the world feel in the fate of Israel – has convinced us that the Jewish destiny is indivisible. We are implicated in the fate of one another. That is the substantive content of our current sense of unity. But it is a unity imposed, as it were, from outside. Neither anti-Semitism nor anti-Zionism, we believe, makes distinctions between Jews. Hence our collective vigilance, activity, and concern. But from within, in terms of its own self-understanding, the Jewish people evinces no answering solidarity. External crisis unites Jews; internal belief divides.”

As this author has noted elsewhere: “Jews have worked across party lines and with those with whom we may have political disagreements in the past in order to achieve what is best for this nation, and we will do so again.” Let the conversation commence!

Steven Windmueller Ph.D., on behalf of the Wind Group, Consulting for the Jewish Future.