Why do US Jews vote Democratic?

The overwhelming majority of American Jews do not buy into the charges that the Democrats and President Barack Obama are "anti-Israel."

Donkey vs Elephant (do not republish (photo credit: Avi Katz)
Donkey vs Elephant (do not republish
(photo credit: Avi Katz)
A SIMPLE GOOGLE INTERNET search about why American Jews vote Democratic reveals mainly articles by neo-cons like Dennis Prager, Norman Podhoretz and even comedian Jackie Mason, all expressing consternation and mystification at the continuing trend, supposedly against Jewish self-interest.
To start answering the question they pose, we need, first of all, to ask who the US Jews are? The overwhelming majority are secular, Reform or Conservative. Only 10 percent are Orthodox. Then we need to look at majority Jewish attitudes to key vote-influencing issues:
1) Core Values: The vast majority believe that their Jewish identity is inspired by humanistic and prophetic traditions of social justice, charity and tikun olam (repairing the world). That’s what led them to be founders of the American trade union movement – think Samuel Gompers, David Dubinsky; the movements for civil and human rights, the free speech movement, the women’s movement – think Betty Friedan, Bella Abzug, Gloria Steinem; the anti-Vietnam War movement – think Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, Dr. Benjamin Spock; and of course the civil rights movement – a pact signed in the blood of Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, alongside James Chaney during the “Freedom Summer” of 1964.
In their view, since Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal in the 1930s, those values have been expressed primarily by the Democratic Party.
2) Religion: American Jews believe that their secure place within American society is guaranteed by the separation of church and state.
Many in the Republican camp tend to blur that separation and advocate considering America a “Christian country,” despite the fact that most of the founding fathers were freethinking deists. Moreover, Evangelical Christians have disproportionate influence in the Republican Party, with their support for Greater Israel, the return of all Jews to the Holy Land and then the Rapture – the return of the savior and the conversion of all Jews to Christianity.
3) Economy: American Jews overwhelmingly support social welfare programs involving government funding, such as Medicare and Medicaid, Unemployment Insurance and, of course, Social Security, while Republicans want to cut, and sometimes even eliminate, those programs.
It has been said that “American Jews earn like Episcopalians, but vote like Puerto Ricans.” Although most American Jews are middle or upper middle class, they are not uniformly wealthy like Sheldon Adelson, Irving Moscowitz and Ron Lauder (all Republicans) and they feel themselves vulnerable to economic fluctuations. Most believe that Republican economic policies contributed to the current crisis.
4) Ethnicity: As Jennifer Rubin, a freelancer for ABC News wrote in a 2007 piece entitled, “Why so few Jews vote Republican,” it has become “a rural, overwhelmingly Christian and Southern party.
It is not populated by urban ethnics who, even if they aren’t Jewish, understand Jews’ cultural references and sensibilities… In short… many Jews say… they don’t sound like us, they don’t talk like us, they don’t understand us.”
When Republican John McCain chose Sarah Palin as his VP candidate, I knew he had lost the 2008 election. There was no chance that retired Jews in Florida, a crucial swing state, would vote for the Christian fundamentalist, bear-shooting Palin.
As we head towards 2012, the leading Republican candidate, Governor Mitch Romney, announced his candidacy in, of all places, a museum named after Henry Ford, one of the arch anti-Semites in American history. Once again a leading Republican failed to understand the Jewish sensibilities.
5) And, finally, Israel: The overwhelming majority of the American Jews do not buy into the charges that the Democrats and President Barack Obama are “anti-Israel.” They know that the military relationship between the US and Israel is stronger than ever, and that the Democrats will stand by Israel and will help it to achieve peace with its neighbors, which is the ultimate Israeli interest.
In any event, Israel is only 7th on the priority list of issues which occupy American Jews when they enter the polling both. According to a 2010 J Street poll, the breakdown of major issues is: the economy – 63%, health care – 31%, deficit and government spending – 18%, Social Security and Medicare – 16%, taxes – 14%, terrorism and national security – 13%, education – 12%, Israel – 7%, environment – 7%, and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – 6%.
In an American Jewish Committee poll in 2008, which asked about one issue Jews would want to hear about from a presidential candidate, the response was: the economy – 62%, health care – 11%, Israel – 3%.
Today there are 29 Democratic Jewish Congressmen, 13 Democratic Jewish Senators, and only one Republican Jewish Congressman. This is not a coincidence.
Prof. Chaim Waxman, an expert on American Jews at the Jerusalem-based Jewish People Policy Institute, says that the question he would pose to those who claim that American Jews vote against their own interests is – who determines those interests? He believes that American Jews vote Democrat because they view the values and interests, which the party represents, to be congruent with their own. •
Hillel Schenker is Vice Chair of Democrats Abroad – Israel.