By EETTA PRINCE-GIBSON NEW YORKExtract from a story in Issue 17, December 8, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Reportclick here.
Following the U.S. presidential elections, the Jewish community probes its internal relationships and future positions
During the presidential campaign, ethnic voting blocs - including the "Jewish vote" - became the focus of political leaders and analysts. And while the voting data are still based on exit polls, which, most experts agree, are notoriously inaccurate, it has already become common wisdom that 78 percent of the Jewish community voted for president-elect Barack Obama. As the campaign machines die down and as the incoming administration's machines rev up, the Jewish community is left with probing questions about its own internal dynamics and its future position vis Ã vis the first Democratic administration in eight years.
Polls taken in July and August showed Obama hovering at a low 62 percent support rate among Jews, the lowest level of support since Jimmy Carter ran for president in 1980. To some, these figures appeared to reinforce the impression that the Jewish community was, slowly but steadily, moving from its traditional support for the Democrats towards the Republican party.
Yet by election night, the figure had jumped to the commonly accepted 78 percent. What happened?
The economy "happened," most would respond. Says Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history and contemporary Jewish life at Brandeis University, "An unbelievable amount of Jewish wealth has been lost - we have not even begun to estimate how much. It is clear that Jews, like others, knew by election time that the economy had failed and blamed the current [Republican] administration for bringing them to this point."
Furthermore, says New York lawyer Menachem Rosensaft, formerly national president of the Labor Alliance and an active Democrat close to the party, as a community of immigrants, Jews have always had a traditional attachment to the Democratic party and social issues. Initially, Jews were concerned about Obama's positions on Israel, but, as the campaign progressed, Rosensaft says, "The community understood rationally that there is little difference between Obama and McCain in terms of Israel - both of them have a track record of solidarity - and so were able to vote on social issues."
Agrees Fred Zeidman, the Republican Party's national vice chair for Jewish Outreach (and a close friend of Menachem Rosensaft, despite their political differences), "We were hopeful for a larger Jewish vote, primarily because of the long history of [Republican candidate John] McCain's support for Israel and the questions regarding Obama's position. But once Obama managed to instill confidence in the Jewish community regarding his support for Israel - even though his advisers are distinctly sympathetic to Palestinian causes - Jews fell into their historical voting pattern, which emphasizes social issues."
Finally, quips Sarna, most Jews were more influenced by the failings of Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin than they were by the efforts of Sarah Silverman, (referring to the American Jewish comedienne who helped to spur "The Great Shlep," an edgy effort to bring young Jews to Florida to convince their ostensibly doubtful - if not overtly racist - grandparents to vote for Obama).
Indeed, says Zeidman, Palin, the deeply conservative, inexperienced and poorly-informed governor of Alaska, "unequivocally affected the vote among Jewish voters. An incredible number of Jews, and especially Jewish women, wouldn't vote for the Republican ticket because of Palin's stands on social issues."
Notes Sarna, "Palin was seen as an indication that the Republicans had moved away from the issues that Jews care about. Her emphasis on attacking the east coast establishment and the left-wing liberal media, her anti-abortion stand and support for guns - all these made Jews very uncomfortable, and the idea that Palin would be a heartbeat away from the presidency sent the Jews back to their traditional moorings."
One of the hallmarks of the Obama campaign was the candidate's ability to attract younger voters and to create new, complex coalitions of activists, including whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans and Jews. For many American Jews, these coalitions provided an opportunity to reconstruct the civil rights and equal opportunity struggles of the 1960s and 1970s, when, for example, Abraham Joshua Heschel and Wolff Kelman marched with Martin Luther King, and to repair the alienation created by the subsequent Black Power and Black nationalist movements.
But one group of Jews is distinctly absent from this new energy: The Orthodox community and, most especially, younger Orthodox voters. According to exit polls, 29 percent of young Jewish voters voted for the Republican party: in contrast, non-Jewish young voters, voted for Obama by a 2:1 margin.
Says Jeff Ballabon, who is affiliated with the Livingston Group lobbying firm and is a leading spokesman for the conservative Jewish community, "Orthodox voters are 'faith and values' voters, and for them, Israel is an issue of faith and values. The vast majority of Orthodox Jews voted Republican because they think that Israel is their greatest priority."
Orthodox Jews in America, Ballabon continues, voted similarly to American Jewish voters now living in Israel. While acknowledging that what unites these voters could be their level of religious observance, Ballabon insists that they are similar because "both groups care about Israel and prove it - by placing Israel at the top of their priorities, whether they live there or not."
Rosensaft counters that "the majority of the Jewish community does consider Israel to be a priority, and to suggest that we don't care about Israel is insulting and wrong. But, at the same time, as American Jews, we don't consider Israel to be our sole priority and we are engaged in a wide spectrum of social concerns. We are certainly not single-issue voters."
Ballabon derisively retorts that "multiple issue voters, who are mostly Democrats, are in fact merely secular humanists, who ignore the fact that anti-Israel and anti-Semitism come largely from the liberal left."
The Orthodox Jewish vote, and especially the younger Orthodox Jewish vote, is becoming increasingly similar to the voting patterns that have historically characterized Christian Evangelical votes and these voters are increasingly emphasizing similar priorities and preferences, including faith-based initiatives and conservative stands on abortion and government intervention.
Rosensaft comments, "Like the Evangelical community, the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community is becoming increasingly insular, towards society in general as well as vis Ã vis the larger Jewish community. They have very clear, binary definitions. A person is either in their world or not, and they do not recognize the possibility of dialogue with other groups, because then they would have to cope with their own precariousness. They have an unspoken bond with the Evangelical community about their resistance to the kinds of broad-based, inclusive coalitions that Obama created, but they are never in partnership with the Evangelicals, who, in turn, view them as quaint and separate, like the Amish."
Indeed, says Jacques Berlinerblau, director of the Program for Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University, "I hear more and more Orthodox Jews talking about being opposed to abortion and being pro-life than ever before - even though strict anti-abortion stands like Sarah Palin's are actually at odds with halakha [Jewish religious law] as I understand it. Abortion was never an obsession with Jews, but as Orthodox Jews become increasingly American and increasingly conservative, they are coming to resemble, in political terms, the Christian Evangelicals."
And the primary reason for this similarity, Berlinerblau continues, is that both the Evangelical and the Orthodox communities feel existentially threatened by "the three-headed barbarian that is crashing at their gates: modernity, liberalism, and secularism."
Indeed, posits Sarna, on a psychological and sociological level, Obama's victory does pose a post-modern threat to the Orthodox sense of Jewish identity.
"By his very nature, Obama - the son of a woman from small town Kansas and a Muslim father from the Kenyan hills, who was raised by his grandmother - is a post-modern man, even a post-racial man. He told the American public that race does not define him, and the American public agreed. His life cuts against the idea of an 'essential identity' - that is, an identity that is fixed and passed on.
"'Identity is destiny' is a post-World War II idea, and it has been debunked for everyone except the Orthodox," Sarna continues. "And while the Orthodox are used to being countercultural, this will have a tremendous impact on the Jewish community."
In Jewish communal life, Sarna predicts, the growing acceptance of mixed, non-essential and individually defined identities will "strengthen the hands of those who want to see a more inclusive, less rigid definition of who belongs to the Jewish community. They will point to the president and say, if he can transcend essentialism, if he can escape identity-as-destiny, then why can't the Jews? And outside of the rigid bounds of the Orthodox community, that will be a tough argument to counter."
In the near future, he continues, this will impact on issues such as intermarriage and conversion. "The discussion of 'who is a Jew' now sounds like the discussions that preceded Obama's redefinitions of identity. And I predict that this will change."
Or at least, some would add, it will change in the short-run. "The Orthodox are a demographic explosion that, in the future, will comprise some 48 percent of the Jewish community and will overtake other Jewish demographics," says Berlinerblau. "And the Orthodox community, while increasingly insular, is embracing the political process. So, in the future, they will flex their muscles and demand to have more influence."
Sarna is confident that the massive Jewish support for Obama "put to rest, once and for all, the idea that the Jewish community, and especially older Jews, are racist or bigoted."
Yet there is ample evidence that in some yeshivas and girls' religious schools, the conviction that Obama would be anti-Israel was bolstered by racial comments. In a critical editorial, Gary Rosenblatt, editor of the New York-based The Jewish Week, wrote that "a spot check of educators, rabbis and other leaders in Orthodox communitiesâ€¦ revealed relative degrees of concernâ€¦ One teacher said she was 'disgusted' to hear a number of students making anti-Muslim and anti-black statementsâ€¦"
"In my school, some teachers said that it was a mitzva to vote for McCain and tried to make students who didn't vote for him feel that they weren't being good Jews because they were 'voting for a Negro,'" a student in 10th grade in a well-regarded, liberal Orthodox school in New York tells The Report, speaking on condition of anonymity. "A lot of kids in my school live in very closed communities. They hardly ever even meet anyone who isn't Jewish, and they certainly don't have any non-Jewish friends. They probably never even met an African American. So they are prejudiced."
Extract from a story in Issue 17, December 8, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Reportclick here.
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