Whither The Jewish Vote?

Be careful in your relations with the government; for they draw no man close to themselves except for their own interests. They appear as friends when it is to their advantage, but they do not stand by a man in his time of stress (M. Avot 2:3).

Despite being a demographic minority in America, Jews seemingly wield a disproportionate influence in American politics such that the “Jewish Vote” becomes an annual topic of interest. Politicians are concerned with this minority that both Democrats and Republicans equally compete for the “pro-Israel” label, and any missteps must be swiftly addressed. There has been some recent discussion as to the nature, significance, and future of the Jewish vote specifically mostly focusing on party affiliation and voting patterns. Today on YUTOPIA we will be reconsidering if partisanship is really the ideal context for defining the Jewish vote.

Before the 2004 election Professor Jonathan Sarna explained why the Jewish vote is so important:

First, Jews are known for participating actively in civic affairs. They vote with their pocketbooks before Election Day, contributing heavily to political campaigns, and they vote in reliable numbers on election day, with as many as 80 percent of eligible Jewish voters turning out at the polls. In a close election where both money and votes count heavily, a small number of Jews can make a very large difference.

Second, Jews are geographically concentrated. Some 85 percent of them live in just 20 metropolitan areas. Winning votes in those areas is critical to any presidential candidate’s election prospects. In 2004, even a small shift of Jewish votes to the Republican Party in states like Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania could spell the difference between a clear Electoral College majority for Bush and another election cliffhanger.

These two explanations are well established and unlikely to change drastically in the future and certainly account for part of the Jewish influence. Regarding the 2004 election, Sarna added that despite a long history of Jews voting Democratic “pundits believe that the Jewish vote is up for grabs.” Sarna attributed this perception to social, economic and ideological shifts both within the Jewish community and the general political discourse which would make Republican policies more appealing to the Jewish community. But whereas Sarna focuses on Republican campaigning efforts, the perceived vulnerability of the Jewish Democratic support has had a greater impact on the Jewish community itself. Instead of the politicians competing for the Jewish vote, partisan Jews are actively recruiting internally for members for their respective parties.

The most recent contention between the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) and the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) is on just how much of the Jewish vote is going to their respective parties. While the total is still overwhelmingly Democratic, the RJC claims the Jewish vote for this past election was 26.4% Republican, while the NJDC puts the number at only 12% Republican. Then there are the arguments as to the future of the Democratic majority as the older committed Jewish Democrats are replaced by younger potential Republicans.1

But while the bean counting could be dismissed as presumptuous posturing, this recent election has also seen a rise in aggressive ideological campaigning as well. The RJC in particular launched an intense campaign portraying the Democrats as being anti-Israel or anti-Semitic, specifically targeting Joe Lieberman’s loss in the primary as an indicator that Democratic support for Israel is no longer assured. In this campaign the RJC argues that the Democratic party can no longer be counted on as being pro-Jewish interests, implying that Jews ought to shift their party affiliation to Republican. On the other hand, Town Crier countered with a thorough and systematic rebuttal of the RJC’s advertisements calling the campaign “recklessly destructive.” These types of exchanges demonstrate the increasing partisan nature of Jewish political debates, complete pettiness and acrimony.

Jews have never shied away from debates, but the increasing emphasis on partisanship is troubling and potentially counter productive. The power of the Jewish vote lies in bloc voting; candidates who take positions favorable to the Jewish community would be rewarded with more votes come election time. If the Jewish vote becomes based in partisanship rather than policy, then the issues which matter to Jews would become irrelevant. The party which attracts the most Jews could stay the course knowing the Jews would be on its side while the opposition could easier disregard Jewish interests, since in the immortal words of James Baker, “they didn’t vote for us anyway.”

Furthermore, partisanship risks betraying politicians who have staunchly supported Jewish interests. Consider for moment Chuck Schumer’s victory over Al D’Amato.

Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) argued that when both parties are equally strong supporters of Israel, Jewish voters will side with Democrats on the remaining issues.
Ackerman cited the 1998 defeat of Sen. Al D’Amato (R-N.Y.) by then-Rep. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) as proof that Jews vote Democratic on issues when the Israel question is neutralized.
“No one was stronger on support for Israel than D’Amato, but he lost because the other candidate was equally strong on Israel,” said Ackerman. “You have to be as strong as them on Israel, and then you win. The tie goes to the Democrat.”

There have been few senators who have defended Jewish interests to the extent of Al D’Amato,2 a fact which even the Democrats acknowledged. Yet the mere perception of equality on Israel negated a long voting record.

In the short term, D’Amato’s loss had little repercussions among Republicans, but when D’Amato was defeated Israel still enjoyed a privileged position in American politics. In fact for the most of Israel’s existance, government officials had generally been reluctant to criticize Israel or risk being labeled as anti-semitic. Today’s politics are more nuanced with post-modern moral relativism such that “terrorism” is a matter of perspective and it is simply chic to root for the underdog. It is possible D’Amato would continue to support Israel as adamantly in today’s senate. But if the Jews would vote Democratic regardless, he would have no political reason to continue to do so. The Jewish community cannot expect politicians to vote their conscience on matters of policy when they themselves will vote down party lines.

Another concern with Jewish partisanship is in determining who sets Jewish policy. Even internally, there is a great deal of confusion as to what it means to “support Israel.” But who would be the ones defining the agenda? Ideally, however such decisions would be made, they would be done within the Jewish communities and the Jews would vote accordingly. But if partisanship trumps policy, then conceivably the community would be outsourcing its agenda to be defined by the party. Meaning, Jews wouldn’t be voting Democratic because their policies are better for Israel, but would assume that the Democrats are better for Israel simply because they are Democrats. Jewish interests could easily become secondary to or dependant on the party’s national agenda.3
I was recently part of a conference call with the NJDC with bloggers from Kesher Talk, The Philadelphia Jewish Voice, Last Best Place and Jewish Current Issues. I noticed that the DNJC consistently referred to the Democratic success as “we” indicating complete identification with the party. This is of course understandable given the nature of the NJDC. But if the radical militant left wing gains ground in the Democratic party, which affiliation would take precedence?

Finally, excessive partisanship may aggravate the divisiveness of an already fractured Jewish community. Elections necessarily focus on the differences in our society not just from a perspective of policy, but of fundamental ideology. The debates over the war on terror, the economy, are not isolated issues but part of a comprehensive worldview about how society ought to function. The Jewish community already has its share of ideological debates in the area of theology, and as it is partisanship may be splitting down religious lines with the Orthodox leaning Republican. The religious infighting is already ugly, and given the rise in negative campaigning, increased partisanship cannot be helpful for the health of the Jewish community at large.

I believe the Jewish community can learn from the experiences of David Kuo. As the former Deputy Director of President Bush’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, the evangelical Kuo saw first hand the corrupting relationship between politics and religion. But for as much as Kuo criticized the administrations political duplicity, he also challenges his own religious community:

I longed for the day the right political leaders would arrive, govern morally, eloquently profess their Christian faith, and return America to greatness,” he writes. “Now I know better. I have seen what happens when well-meaning Christians are seduced into thinking deliverance can come from the Oval Office, a Supreme Court chamber, or the floor of the United States Congress. They are … tempted to turn a mission field (politics) into a battlefield, leaving the impression Jesus’ main goal was advancing a particular policy agenda.

Specifically, Kuo laments the Evangelical’s loss of priorities.

I am disappointed that among white evangelicals, more than 70 percent of them still went for Republicans. I’m concerned that evangelical Christians still seem more interested in advancing a political agenda than advancing the good news of Jesus Christ.

Following Kuo’s experiences, it is important for the Jewish community to reconsider its priorities and mission and then proceed with its implementation. I would never make such a radical suggestion that Jews should come to an agreement on policies, but partisanship and allure of political power can easily distort the most noble of intentions. If the Jewish community is committed to its religious mission then it must not sell out for short-term political gains – regardless of party affiliation – but stay committed to its own principles and values defined internally as genuinely being the best course of action.

There was an old joke that Jews were so insular that all assessments could be summed up by answering the simple question, “Is it good for the Jews?” But with the increasing partisanship, the new joke is that no one seems to be asking the question.

1. The validity and usefulness of statistical surveys is often a matter of methodology. Since politics carries such a great deal of emotion, there seems to me to be a greater likelyhood of latent or overt bias creeping in to produce results or interpretations more in line with a particular agenda. This is especially complicated when surveys are conducted by those with political affiliations. For example, the comprehensive Solomon Project 2004 (PDF) was administered by Ira Forman as the research director, the Executive Director of the NJDC. I am in no way implying that there is any impropriety or dishonesty, only that Republicans will likely have their own spin on the data. Of course, why this data is considered important is another discussion.
2. Not just on Israel, but also for helping Holocaust survivors fight the Swiss banks.
3. For example, the Jewish vote abandoning Joe Lieberman in the primary.

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  1. Shmilda
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