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The Jewish Vote

ISSUE:  Winter 1986

Wake Us When It’s Over is the title of Jack Geymond and Jules Witcover’s recent account of the Reagan landslide of 1984; but perhaps only narcoleptics could have been unaware of one of its most puzzling features—the electoral eccentricity of American Jews. While the president was galvanizing the enthusiasm of every measurable constituency of whites, the most affluent of such ethnic groups—the embodiment of the success story of upward mobility—joined blacks, Chicanos, and welfare recipients in preferring the Democrats’ Walter Mondale. The Jews constitute a surd in the electoral equation that is well worth pondering, especially as the candidates for 1986 and even 1988 can already be observed pressing the flesh in shopping malls and at factory gates. But to explain the oddity of the Jewish ballot requires—perhaps more than anything else— an exploration of the past, if only because the historical imagination so affects such voters themselves.

We begin, with appropriate idiosyncrasy, in Dublin on June 16, 1904. In Barney Kiernan’s tavern, in the century’s most admired novel, Leopold Bloom becomes most explicit about his own membership—however nominal—in “a race . . . that is hated and persecuted . . . . Plundered. Insulted. Persecuted . . . .” When asked whether he is referring to “the new Jerusalem,” Bloom responds: “I’m talking about injustice.” James Joyce’s protagonist is an Everyman, incarnated as a commonplace Jew, who is nevertheless endowed with the insight that “it’s no use . . . . Force, hatred, history, all that. That’s not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it’s the opposite of that that is really life.” But not everybody—whether in Dublin or elsewhere—knows what Bloom knows. In this “Cyclops” episode (the most “political” in the novel), Leopold Bloom asserts that love is “the opposite of hatred” and that it confers upon human existence whatever shred of numinous purpose and redemptive hope it can offer.

This thirst for justice, this desire to terminate a history of hatred, this idiom of moralism can be lifted out of Joyce’s literary context and made to define the special features of the Jewish approach to American politics. To make such a claim hardly implies that those qualities are unique to Jews, who hold no franchise either on the theory or practice of ethics. But what supports such a claim are the comparative method, the historical record, and the data of political science—all of which suggest that Jews are more susceptible than other voters to a vision of human brotherhood, to ideologies and programs that can be packaged in ethical terms, and to politicians who can present themselves as apostles of social justice. More so than other Americans, Jewish voters are inspired by appeals that can be contrived to echo the prophetic assault upon complacency and comfort. How they got that way—how their political subculture was formed—must be placed within the national framework itself.

It used to be said that Jews are just like other Americans— only more so. That paradox remains true, by and large, for the Jews’ sociological profile shapes their political behavior and highlights their moralistic style.

Ever since the 1920 census ratified the location of only a minority of Americans on farms and villages, the United States has been an urban nation. The Jews are more so: more than 95 percent live in a city or its immediate surroundings. Four Jews out of every five reside in only ten population centers. One out of every three Jews still lives in the megalopolis of New York. Like their fellow citizens, they too have been moving to the Sunbelt, without affecting their status as urbanites. Los Angeles has simply replaced Chicago as the second largest concentration of Jews in the United States, as well as in the world (depending on how the suburban configuration of Tel Aviv is calculated). The population shift to south Florida is perhaps best conveyed by a dinner table conversation circa 1960, when the Anti-Defamation League director in Miami asked his daughter how her first day in junior high school had gone. She mentioned how interesting it had been that 40 new Cuban children had enrolled, with “such crazy names, Menendes, Morales, Gonzales,” which were so different from “American names like Goldstein, Schwartz. . . .” Urban concentrations mean that the possibility of continuous and vigorous social institutions permeating the American Jewish community is kept evergreen. Relatively free of the tyranny of village intolerance and the larger pressures of conformity, a religious minority can thus reduce the threat of individual attrition and find in urban enclaves the possibility of preserving its distinctive codes and values.

Americans live as comfortably as any people on the planet—the Jews, more so. So recent is this change, so rapid and sudden the ascent into the upper middle class, that it was like being shot from cannons. At the dawn of the 20th century, according to one government report, $9 was the average sum in the pockets of the two million refugees from poverty and persecution in Eastern and Central Europe. The immigrants’ grandchildren and great-grandchildren are now about as well-off as even the Japanese-Americans and Chinese-Americans, who may be the wealthiest ethnic groups in America. Jews also have higher incomes than the Episcopalians and Congregationalists who founded most of the New World colonies more than three centuries ago. Such prosperity is bound to temper much of the suspicion, fear, and alienation that was a customary Jewish stance toward host societies in the nearly two millennia of the Diaspora and can be expected eventually to alter responses to the political environment. Although the reasons for Jewish economic success are beyond the scope of this essay, one that deserves to be underscored has been a commitment to learning, traditionally the index of Judaic piety but on these shores something more tangible and practical.

Most Americans have welcomed education as the path to status and economic security, but the Jews even more so. Americans invented compulsory public education and mass higher education as pillars of democratic opportunity; Jews seized such chances. Today so many of them can be found on campus—about six out of every seven of college age—that the proportion could scarcely be exceeded. Jews are more likely than their Gentile neighbors to hold advance degrees and to have entered the liberal professions. Mass education in American society has also helped to shatter the relics of bigotry, blunting the forces of racism and hatred that Leopold Bloom at the beginning of the century considered endemic to history. Anti-Semitism has therefore been virtually eliminated as a problem in any Jew’s personal life, and its familiar manifestations are only a minor annoyance on the agenda of communal defense agencies. The inner sanctums of so many established American institutions have been breached—from the Department of State to the Department of Defense, from the Federal Reserve Board to the National Security Council, from the presidencies of Ivy League colleges to the chairmanship of duPont—that no American Jew could be blamed for discerning at least a tincture of truth in Hawthorne’s wry description of “a country where there is no shadow, no antiquity, no mystery, no picturesque and gloomy wrong, nor anything but a commonplace prosperity, in broad and simple daylight, as is happily the case with my dear native land.” These extravagant sentiments were uttered two years before the outbreak of the Civil War; and though America is no utopia, it is at least the closest facsimile that the cunning of Diaspora history has devised.

Such a country made smooth the absorption of a minority marked by persistent disbelief in the divinity of Christ. Despite that skepticism, the Jews became quickly acculturated, and many of them became fully assimilated. But what binds many Jews to their ancestors and to their coreligionists overseas has not disappeared; the threads of continuity have not snapped. Even when the God of their fathers has been abandoned, the cooking of their mothers has been remembered. Even when the cooking of their mothers—an important ingredient in Yiddishkeit (or Jewishness)—was forsaken, American Jews invented alternatives, like lox and bagels, a combination which was invented here and has spread into the wide, wide world of gastronomes. Even when one out of two Jews is unaffiliated with any religious or ethnic organization (thus flouting Hillel’s injunction against severance from the community), almost three out of every four still claim to form their closest friendships with other Jews. Even when ancient harvest festivals like Succot and Shavuot are minimized and the commemoration of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem ignored, nine out of every ten American Jews still participate in a Passover Seder, thus recalling in some fashion the end of enslavement in Egypt. Even after the skyrocketing intermarriage statistics and the low birth rates have been reckoned with and the amiable vision of the melting pot invoked, most Jews still assume that the identity of other Jews matters, that they share what the Germans call a Schicksalsgemeinschaft—a “community of fate.” However delicately and undefinably, connections can still be made and felt, as Henry Kissinger discovered during negotiations in Israel after the Yom Kippur War. At least according to apocrypha, he informed Prime Minister Golda Meir: “You’ve got to understand that first I’m an American, then I’m a Secretary of State, and only then am I a Jew.” “We understand, ” she is supposed to have replied, “but you should know that here we read from right to left.”


If being a Jew is still a pertinent aspect of identity, one expression of that distinctiveness is politics. The policies that Jews support and the causes that they champion, the values they cherish and the appeals that charm or alarm them do not correspond with the political profile of any other group. Arguments of immediate expediency and calls for ethnic loyalty find them less receptive than any other minority. To be sure, when party machines and local bosses were dominant, Jews mostly voted for the conventional candidates. But they have also differed from the Irish, the Poles, the Italians, and others in their participation in crusades designed to end the bribery and corruption that contaminated such machines. In this respect they have mostly resembled patrician Protestants of Anglo-Saxon stock in their Progressive hostility to the “old politics” of the bosses. So idealistic a stance has persisted, for Jews were manifestly more critical of the Watergate scandal than non-Jews, of whom 29 percent still “approved” of the Nixon administration in 1974 and regretted his resignation. The corresponding figure among Jews was 6 percent. Even though American politics bears some resemblance to professional wrestling—with its fake pains and screams, its relative harmlessness and absence of danger— Jews have been conspicuously involved in seeking alternatives, in reform movements and especially in socialism, which promised a cooperative commonwealth that would transcend the barriers of class and tribe and extinguish hunger and want and poverty.

The demand that the world conform to standards of social justice might be contrasted with Tolstoy’s claim that the whole of the Gospels could be compressed into the injunction: Resist Not Evil. He was among the heirs of the prophetic imperative that warns us that, when we finally check out of here, we should not expect to be judged by how much wealth or power or glory we have attained, but by how righteously we have lived. That is a tradition that Christians and Jews share. But the Jews have often drawn peculiar political implications from that warning. Their motto has often been: resist evil, which could be recognized and challenged through the incorporation of idealism in politics.

Unlike blacks, who have felt the weight of evil more than other Americans, whose situation has been so historically shaped by the stigma that whites have attached to skin color, Jews are (in the formulation of the Zionist historian Ben Halpern) an “ideological minority.” Commanded to be “a kingdom of priests, a holy people,” they choose to be different according to a particular value system, a complex of symbols and ideas that impose meaning and coherence upon their lives. Daily existence may have been reduced to pressing pants, or delivering milk, or (like Leopold Bloom) canvassing for advertisements. But what could give life purpose amidst poverty, and give confidence amidst oppression, was a set of ideals that their own ancestors had developed and hoped would elevate the human condition. Those beliefs were Biblical in origin. It must have been exhilarating as well as burdensome for Jews to consider the native tongue of ethics to be Hebrew, and for the statement issued from the world’s first summit conference on Mount Sinai to become a foundation for Western civilization itself. The influence of Hebraic ethics has been pervasive and incalculable, defining in large measure the aspiration (if hardly the achievement) of most contemporary Americans—Christians and sinners alike. Even the recent defense articulated by Congressman Daniel Crane, the profamily conservative Republican censured for sexual relations with an adolescent Congressional page, suggests how much residual prestige those moral standards confer: “I still believe in the Ten Commandments. I broke one of them. And I think they’re just as good today as they were then.”

The assumption that life is given dignity insofar as it can be infused with ethical idealism has, however, exerted a special attraction for Jews. The attorney Louis D. Brandeis noticed this in 1914, upon assuming the leadership of the American Zionist movement. “I have been to a great extent separated from Jews. I am very ignorant in things Jewish,” he admitted. “But experiences, public and professional, have taught me this: I find Jews possessed of those qualities which we of the twentieth century seek to develop in our struggle for justice and democracy—a deep moral feeling which makes them capable of noble acts; a deep sense of [the] brotherhood of man; and a high intelligence, the fruit of three thousand years of civilization.” Some of this praise can of course be discounted as self-congratulation, by a figure whose fierce desire to be included in a movement of national restoration may have produced an excess of chauvinism. But the very fact that Brandeis approached Jewish life more or less from the outside licensed him to see more clearly than those who had absorbed its beliefs by osmosis the oddity of its emphasis upon a moralistic patrimony, which American Jews have generally translated into liberalism, reformism, progressivism. It was therefore not coincidental that in the film Manhattan, a character with the thoroughly WASPish name of Yale (played by Michael Murphy) berates the neurotic Jewish seeker of integrity (played by Woody Allen) for allegedly trying to be God. Allen exculpates himself with a celebrated line: “I—I gotta model myself after someone!” In that exchange is a clue to the character of Jewish politics in America. A defect of such politics is its overinvestment in ideas at the expense of the concrete, its seduction by the allure of rhetoric. The makers of American foreign policy, for example, have sometimes grasped how deftly such sentiments could be manipulated, how readily pieties could serve as surrogates for decisive action. The ease with which the Roosevelt administration could get away with pretending to help alleviate the suffering of refugees from the Holocaust has now become a staple of the diplomatic historiography of the Second World War, but it had a precedent in the administration of his cousin. In 1902, after the Rumanian government intensified economic discrimination against its Jewish population, American Jewish spokesmen persuaded the Department of State to send a diplomatic note chastising such oppression as “repugnant to the moral sense of liberal modern peoples.” Such notes made a hero of Secretary of State John Hay, who smirked privately about “the Hebrews . . . poor dears! all over the country think we are bully boys.” After the awful Kishinev pogrom in Czarist-ruled Bessarabia a year later, New York’s genteel “uptown” Jewish leadership—which was sensitive to what motivated the immigrant masses “downtown”—sought to deflect the outrage emanating from the Lower East Side. A petition campaign was organized. Burnished with the signatures of the prestigious, this was a slow and tedious process that was never expected to reach the proper address in Russia. John Hay’s solution, when confronted with a petition whose promoters never intended to deliver it anyway, was to put it in the archives of the Department of State. “In the future when students of history come to peruse this document,” he proclaimed during the ceremony of interment, “they will wonder how the petitioners, moved to profound indignation by intolerable wrongs perpetrated on the innocent and helpless, could have expressed themselves in a language so earnest and eloquent . . . . It is a valuable addition to public literature, and it will be sacredly cherished among the treasures of the Department.”


Words—the more inflated the better—are the most respected currency of Jewish politics, whose communal agenda has rarely been devoted to the satisfaction of more immediate or parochial interests. In the American version of the great game of politics, Jews may be the most voluble players, the heirs of the people of whom Erasmus was already complaining during the Renaissance that they “spread a kind of fog over everything . . .words, words, words. . . .” A chief aide to House Speaker Tip O’Neill of Massachusetts is an Orthodox Jew named Ari Weiss; but when the Congressman wanted to be redistricted to drop the tony suburb of Brookline, he is supposed to have cracked: “I love the Jewish people deeply. But they write too many letters.” The same impulses help account for their disproportionate representation among the speechwriters, the media consultants, the publicity agents, the communications directors, the lawyers, the analysts, the reporters, the activists associated with the various causes— Common and uncommon and Barry Commoner’s—that the Federalist Papers had not foreseen as voices in the dialogue of self-government.

The wish that parochial narrowness be transcended also explains why Jews may be less impressed than other groups when their own brethren seek or secure public office. The ethnic identity of candidates is not negligible for Jewish voters, but it usually weighs less heavily than issues or personality and character. This might be contrasted with the close-as-handcuffs cohesiveness of Irish politics, as traditionally practiced in our major cities, or with the importance that blacks in recent years have attached to the election of black office-holders. No Jews are included in President Reagan’s inner circle of advisors, and more Jews are currently playing major league baseball (to be precise: one) than are serving in his Cabinet. If the actuarial tables are accurate, the four Supreme Court justices that Reagan is likely to appoint may not include any Jews—perhaps because of ideological uncongeniality, perhaps also because, as a Republican Senator from Nebraska once explained in justification of Nixon’s nomination of a mediocre ex-segregationist judge, “We can’t have all Brandeises, Frankfurters, and Cardozos and stuff like that there.” But Reagan has not been penalized for such lapses in patronage, nor would he be.

It was not until 1974 that New York, a city whose population is more than a quarter Jewish, elected a Jew as its mayor; and in 1982 the liberal Mario Cuomo defeated Lewis Lehrman, a conservative Republican gubernatorial candidate, by two to one among New York’s Jewish voters. Perhaps something still endures of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise’s argument that “the only excuse for a Jewish [bloc] vote is to keep bad Jews out of office. We can leave it to the fairness of the American public to elect good Jews.” That faith has been vindicated, resulting in a legislature in which the proportion of Jews within it is well above their 2.7 percent of the general population. In the 99th Congress are eight Senators, representing such states as New Hampshire and Nevada, and 30 members of the House of Representatives. But not even those Congressmen from districts that are models of what Jimmy Carter once called “ethnic purity” could take for granted a voting bloc signed, sealed, and delivered over to them because of a common origin.

Perhaps no group takes more seriously the ideal of popular sovereignty or is so inspired by the rhetoric of democratic responsibility. Jews are twice as likely to vote as other Americans, constituting 6 percent of the electorate. Such devotion to the suffrage pays off because of the unrepresentative system known as the Electoral College, which quite inadvertently places a heavy thumb on the scales of Jewish residential patterns. To demonstrate the electoral impact of the Jewish proclivity to concentrate in states of urban density, let’s crunch some numbers. About a quarter of the voters in New York state, for example, are Jewish. In 1976 they went about 80 percent for Carter over Gerald Ford, enabling the Democrat to carry the state and with it the presidency. Had Carter and the incumbent evenly split the Jewish vote of New York, Carter would have lost the state and with it the White House. Jews happen to be massed in states that provide 166 electoral votes (12 percent of the electorate of New Jersey, 10 percent in Florida, 6 percent in California), magnifying their influence in a winner-take-all system. That is why their attitudes and impulses have counted, ever since the political alignment that began in 1932.

It might be contended that during the New Deal, the era that inaugurated the Jews’ modern political style, they voted their pocketbooks as unhesitatingly as other disadvantaged groups. The promise of recovery from the Great Depression, so it could be conjectured, is sufficient to explain the whopping electoral majorities conferred upon Franklin D. Roosevelt. The New Deal was indeed resourceful and pragmatic—and moderately successful—in its effort to revise a capitalist system that badly needed repair. But other factors must be summoned to account for his popularity. Roosevelt managed to symbolize the progressive spirit of communal claims against a rampant individualism, an ethos of solidarity toward which Jews were already sympathetic; and in drawing upon the talent of a few conspicuous advisors, like Henry Morgenthau, Jr., Benjamin V. Cohen, and Felix Frankfurter, the president himself proved that he had triumphed over the snobbery of his class. Finally was the leadership that the commander-in-chief embodied in the Allied struggle against the Third Reich, the counterweight that the Four Freedoms represented amidst the horror of total war. No wonder then that a Republican judge named Jonah Goldstein remarked that the Jews belonged to three worlds (or, in Yiddish, velten): de velt (this world), yene velt (the world to come), and Roosevelt.

His four elections have set the standard against which subsequent Jewish devotion to Democratic liberalism has come to be measured. The depth of this fervor can be observed in microcosm with the Schechter brothers, whose kosher poultry business they claimed was being badly hurt by the National Recovery Administration, a keystone of New Deal regulation. They therefore challenged the legality of the NRA, and the Supreme Court agreed with them in a landmark 1935 decision. Yet in the presidential election the following year, all 16 votes in the Schechter family went to Roosevelt. So did the most Jewish ward in the United States—by a margin of 96 percent, the sort of unanimity bettered in recent years only by the likes of “Baby Doc” Duvalier in Haiti, who runs unopposed. In the 1940 and 1944 elections, Roosevelt racked up 90 percent of the Jewish vote. Other Americans were as impoverished, as devastated by the Great Depression, as the Jews were. But no other group has clung so tenaciously to the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.

American Jewish voters can hardly be expected to give a future Democrat the sorts of whopping landslides that Roosevelt received. Indeed, after all the historical evidence that has accumulated in the last two decades of research into the indifference of his administration during the Holocaust, not even Roosevelt himself would do as well. The earthquakes he registered on the political Richter scale should not be permitted to serve as a fair test of the Jewish commitment to liberalism—in part because the New Deal helped give many Jewish families the cushion so that they would have more to conserve today, in part because liberalism itself has undergone so many fluctuations and permutations in the past half century.


The Jewish vote ought nevertheless to intrigue political scientists because, since Roosevelt, it has violated one of the few axioms of their discipline: the higher the income, the bigger the margin for the GOP. Jews do not seem to define their interests in the terms that others in their class manage to do. The historical and statistical evidence for this proposition is so overwhelming that it can be presented without even working up a sweat.

Eisenhower had been the military leader of the crusade in Europe and was first in the hearts of his countrymen. Adlai Stevenson nevertheless got almost two out of every three Jewish votes, even in 1956, when prosperity was manifestly including the Jews, who were increasingly nestled in suburbia. By 1960 political scientists were desperate to explain why John F. Kennedy won a higher percentage of votes among Jews than among his fellow Catholics. Or why, in 1964, campaigning against the grandson of an Arizona peddler named Morris Goldwasser, Lyndon Johnson received proportionately as many Jewish votes as any president since Roosevelt. Or why, when George Wallace tried to be a racist spoiler in primaries and general elections, Jewish voters rejected his candidacy as decisively as blacks did. Or why, in 1968, the margins of Hubert Humphrey’s victories in Jewish neighborhoods so closely mirrored his successes in black slums and Chicano barrios—inspiring Commentary’s Milton Himmelfarb to quip that Jews lived like Episcopalians but voted like Puerto Ricans.

Or why, in 1972, came a turning point that never really turned. The famous news photo of Sammy Davis, Jr. embracing Richard Nixon did not prove to be prophetic of how the entertainer’s fellow Jews would respond to the president, who made an ethnic pitch that had all the subtlety of a recruitment poster. It was also very effective: the incumbent secured the votes of the majority of all white ethnic groups but one. As a Republican he orchestrated the customary appeals to the more comfortable classes and to the residents of high socio-economic areas, who gave him three-fourths of their ballots. Nixon campaigned against a Methodist preacher’s son from the Great Plains who was depicted as rather “soft” on Israel, who sometimes seemed to be speaking to urban Jewish audiences from a different area code, and who compounded a series of campaign blunders by going into the Garment District of New York and ordering milk with his chopped chicken liver. George McGovern was the most liberal Democratic candidate in memory; no other nominee had ever tilted the party so far portside. He won less than a third of the white gentile vote, and two-thirds of the Jewish vote. Indeed, so far were the Jews from the category of lapsed liberals that, if the rest of the country had voted as they did, Senator McGovern would have won the greatest landslide in American history.

Or how could political scientists explain 1976? A white Southerner was much less likely to vote for Jimmy Carter than was a Northern Jew. In fact, had it not been for the black vote, the Democratic candidate would have lost every Southern state except for his native Georgia. But he did attract 72 percent of Jewish ballots, and it is permissible to speculate that had an even more liberal Democrat been nominated— say, Ted Kennedy or Walter Mondale—the Jewish margin would have been even more enthusiastic. Four years later Carter got more of the Jewish vote than Reagan did. But for the first time since the Pleistocene era before FDR, a Democratic candidate could not secure a majority of that vote. Two of the polls—a CBS exit poll and a later one by the American Jewish Committee—indicated that Carter won a plurality of about 44 percent, compared to Reagan’s 39 percent. John Anderson, who firmly repudiated his earlier drive for a Constitutional amendment to declare the United States a Christian nation, received about 15 percent of the Jewish vote. It is fair to assume that Anderson attracted the votes of Jews who would nominally consider themselves Democrats and/or liberals, since the 10 percent of American Jews who think of themselves as Republicans would have had little warrant for preferring Anderson to the conservative, equally pro-Israel Reagan. Almost 60 percent of the Jewish vote therefore remained in the Democratic and/or more liberal column in 1980. Reagan nevertheless bettered even Eisenhower’s percentage of the Jewish vote, leading Marshall Breger, the Reagan administration’s chief liaison to the Jewish community, to dream that Mondale could be confined to no more than 60 percent of the Jewish vote in 1984

After spending about $2 million in that effort, the GOP failed to reach that goal. Its failure is astonishing. Ronald Reagan presided over a more prosperous economy than the one he had inherited four years earlier. By 1984 the rate of inflation had dropped to its lowest point in twelve years; the rate of economic growth had climbed to its highest point in 34 years. Even the unemployment rate was skidding. Indeed, to his question, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”, not only would most citizens, including most Jews, have been obliged to answer in the affirmative. So, too, would Mondale himself, who had left the vice presidency in 1981 with a net worth of only $15,000. So, too, would John Zaccaro, as well as Jesse Jackson. Moreover, Reagan was firmly opposed to interpreting affirmative action as quotas, an issue on which Jews have been especially sensitive.

On foreign policy he could boast that, during his administration, not one square inch of territory had been yielded to the Communists. The administration, to be sure, had been unable to protect U.S. Marines from terrorism (which was, incidentally, the president’s rationale for his high absenteeism from church). But he presided for four years over a country which—apart from the brief invasion of Grenada— had not been at war. The administration did take some positions that could certainly be interpreted as antagonistic to Israel. AWAC’s—military equipment too sophisticated even for our NATO allies—were sold to Saudi Arabia. Members of the executive branch were unleashed to condemn the bombardment of the nuclear reactor in Baghdad as well as Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. And a peace plan was offered that the Likud government believed was too risky to pursue; the proposal was rejected. But these actions occurred early enough in Reagan’s term to be largely ignored even by many Democrats who voted for Mondale—and even by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Defense Minister Moshe Arens, whose timely praise of the president could have been interpreted as amounting to a Likud endorsement. As in earlier electoral campaigns, Israel was not an issue that divided the two candidates.

And even though the GOP spent four times as much as did the Democrats to lure the Jewish vote, even though the incumbent did 8 percent better among the general electorate than he had done in 1980, Reagan did worse by the same percentage among Jewish voters. In getting 66 percent of the Jewish vote, Mondale touched a more enthusiastic constituency only among blacks and the unemployed. This is so mystifying that a few neoconservatives have cried foul, charging that pollsters did not properly weigh the conservative ballots of the more pious, less chic Jewish neighborhoods.

But the argument that Mondale appeared to do better only “because poor Jews were not sufficiently sampled,” Nathan Glazer has concluded, still makes the Jews bizarre: “They are a group where you have to sample the poor in order to find Republicans.”

Of course Jews willing to vote Republican could be found elsewhere: among neoconservative intellectuals, among the Orthodox, and among some of the wealthy—especially in the Sunbelt. But if the number of Jews willing to be identified as Republicans barely exceeds 10 percent, and the proportion willing to label themselves conservatives is barely a quarter, the explanation has much to do with the kind of America which the GOP seems willing to foster. Its association with the Moral Majority, and the militant Christianity conveyed at the prayer breakfast during the Dallas nominating convention, stirred some of the anxieties that neither social status nor economic success has completely stifled. The rise of the New Right has been more disturbing to Jews than the circulation within the Democratic Party of Third World sympathies that collide with Israeli interests. If many Jews have worried about what in God’s name the Republican Party is up to, that is because of the way that historical forces have shaped most Jews—supremely modern, urban, educated, secularized.

Public opinion polls reveal that, even though their families have been famous—at least traditionally—for their integrity, Jews tend to be more tolerant than Roman Catholics or Protestants of marital infidelity, premarital relations, and homosexuality. Such tolerance clashes with what proportionately more Christians deem sinful in all circumstances. That is why Jews have not enlisted in such crusades as the “Family Protection Bill,” introduced by President Reagan’s best friend in the Senate, Nevada’s Paul Laxalt. Jews have restrained their enthusiasm for a bill which would allow parents to review textbooks before their assignment in the public schools, which would prohibit Federal funding of abortions for poor women, and which would blunt Federal protection of the civil rights of homosexuals. A political party that opposes so fundamental a standard of fairness as the Equal Rights Amendment cannot elicit much Jewish support, especially when, according to one recent poll, a Jewish man is slightly more likely to favor the ERA than a gentile woman. Vice President Bush’s proposal that an abortion performed on a woman impregnated by a rapist or a relative not be considered a crime made him look to many in the GOP like a dangerous moderate. That helps explain why the Republican Party is not attractive to Jews, who support the Roe vs. Wade decision even more than the majority of other Americans. Puritanism is not an outgrowth of Judaism, which in the Diaspora has not promoted hedonism either (though the founder of “Club Med” is Jewish) but rather the ideals of temperance and moderation. Jews have generally resisted the efforts of moralists and religious zealots to make personal habits targets of public policy. It was Brandeis who first asserted that privacy is the right that civilized men cherish above all others.

Prayer is of course a more complicated question, since the protection of all forms of worship, the wall of separation between church and state, the disestablishment of religion were never intended under the First Amendment to exclude expressions of faith from public life. The trickiness of this problem was suggested when Reagan winked at the Religious Roundtable: “You can’t endorse me. But I can endorse you.” (If that is the choice, the reverse relationship would be more compatible with the First Amendment.) It is no secret that the New Right, though it is not anti-Semitic and does not directly imperil the faith of Jews, is widely perceived as threatening to their interests. For evangelical Christianity seeks to destabilize the status quo in which the religious neutrality of the public sector—or the equitable treatment accorded to Catholics and Jews as well as Protestants within it—could almost be taken for granted. Most Jews consider it self-evident that a prayer recited in unison in a public school, even if no mention is made of the Savior, violates the prohibition against the establishment of religion. The ostentatious presidential entwining of politics and religion has accentuated the difference between the majority faith and those who remain dubious about the resurrection of Christ. That is why many key figures in Christianity have challenged the New Right as well, warning of social friction and fragmentation, insisting (as did Reverend Falwell’s fellow Virginians, Jefferson and Madison) that religion thrives best when uncoupled from political patronage. The desire to worship in an uncoercive atmosphere is therefore not an issue that separates, in the charming dichotomy of James Watt, “liberals and Americans.” But it is an issue that has kept Jews wary of becoming Republicans.

For GOP strategists, winning the allegiance of 2. 7 percent of the citizenry may not be critical, since they have done quite nicely of late without the Jewish vote. As the National Review likes to point out, Jimmy Carter is the only Democratic presidential nominee in the last four elections to carry more than one state (a feat he accomplished twice). But that 2.7 percent minority remains precisely that, and is therefore heavily dependent on allies and friends—not to secure its rights, which are safe—but rather to help it defend its interests. And whatever else it is, the evangelical Christianity that has injected so much juice into the New Right has proved itself to be ardently pro-Zionist. This is the predicament that currently faces the American Jewish electorate.

Because the security and welfare of Israel are so pivotal to Jewish destiny and to the future of the Jewish people everywhere else, pro-Zionism has become the prerequisite for the practice of Jewish politics in America. Not all liberals appreciate the full value of a democratic Jewish homeland, and not all champions of Israel are liberals. The source of the unsolicited pro-Zionism of evangelical Christianity should, however, offer scant comfort to Jews, whose conversion is considered the necessary prelude for the Second Coming of Christ. Conversion will be made simpler if they have gathered in one place, and what better place than Israel? Such is the evangelical vision of Jewish fate, though there is no reason to assume that the evangelicals will succeed when, after two millennia, Christendom has already failed in such a task. Tapping his rich vein of irony, Heinrich Heine explained the futility of Christian proselytization efforts: “No Jew can believe in the divinity of any other Jew.”

But the motivations may matter less than the conclusions, which is why some Jewish leaders are grateful that such a formidable segment of Christendom helps to guarantee a strong Israel. Because the sympathies of the Moral Majority enhance the diplomatic support of Israel’s only major arsenal, the national director of B’nai B’rith’s Anti-Defamation League, Nathan Perlmutter, advocates prudent cooperation. He believes that Jews ought for the moment to be willing to endanger their souls and their chances of salvation, while nevertheless forging an alliance with such reliable friends of Israel: “If the Messiah comes, on that very day we’ll consider our options. Meanwhile praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.” Perlmutter’s colleague Oscar Cohen has also warned: “Today the fundamentalists are on our side; but if Jews work hard at it, they won’t be.”

That is an entanglement most Jews still seem willing to avoid, a legacy of the residual faith in an open society that soft-pedals the imperatives of faith itself. For a “community of fate” cannot easily extinguish its memories, which for Jews include the suffering that the ideological fervor of religious majorities can inflict. In accounting for the aberration of Jewish political behavior, history matters more than economics; sensibility matters more than status; an ethos matters more than expediency. So long as the Democratic Party continues to present itself as the party of compassion, so long as its version of the rainbow coalition can articulate its respect for diversity, an “ideological minority” is unlikely to welcome the advances of a Moral Majority. That is why the straight line projections of a Jewish shift to the Republican Party have so far been falsified, and why future Tuesdays in November may continue to reveal the presence of at least one group of voters who define their interests as their ideals.


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