Jews and American Conservatism

Last year, when voters in the Queens-Brooklyn Ninth Congressional District of New York elected Bob Turner, a solid Republican conservative, to the seat abandoned by disgraced Anthony Weiner, it marked a watershed moment in American Jewish history, as Orthodox Jews finally flexed some muscle alongside Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union. That seat had not left the Democrats since 1923, and it seems that Jewish voters have been liberal Democrat as long, if not longer. 

Alongside African-Americans, Jewish Americans traditionally have been the Democrats' most reliable voting bloc.  In that way, rather than advancing legitimate interests, Jews effectively throw away their voting influence, year after year, as do African-Americans.  Democrats know that African-American votes mostly are in the bag, as are Jewish votes, so Democrats need not vie seriously for support.  Contrary to increasing their influence by such group voting, they dilute by signaling to one party that they will be there no-matter-what, while signaling to the other party that virtually nothing will influence their voting. 

Ironically, however, the political party that stands strongest behind Israel, her military security, her right to populate Jews in the liberated lands of Judea and Samaria, her right to build Jewish communities in East Jerusalem and her right to declare united Jerusalem as her national capital, and her right to refuse pressure to capitulate to demonstrable terrorists and to quasi-terrorists-in-suits who now run the "Palestinian Authority" is the Republican Party.  Republicans support Israel not because that position will help garner Jewish votes, but because Republicans know that support is morally right, ethically right, and most importantly advances the national and strategic interests of the United States.  Towards that support, the impassioned and overwhelming support of American Christians for Israel has been extraordinary.

So why do so many American Jews not get it? 

First of all, as Bob Turner's election in 2011 evidenced, the Democrat fever is breaking.  While Jews voted for Obama in numbers estimated around 85% in the last election, polls now show slippage to support in the 60% range.  His support has dropped among Jews by some 25 percent, and that's not shabby.  It is a start, perhaps the sign of an awakening.  Voting pattern transformations take years, exactly as it took more than a century to wean White Southern Christians off the Democrats, and it is important to understand why these paradigm shifts do not happen overnight.  In a way, it takes an Obama -- a "transformational figure in history" -- to help transform traditional Democrat voting blocs towards Republican conservatism.

More than 90% of American Jews descend from grandparents and great-grandparents who arrived in the United States from Eastern Europe between 1881-1914.  In 1881, there were approximately 250,000 Jews in America; by 1914, there were more than three and a half million. Centuries of anti-Semitism bred in many Jews a desperate need to find ways to escape the hate -- or just to escape their Jewishness. The kind of irrational hate that sees a person targeted from the moment of birth, no matter what he does or believes the rest of his life, leads to many reasonable and many other strange strategies aiming at just being left alone. One painful approach that gained sway among children of the American Jewish immigrants a century ago was to assimilate into America's "melting pot," to move away from authentic Jewish teaching and practice, the ways of Torah life, and to try hiding among the greater population.  Cut one's overt ties to Jewishness.  Hide the religion and the identity.  Unlearn the languages of Yiddish and Hebrew.  Pray in English.  Eat non-kosher.  Treat Saturday the way everyone else does.  Melt into the melting pot.  Dissolve if possible.  And change the name.

Names were changed from Emmanuel Goldenberg to Edward G. Robinson, Leo Jacob to Lee J. Cobb, Bernie Schwartz to Tony Curtis, Betty Perske to Lauren Bacall, Jacob Julius Garfinkle to John Garfield.  They were changed from Judith Tuvim to Judy Holliday, Benjamin Kubelsky to Jack Benny, Joseph Abraham Gottlieb to Joey Bishop, Jacob Cohen to Rodney Dangerfield, Arthur Leonard Rosenberg to Tony Randall.  Even among the more recent, Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz became Jon Stewart, Andrew Silverstein became Andrew Dice Clay, and Jerome Silberman became Gene Wilder.  Early Jewish immigrants flooded to the United States from Eastern Europe between 1881, when Tsar Alexander II's assassination set off anti-Jewish pogroms in Russia that spread throughout the region, through 1914 when America closed its borders to all immigrants at the outset of World War I.  As the naïve immigrants flooded into New York Harbor and Ellis Island, unschooled in Western ways of democracy and untutored in English, the New York Democrat political machine was there to greet them and sign them up, much as they did in New York, Boston, and other cities with the ethnic Catholic immigrants from Ireland, Italy, and Poland. They smelled votes.

The move to liberalism and Democrat politics among Jews intensified between the 1920s-1950s, as a subtle but distinct anti-Semitism in America kept Jews out of exclusive country clubs, excellent universities, and white-shoe law firms that were perceived as synonymous with "Republican types." Jews could not spend a night in many decent American hotels, could not rent apartments even in parts of Manhattan, were barred from Ivy League schools each year after the universities filled their respective annual Jewish admissions quotas, were barred from practicing medicine in many of America's best hospitals, and even were kept out of prominent American law firms or relegated solely to practicing then-disfavored bankruptcy law. Republicans were not identified with giving Jews a break, while Democrats did open some doors.  Woodrow Wilson named Louis Brandeis to the Supreme Court, the first Jewish jurist ever so named, met by a torrent of anti-Jewish opposition. Franklin Roosevelt brought Jews into his cabinet, albeit the kinds of Jews who "knew their place" and (but for one exception, Henry Morgenthau) would not bother the President with such mundane parochial Jewish concerns as saving victims being slaughtered during the Holocaust or advancing a burgeoning Jewish national enterprise in the Holy Land.

Through a quirk of modern history, American Jews mistakenly misinterpreted an historical coincidence as reflecting that Roosevelt was their friend. Because Adolph Hitler was elected Germany's Chancellor in March 1933, only months after Roosevelt led a liberal sweep of the White House when he won his first term in November 1932, a false coincidental perception arose among the large body of uninformed American Jewish immigrants that the liberal FDR was a freedom fighter courageously leading the war against the Jew-hater Hitler.  In reality, FDR was nothing of the sort. However, he just-so-happened to be President on December 7, 1941 when Japan hit Pearl Harbor nine years after his first election, and he consequently was left with no choice but to defend America militarily against the Japan-Mussolini-Hitler axis. So a quirk of history convinced the unsophisticated that liberals are the bulwarks against tyrannical Jew-haters.  The old guard of Jew-haters like the Tsars of Russia were associated with the Right, and the new anti-Semites of fascism like Hitler, who happened to rise while Franklin Roosevelt was President, were perceived as manifestations of a newer Right (although Jonah Goldberg has shown that Hitler Nazism actually was an extreme of the Left).  FDR was no friend of Jews, actively preventing Jewish refugees from entering America during the Nazi years, even authorizing a naval blockade to bar a Jewish refugee ship, "The St. Louis," from debarking in Florida after its prior port of call at Havana, Cuba had refused to allow entry to the nearly thousand refugees from Hitler aboard that "voyage of the damned."  In the end, the ship had to sail back to Europe.

Once liberalism had set in among American Jews, they naively passed their liberalism down to their kids, much as a century of Southern Democrats passed their Party affiliation to their kids.  Initially, Southern Democrats had voted Democrat because Lincoln, the first Republican President, was their arch-foe when they tried seceding from the Union.  So the Republicans, a liberal anti-slavery party based in the north, were their enemy.  The Democrats were the slave-owners, the racists, the Ku Klux Klan.  Even into the modern era, the worst anti-Black hatred and most intense political segregationism came out of the Democrat Party and their leading racial separatists like Alabama Governor George Wallace and Georgia Governor Lester Maddox. Somehow, even as the national Democrat Party had shifted leftward through the 1930s and beyond, Southern conservatives continued blindly voting for Democrats, voting against interest and belief for decades and decades, not breaking their trance until George McGovern carried the Democrats' standard into the 1972 Presidential elections. Even afterwards, for yet another forty years, Southern conservatives continued electing primarily Democrats to their local state offices throughout the South. As with Christians in the American South, the same irrational voting patterns continue among Jews.

So it is about process and the quirks of the voting system, voting for the party that your parents and grandparents backed, aligning with that party and therefore committing your political aspirations to that party, even as that party no longer represents anything that it stood for a century earlier and today stands for values inimical to your own. Consider: As a core value, Democrats advocate raising taxes on businesses, while Republicans advocate reducing tax pressure on corporations.  The Hollywood community is a haven for Obama fundraising, and he and the Secret Service repeatedly mess up rush-hour traffic in the Greater Los Angeles region as he continues helicoptering in for soirees with the glitz set.  Those Beautiful People back Obama's vision of increasing taxes on business, on the rich, on the "One Percent" -- on them.  But they are not really as selfless as they may seem.  The movie industry has been fleeing Hollywood and now makes more films than ever before outside California, in order to avoid the taxes.

It took Ronald Reagan time to determine that, rather than leaving the Democrats, it was the Democrat Party that had left him. So, too, the American South.  Once Southerners had aligned with the Democrats during the Lincoln years, they put their hopes in that party, joined that party, and regularly voted for that party.  A century later, when they truly were conservative Republicans in spirit, they still were joining the Democrat Party, people like Rick Perry in Texas, because that was where political opportunity for advancement and a career in government lay. Similarly, in liberal northeastern cities, it became so hopeless for a conservative to seek office as a Republicans that it became commonplace instead to see election campaigns pitting the "mainstream Democrat" against the "conservative Democrat."  Because the local state Republican parties could not get their acts together in such a climate, national elections would see "Democrats for Nixon" or "Democrats for Reagan" as the major Republican organizing models in one northeastern city after another.  In the same way, rock-solid conservatives, such as Orthodox Jewish New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind, who has represented his rock-solid conservative, Orthodox Jewish district in Brooklyn for 30 years since 1983, still run on the Democrat line.  If Hikind had tried running as a Republican in 1983, he knew he would not have been elected, much as conservatives in the South could not get elected on the Republican line until the most recent era, finally terminating the paradox with the 2010 watershed nationwide shellacking of Democrats.  The Republican Party owes a great deal to George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, and Barack Obama.

As the 2010 watershed shellacking elections evidenced, Obama has been transformational, opening new vistas for Republicans.  That transformation slowly is reaching the Jewish electorate, reflected by Orthodox Jews electing non-Jewish Republican conservative Bob Turner, even as America's most prominent conservative analysts today include deeply conservative voices like Mark Levin and Michael Savage, as well as mainstream conservative thinkers like Ben Stein, Dennis Prager, Michael Medved, Charles Krauthammer, Jeff Jacoby, and Rabbis like Daniel Lapin and Aryeh Spero.  They continue in a tradition going back to American Jewish conservatives and libertarians like Norman Podhoretz, Milton Friedman and even Ayn Rand (renamed from Alisa Rosenbaum).  Newly emerging Jewish voices in conservative America include Eric Cantor and Josh Mandel, who is seeking the U.S. Senate seat in Ohio now held by Sherrod Brown, as well as Ben Shapiro, Steven Plaut, and the late Andrew Beitbart, who was raised Jewish by his adoptive parents.  There are many more in the blogosphere. Major Jewish support for Republican conservative candidates has been coming from a geometrically expanding base of donors best typified by Nevada casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, now offsetting those on the left. Obama has been transformational.

Centuries of irrational hatred eventually bred in many Jews irrational responses.  If you have not faced it, you cannot imagine it.  Some of the responses border on outright crazy.  Virtually the entire political science department at Israel's Ben Gurion University in Beersheba is internationally famous as a world center of virulently anti-Israel advocacy.  An Israeli Ph.D. candidate, doing a doctoral thesis aimed at proving that Israelis are racists, focused on data evidencing that soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces do not perpetrate rapes.  The insane thesis:  since most armies include soldiers who rape civilians, therefore it must be that Israel's armed forces do not rape civilians because they are racist.  (Nazi German officers never raped women in groups that the Nazis hated?) 

At the head of virtually every anti-Israel organization in the world, we find Jews.  Flotillas aimed at supporting Hamas terrorists in Gaza include Jews.  When there is a full-page newspaper advertisement attacking Israel, it is challenging to find non-Jewish names, as they are crowded out by Jewish liberals desperately trying to prove their universalism.  Whether groups like Breira in the 1970s or the George Soros-funded "J Street" in Washington, punctuated by the strangest Jews in academia, whether Noam Chomsky the linguist or Norman Finkelstein the child of Holocaust Survivors, these troubled outliers continue a tradition that traces back to a tragic psycho-social phenomenon in past centuries among small numbers of Jews animated by values antithetical to Judaism. Yet, ironically, it is Barack Obama, darling of ogling Jewish liberals in Hollywood and other predictable Democrat redoubts, who now has opened doors unimaginably for Jewish Americans to see the perils of continuing in alliances that make no sense.  Like the deeply conservative American White Anglo-Saxon Protestants of the American South who continued voting into 1972 for Democrats as President, and until 2010 for Democrats to dominate local state offices, we now are seeing the century's first maturing of the American Jewish voter, as Obama now polls worse among Jews than has any other Democrat since Jimmy Carter.  There is light at the end of the tunnel.

The Christians of the American South did it.  We are getting there, too.

Dov Fischer, adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School, is a columnist for several online magazines and is rabbi of Young Israel of Orange County.  He blogs at

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