2016 In Context: In this Crazy Election, Most American Jews Are Acting Normal
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a visiting professor at the Ruderman Family Program in American Jewish Studies at Haifa University, which funded the study and e-book The Jewish Vote: Political Power and Identity in US Elections on which this column is based.
Three weeks from today, Americans finally will have a chance to vote for president of the United States -- hundreds of other offices on ballots across the country. As a presidential historian who has written histories of presidential campaigning, of various presidents, of First Ladies, including Hillary Clinton when she was in that symbolic role, and, most recently, of the Clintons and the 1990s in The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s, every day until Election Day I will post an article putting this election in historical context, trying to explain this wild and wacky race using history as our guide. So here it goes, with hashtag #2016incontext
For all the 2016 campaign’s anomalies, and despite many strange Jewish moments, from Bernie Sanders calling himself the son of a Polish – not Jewish – immigrant, to Donald Trump’s tallit-wearing in a black evangelical church – Jews are set to play their usual historic role on Election Day. Polls suggest that – despite yet another round of predictions that Jews were shifting Republican -- once again most Jews will vote Democratic. And once again, despite all the talk about “The Jewish Vote,” Jewish influence will be felt most through checkbooks rather than voting booths. Jews constitute only two percent of America’s population, limiting their voting power. But in recent presidential elections, Jews donated as much as 50 percent of the funds Democrats raised from individuals and 25 percent of Republican funds. With nine of Hillary Clinton’s top ten donors Jews who together have given her at least $80 million, that trend apparently continued (although Republican Jewish donations may have dropped this year, thanks to Trump’s boorishness).
The Jewish vote tells more about American Jewish identity than about American Jewish power. American Jews’ deep loyalty to the Democratic Party since Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency in the 1930s has mystified conservatives since Ronald Reagan in the 1980s —leading to repeated predictions of a rightward shift. And while in New York, the greatest demographic growth is in conservative-leaning Orthodox and Russian Jews, most American Jews remain proud liberals.
Just as most Americans after the Civil War defined themselves as Democrats or Republicans “becuz that’s how my daddy and granddaddy voted,” voting Democratic is often considered as central to the American Jewish inheritance as are an inspirational immigration story, silver candlesticks, and grandma’s matza ball recipe. George W. Bush’s press secretary Ari Fleischer remembers that when his “horrified” parents discovered he had become a Republican activist in college, they told sympathetic neighbors in Westchester: “at least he’s not a drug addict.”
Moreover, despite assumptions that Jews vote Jewish interests, especially regarding Israel, most American Jews are more pro-choice than pro-Israel in the voting booth—yet still so pro-Israel they prove that liberalism and Zionism overlap easily, contradicting many Israel-bashers’ claims. As the Far Left continues demonizing Israel, Jewish Democrats can teach liberals how to be pro-Israel and progressive, explaining that, as the left-wing Zionist coalition Ameinu insists, “progressive Zionism is not an oxymoron.”
American Jewish liberals often see their liberalism as naturally, obviously, “Jewish,” ignoring their many conservative Jewish cousins. In fact, American Jewish liberalism is quintessentially American. This tenacious American Jewish political identity reveals much about the American Jewish community and America itself. American Jewish liberalism stems from the great mutual love affair between America and its Jews, rooted in American exceptionalism, a phenomenon from which President Barack Obama benefited politically but which he rejects ideologically. This American exceptionalism, emphasizing America’s uniqueness, especially compared to Europe, is reflected in American Jews’ astonishing success —the many American billionaires, intellectuals, and leaders who are Jewish, as well as most Jews’ feeling so at home in America.
Israelis—who have been ruled by more right-wing governments than left-wing governments since 1977 and increasingly feel burned by the Left, will be amused to hear that American Jews define Judaism as inherently liberal (so will American Orthodox and traditional Jews, who are increasingly conservative politically). They will be fascinated to learn that many American Jews consider the United States the Promised Land. They will be distressed to hear that American Jews rarely vote with Israel in mind and usually focus on American issues.
But Israelis will be heartened to discover that despite Election Day neglect, and contrary to the hysterical headlines exaggerating American Jewish alienation from Israel, most American Jews remain pro-Israel—with the Cohen Center at Brandeis University surveys showing twenty-to-thirty year olds tending to be even more pro-Israel than thirty-to-forty year olds, mostly thanks to their Birthright trips. Moreover, because most Americans support Israel far more than the Palestinians, voters on the presidential level have never had to choose between a “pro-Israel” or “anti-Israel” candidate. Some mainstream American politicians may be tougher on Israel or softer on the Palestinians than others, but no major party presidential nominee has ever been “anti-Israel.” Usually, as in 2016, the Democratic and Republican candidates squabble over who is more “pro-Israel” and will better defend the Jewish State.
Still, as the great American social stress test, the 2016 election has highlighted three disturbing trends American Jews must confront. First, Hillary Clinton’s Jewish son-in-law and Bernie Sanders’s non-Jewish grandchildren indicate the mainstreaming and normalizing of intermarriage. It’s more typical to see intermarried Jews drift away from Judaism or at least avoid intense Jewish involvement, than to see their spouses become committed Jews like Ivanka Trump. Second, looking right, poisonous anti-Semitism emerged, expressed most dramatically in hostile tweets against Jewish reporters who dared to criticize Donald Trump. And third, looking left, appalling anti-Zionism – which often reflects and stirs anti-Semitism – is spreading on the Democrats’ Far Left.
After Election Day, responsible leaders from both parties must denounce the hatred unleashed – against Jews and others – as part of the healing America desperately needs following this ugly, tumultuous campaign.
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