After months of predictions to the contrary, American Jews voted for president-elect Barack Obama in higher proportion than any demographic group besides African Americans. For many Jewish liberals, this was a watershed moment, marking a return to the days when blacks and Jews were thought to have a special relationship founded on a shared language of suffering and joint efforts to promote civil rights.
Indeed, the numbers — 78% of Jewish voters went for Obama, as did 96% of blacks — suggest that the fabled political alliance between the two groups is in some respects alive and well. But voting for the same candidate doesn’t mean thoroughgoing political alignment. On many issues, public opinion and exit polls suggest, blacks and Jews occupy different corners of the Democratic Party’s big tent — and so, going forward, there remains the question of whether the issues most important to each group will be those that bind them together or those that drive them apart.
“Liberalism is not of one piece,” said Steven M. Cohen, a sociologist of American Jewry at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. “Blacks are far more liberal in economic matters than are Jews. Jews are far more liberal on social issues.”
On Election Day, nowhere were those ideological discrepancies more noticeable than in California, where it appears that blacks and Jews voted very differently on an initiative to ban gay and lesbian marriage.
Statewide, about 70% of African Americans voted to ban gay marriage, according to exit polls. No statewide figures are available on Jewish voting patterns on the initiative, but in Los Angeles, only 16% of Jewish voters (versus 45% of black voters) supported the ban, according to a research group at the city’s Loyola Marymount University. Last year, a study conducted by the Pew Research Center found that 79% of Jews believed “homosexuality is a way of life that should be accepted by society,” compared with 39% of members of historically black churches.
“Partly it has to do with religious commitments in the African-American community, and I say this as an Orthodox Jew,” said Mark Mellman, CEO of the polling firm The Mellman Group. “Every community is more religious than the Jewish community, by and large.”
The discrepancy between blacks and Jews on gay marriage fits into a larger picture in which these groups, like others within the Democratic Party, may be Democrats for very different reasons. Indeed, the party’s triumph this year was rooted in its ability to form a coalition of groups as ideologically different as black and Jewish communities frequently are.
“There’s an assumption that we’re all in this together,” said Ta-Nehisi Coates, a blogger for The Atlantic who has written extensively on race politics during this election season. “Were it so. I wish it were!”
In reality, Coates said, African Americans’ loyalty to the Democratic Party is founded largely on the idea “that the Republican Party hates black people. It’s not really a disdain for Republican policies.”
The Pew study found that 48% of members of historically black churches surveyed believed that the government should “get more involved in issues of morality,” while only 22% of Jews agreed with that statement. On the other hand, 53% of the Jews surveyed believed that the United States should actively participate in world affairs, while 64% of members of black churches felt that it was more important to focus on issues at home.
Despite these differences, some Jewish liberals are trumpeting the results of Obama’s election as evidence of a renaissance of the black-Jewish political alliance that reached a high point during the 1960s.
“I believe that the generation of Barack Obama is very connected to the Jewish legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.,” said Rabbi Marc Schneier, who heads an interethnic dialogue group called the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding. “It took a generation to reconnect with the legacy of the black-Jewish alliance.”
The divergence on the gay marriage vote is indicative of a different trend in black-Jewish relations: On many issues, the communities disagree but are not in conflict. Because gay marriage isn’t of primary importance to most members of either group, it reveals differences between the two communities without being a source of tension between them.
“In the larger scheme of issues that will influence either black or Jewish voters, gay marriage is not going to be high up,” said researcher David Bositis of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank that studies black communal issues.
On issues that had been sources of tension between blacks and Jews, the groups have not necessarily converged on their opinions, but conflicts over them are less intense and frequent than in the past, observers say. In the late 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, as relations between black and Jewish communities in some cities faltered over control of local institutions, such as school boards, national and even international political issues fanned the flames of unrest. Affirmative action and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict frequently became the loci of tensions between the two communities.
Differences on those issues remain: In 2005, a study conducted by the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding found that 70% of blacks supported affirmative action, compared with 46% of Jews. And a 2002 study conducted by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies found that 40% of black respondents had an unfavorable opinion of Israel.
But, members of both demographics say, these issues no longer create a rift between the communities the way they once did.
“It’s not like there’s aggressive Jewish opposition to affirmative action. And blacks haven’t made Israel a real cause célèbre in their community,” said Steve Rabinowitz, a Democratic strategist. “It’s not in the face of the other community like it used to be.”
That may become even truer with the advent of an Obama presidency. Black support for the Palestinian cause comes not only from a sense of identification with an oppressed group, but also from the belief that Jews have too much power in America, said Juan Williams, a National Public Radio correspondent and Fox News contributor who writes about the black community.
Williams said that now, “black people are in the game. They’re not standing on the outside, saying, ‘Why are you giving so much money to Israel?’”
Regardless of whether blacks or Jews shift on the issues, even some of the most detail oriented of pollsters believe that shared enthusiasm about an Obama presidency could “reinvigorate a black-Jewish alliance,” as Mellman put it.
“There are three groups that gave over 70% to Obama: blacks, Jews, and gays,” Mellman added. “I think that’s a chance to rebuild what’s frayed.”