Why Are American Jews So Liberal?

Enduring Political Message of the Passover Seder

Strangers in Strange Land: American Jews have long since adapted to life in the U.S. So why do they vote like they are just off the boat?
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Strangers in Strange Land: American Jews have long since adapted to life in the U.S. So why do they vote like they are just off the boat?

By Jay Michaelson

Published April 03, 2012, issue of April 06, 2012.
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Why are Jews so liberal?

Every few years, the question gets asked, often with the unspoken follow-up “… and what can we do to change that?” This year, Republican super PACs are drooling with anticipation. If you think the attacks on Mitt Romney by Sheldon Adelson — I mean Gingrich — I mean a Super-PAC that theoretically doesn’t co-ordinate with Gingrich — were mean, just wait until the general election. Israel! The war on religion! The Ground Zero mosque! Anything to wake up the Jews and get them to vote Republican.

What’s more, Jews have every reason to vote Republican. In a series of studies, political scientist Sam Abrams (together with Steven M. Cohen and others) has shown how American Jews’ views on helping the needy, on diplomacy versus war, and on other litmus test issues actually line up with the center, maybe even the center-right, rather than with the left.

Moreover, Jews are, on average, more affluent than most Americans, and political scientists tell us that the more affluent you are, the more likely you are to vote Republican. (More on that below.) When Jews were hawking pickles on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, our Democratic politics made sense. But not now, when we live in gated communities.

And yet, since Ronald Reagan, no Republican presidential candidate has gotten more than 30% of the Jewish vote. It’s an anomaly.

Abrams has suggested that Jews vote Democrat largely out of identity. Judge Jonah Goldstein, a 1940s Republican from New York, said famously, “The Jews have three veltn (worlds): di velt (this world), yene velt (the next world) and Roosevelt.” No doubt, that is in large part true. But in light of the Passover holiday, I want to suggest a different, perhaps complementary, view: It’s in our religion.

The Torah says, many times, that our experience of oppression is meant to lead to ethical political action. “The stranger that dwells with you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers once in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34). “You shall not mistreat a stranger, nor oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 22:21) “You must open your hand to your poor and needy brother in your land… and you must remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 15:11–15)

These are clear, powerful texts. It’s only human that when we have plenty, we lose our sense of empathy for those who have little. So, religion comes to remind us not to do that — in the Jewish case, by remembering the narrative of the Passover story and our shared experience of oppression.

Now, let’s go back to that political science point from a moment ago, about how wealth and voting Republican tend to correlate. This is a telling point. Republicans tell us that they, too, are living out the mandates of the Bible — this was part of my point in an earlier column, that conservatives also say they have Jewish values. They just say that the best way to help the poor is to get government out of the way, let rich people make more money and then assume that those same rich people will generously make up the difference.

But then, if Republican policies were really for the benefit of everybody, why do wealthy people disproportionately vote Republican? Is it that the richer you get, the more you care about the poor?


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