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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No, of course not. Conservative politics are not for the benefit of everybody; that’s just spin. Trickle-down economics, for 30 years a pillar of Republican policy, doesn’t work. A little spending trickles down, but mostly, capital enriches itself. The wealth gap widens. The super-rich take bigger and bigger risks, and are then declared too big to fail. Trickle-down rhetoric — that tax cuts for the rich promote jobs, that taxing millionaire’s estates would hurt small businesses — is just a cover for rich people to pay fewer taxes and keep more of their money.

Which is why rich people vote Republican. Because we are selfish animals, and we want more stuff.

Except when we remember. We remember, because of the Passover story, that we were slaves in Egypt: slaves, with no freedom, no property and no ability to look the other way from whatever we found unpleasant. And we remember, more recently, our Diaspora Jewish experiences, whether in the Holocaust or during times of anti-Semitism. Or, not too long ago, when we were disempowered peasants in Eastern Europe and new immigrants to America — just like the new immigrants that today’s Republicans want to keep out.

Jews are predominantly liberal because we are still mindful of being outsiders, even when we are insiders, and because we have a tradition that, right at this time of year, reminds us that we should not oppress anyone and must remember that we were once oppressed.

This is the Jewish equivalent of German pastor Martin Niemoller’s famous “First they came for the Jews…” speech. Today, we may be free people, unworried by the wealth gap, or the threats to the social safety net, or people of color being racially profiled and attacked, or the Republican war on women (since, after all, we’re rich enough not to need publicly funded contraception anyway). But tomorrow we might not be. And so we are enjoined to act responsibly now. This is the lesson of Passover, observed by more than 75% of American Jews (second only to Hanukkah).

Of course, the memory of victimhood can also be very harmful. For many Jews, the lesson of anti-Semitism is that we must always be tougher, stronger and meaner than our enemies, and it colors how we understand Middle East politics. And so, cynical conservatives, interested in their own power and wealth, have begun manipulating these Jewish traumas to their own ends. Bomb Iran! Support Israel all the time! Obama is a Muslim! These cries, too, speak to Jewish experiences of victimhood. They, too, can draw nourishment from the lessons of the Seder.

But they don’t have the support of the tradition itself. Apart from isolated cases (such as the law to annihilate Amalek), you won’t find these kinds of warmongering, greed-maximizing and fear-stoking messages in Torah. Do the aforementioned passages, or the rabbinic commentaries, say, “Treat the stranger roughly, because you were once strangers in Egypt, and you don’t want to slide back there, now do you?” Of course not. They say, “Do not oppress, because you were once oppressed.” They say, “You must rise above the all-too-human inclination to essentialize and demonize the Other, because you were once that Other.”

Yes, there is a Jewish consciousness that holds that in order to survive, you have to be tough, and take every advantage. Screw the other guy before he screws you. Let the poor get sick. And hit first, because might makes right (or because “Force is all the Arabs understand”). Some of it has filtered right into the Passover liturgy, like the pogrom-inspired prayer for God to pour out His wrath on the nations. Our tradition is complicated.

But religion’s role is to harness these human instincts, take us to something at once higher and deeper, and help us to be less nasty to one another. Sometimes it backfires, and the nastiness creeps back in. But the whole point is to get beyond the merely human, to aspire to a liberation that makes the Festival of Freedom worthy of its name.


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