Jews Are Not as Liberal as It Seems

On Social Issue, Yes. On Economy, Not So Much.

By J.J. Goldberg

Published April 15, 2012, issue of April 20, 2012.
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Perhaps you’ve heard about that new survey of Jews and social values. Released just before Passover, it has Jewish liberals high-fiving each other all the way from West End Avenue to West Hollywood. The results show Jewish liberalism at peak strength. Legal abortion (in “most” or “all” cases) is backed by 93% of respondents. Same-sex marriage scores 81%. President Obama is running strong among Jewish voters, easily matching his numbers at this point in 2008.

Other liberal icons run only slightly behind. Legalization for certain illegal immigrants is favored by 70%. Tougher environmental regulation, even at the cost of fewer jobs or higher prices, wins 69%. Tax hikes for incomes greater than $1 million score a solid 81%. Respondents identify themselves as liberal over conservative by 44% to 18% and as Democrats over Republicans by 49% to 13%.

Before liberals uncork the champagne, though, they might want to take a deep breath and look more closely. On second glance, some of the survey’s findings prove ambiguous, even downright misleading. More important, a close reading of the survey offers an important insight into what’s wrong with American liberalism and why it keeps losing its critical battles.

Why, for example, can’t American liberalism secure the basic rights guaranteed by every other industrialized nation, like universal health care and paid maternity leave? Why does America, with all its wealth, have the second-widest economic inequality gap in the industrialized world? (Only Israel’s is wider.) And why do Democrats keep losing the votes of working-class Americans to Republicans whose policies impoverish them?

Why, indeed? Read on, pilgrim. Our survey has some intriguing clues.

First, though, let’s look at the survey’s most misleading statistic, which is also its most widely cited. When asked “which qualities are most important to their Jewish identity,” nearly half of those surveyed — 46%, to be precise — chose “a commitment to social equality.” That was more than double the percentage that picked the other two choices, “support for Israel (20%) or religious observance (17%).”

What you may not know is that this is an old chestnut, dating at least to the 1980s, that’s been undercut by newer research. The Los Angeles Times asked the question in a 1988 national survey of American Jews and turned up nearly identical answers: Fifty percentpicked “social equality,” while religion and Israel scored 20% each. Several subsequent surveys found the same thing. Then, in the mid-1990s, the American Jewish Committee’s annual survey began offering a fourth choice: “being part of the Jewish people.” Suddenly “Jewish people” took the lead, picked from year to year by anywhere from 41% to 45% of respondents. “Commitment to social justice” dropped to rough parity with religious observance, fluctuating between 16% and 20% each. “Support for Israel” fell below 6%.


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