Voting Against Our Own Interests

By David Klinghoffer

Published October 15, 2004, issue of October 15, 2004.
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Everyone knows that the Jewish vote skews to the left. Among national religious groups, only black Protestants are more securely in the pocket of the Democratic Party. But did you know that Jews, unlike blacks, are actually becoming more liberal over time?

That startling fact is reported in a new survey from the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Titled “The American Religious Landscape and Political Attitudes,” the study was conducted this spring using figures from the 2004, 2000, 1996 and 1992 National Surveys of Religion and Politics. Let’s first consider the numbers, then seek an explanation.

Researcher John Green divided the American population into 18 categories and subcategories, ranging from “Traditional Evangelical” to “Modernist Catholic” to “Other Christian” and “Jewish.” Black Protestants had the highest level of affiliation with the Democratic Party (71%), followed by Jews (68%).

Here’s where it gets interesting. Jews are the religious group that cares most about foreign policy — due largely to a concern for Israel’s safety. According to the Pew study, 45% of Jews rank foreign policy as the issue of greatest concern to them. After the September 11 terrorist attacks, when America under President Bush became the most outspoken and important defender Israel has ever had, it was widely agreed that this would begin to break down the old Jewish allergy to Republicanism.

It’s worth remembering that the most devastating effects of September 11 were felt in the country’s most Jewish city, and that the Republican president responded to the attack with vigor, launching wars on Muslim terrorists in Afghanistan and Iraq. In fact, the White House and its struggle against Islamic fanatics were so heavily identified with the intellectual armament provided by Jewish neoconservatives that antisemites took this up as a rallying cry.

Nor is the linking of the Republican Party with Jewish interests simply a matter of fevered antisemitic imagining. Last week, in the second presidential debate, Senator John Kerry — who obviously cares about the Jewish state — still breathed not a word about it, while Bush spoke plainly of defying Europe to support Israel. “That was unpopular,” he said, “but it was the right thing to do.”

With this in mind, you would expect most Jews to feel some new sympathy for the Republican Party. But no, to the contrary.

Between 2000 and 2004, Jewish support for the Democratic Party has solidified dramatically, rising by 21%. That’s up from 47% percent when Bush was elected, to 68% percent this year. In the same four-year period, black support for the Democrats dropped slightly, from 74% to 71%. I was bewildered by these facts until I noticed another set of statistics in the Pew study, reporting the results when respondents were asked if religion is important to their political thinking.

Now, readers of this column will know that — in relation not only to Israel, but also to a variety of other issues, foreign and domestic — I’m convinced an intellectually serious reading of the Hebrew Bible as a political document leads to an inescapable conclusion. In case you are in doubt about what that conclusion is, I’ll mention that I just signed a contract with Doubleday to write a book called “Why God Is a Republican: An Honest Look at the Politics of the Bible.”

If Judaism is a deeply conservative religion, then the trajectory of American Jews means they are in full flight from the obvious political ramifications of their own heritage. If I’m right, then the new survey data should reflect this.

It does. Between 1992 and 2004, on the question of religion’s relevance to politics, the members of every religious affiliation either became more convinced that faith illuminates the way society should govern itself, or stayed static (up or down by one or two percentage points). That is, every group but Jews. In 1992, 48% of Jewish respondents felt that Judaism has something important to say about politics. By 2004, the figure had dropped by 15 percentage points, to 33%.

Let’s be clear that this does not represent a flight of Jews from Jewish affiliation. The Jews being counted were individuals who count themselves as Jews.

If Jews are running from the political meaning of Judaism, this likely has to do with the widening philosophic gap between the two major political parties. This election year nobody is saying, as they did in the past, that a Republican is a Democratic is a Republican is a Democratic. Probably the discomfort of religiously identified Jews in looking their religion in the face is a constant of modern times. But as it becomes more obvious that the Republican Party does the better job of embodying Jewish values, the Jews will gravitate increasingly to the Democrats.

It is an irony, a bitter one, but Jewish history is full of such ironies, as anyone who knows the Bible will tell you.

David Klinghoffer is author of the forthcoming “Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History” (Doubleday).

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