Matt Brooks, the 36-year-old head of the Republican Jewish Coalition, has what in his circle amounts to a dirty little secret: His parents were once Democrats.
“I’ve always been Republican,” Brooks told the Forward. This from a boy whose mother volunteered for John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign and whose grandparents were active in local Philadelphia Democratic politics. However, Brooks claims that since the Carter days his parents have “woken up.” They vote Republican, like their son, even if the rest of the family hasn’t followed suit — his younger sister still “probably characterizes herself as more of a Democrat.”
“My story can be summed up in two words: Jimmy Carter,” Brooks said. “I came of age at a time when our hostages were being held in Iran and every night this feckless leadership gave an image [to the world] of America in disarray…. There were gas lines and inflation and all the malaise associated with Carter. Ronald Reagan provided a tremendous contrast.”
If not for his parents’ mid-life conversions, Brooks almost sounds like a Jewish version of Alex P. Keaton, the conservative, Reagan-idolizing star of the 1980s sit-com “Family Ties” whose parents — former-hippies — are left baffled at where they went wrong.
But it appears that Brooks’s story is not an uncommon one. A new survey first reported in the Forward January 17 shows a slow but significant exodus of young Jews away from traditional Democratic politics and toward the Republican Party — “What do you mean ‘slow?’” Brooks rhetorically asked about the survey’s findings.
According to the survey, conducted by Steven M. Cohen for the Florence G. Heller/JCCA Research Center, 26% of respondents under the age of 35 identified themselves as Republican, compared to 11% of respondents over 65. Similarly, a 2000 Jewish Exponent/Zogby exit poll of Jewish voters in Greater Philadelphia revealed that while almost 78% of Jews voted for Democrat Al Gore, 59% of Jews under the age of 30 voted for George W. Bush.
For young Jewish Republicans, the shift reflects a natural reaction to the political climate they grew up in — and a natural tendency for children to rebel against the views of their parents.
Jennifer Grossman, 36, a speechwriter in the first Bush administration, came from a traditionally liberal Jewish family in Newton, Mass. Becoming a Republican in Newton, Grossman said, “was definitely the thing to do if you wanted to piss off your parents.”
Grossman’s conversion occurred when she was an undergraduate at Harvard University. “I was introduced to people who were Republicans, who thought differently from me; a whole different school of free-market principles. I grew up with the unquestioning premise that Conservatives and Republicans were either stupid or immoral. It was kind of a shock. I felt I had been lied to. The more I learned about conservative thought, the more I identified with it.”
Many of these Republicans endure not just disagreements at home, but fights with the community at large.
Gil Troy, 41, a professor at McGill University and an opinion columnist for the Forward, has two brothers who converted to Republicanism. The Troys grew up in Queens, and their parents were public school teachers.
Dan Troy, 43, is chief counsel to the Food and Drug Administration; Tevi Troy, 35, was the special adviser to the Domestic Policy Council at the White House. Troy describes his brothers as “thoroughly unapologetic” about their Republicanism. But when the brothers made the leap, they endured no end of hostility from their neighbors. “Within our community we were a bit of a scandal — the family that lost its way,” said Gil Troy. “Both my brothers have war stories that show how rude liberal Jews can be to conservative Jews.” At bar mitzvahs and wedding celebrations people felt free to approach Dan and Tevi Troy and lace into them and their politics.
But the drift of young Jews to Republicanism has not come as a shock to everyone.
Murray Friedman, the director of the Feinstein Center for American Jewish History at Temple University, had long predicted that Jews would drift to the right. “It’s really been happening on a city and state level,” Friedman said, pointing to the success of Republican politi-
cians like former mayor Rudolph Giuliani and Governor George Pataki, both of whom got a huge number of Jewish votes in solidly Democratic and Jewish New York.
“I’m fond of the famous phrase by Irving Kristol, ‘A conservative is a liberal who got mugged.’ That’s what happened to the Jewish community,” Friedman said.
Part of that disillusionment grew out of the civil rights movement, when Jews saw former allies in the leftist and African American communities turn their backs on the Jews’ particularist causes, especially Israel. Moreover, Friedman said, young Jews today “don’t have memories of the old days of active discrimination of Jews. They accept all the gains of the older generation.” A strong involvement in a union — for many older Jews a religious affiliation in its own right — is not seen as critical in their lives, Friedman said.
Troy remembers a feeling of left-wing disillusionment in his family. “My older brother [Dan] has a very good line, ‘How could you grow up in New York in the 1970s and not become a conservative?’ He called it ‘liberal dystopia.’ We grew up in a union household, hating the union. It didn’t serve our family’s interest.”
Republicans have also been gaining ground from President Bush’s unwavering support for Israel and aggressive stand against terrorism.
“I think Jews understand that terror particularly targets Jews,” said David Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush who once described his parents as “much more liberal politically than I am.” Added Frum, the 42-year-old author of the best-selling “The Right Man: The Surprise Presidency of George W. Bush” (Random House), “The party that is more vigilant against terror and about protecting Jewish lives in the U.S., Argentina, Europe and Israel is the Republican Party.”
“There has never been a better friend for the state of Israel than George W. Bush,” said Brooks of the Republican Jewish Coalition. “Bush is standing almost alone among world leaders in support of Israel. Republicans in Congress are trying to pass resolutions expressing support for Israel and a lot of Democrats either voted no or abstained.”
But this is not to say that Jews are abandoning the Democratic Party. As Cohen’s survey revealed, Democrats still outnumber Republicans two to one. And even some Republicans say that conservatism won’t be an easy sell to the Jewish community at large.
“I don’t discount the distrust that has pervaded the Jewish community over the years,” Grossman said. “The State Department is a notorious home for antisemitism and a pro-Arab outlook. James Baker in the [first] Bush administration did little to allay those concerns, but I think things are changing. It behooves Jews who are politically active to keep an open mind.”
One wonders what family gatherings are like in these politically cross-wired families.
Troy has cousins who are very involved in Democratic politics. One year the family organized a bipartisan Chanukah/Christmas party. Troy said his grandfather was more upset that the family was celebrating Christmas than that the brothers were supporting Republicans.
“I have very accepting parents,” Grossman said with a laugh. “I think they would accept me and support me no matter what. We don’t discuss politics at family gatherings — it’s just too contentious.”
Grossman said that despite their political differences, curious relatives asked her to be invited to the White House Christmas party during the first Bush administration. “I said, ‘If you don’t vote for the guy — you can’t go.’ I’ll use any and all perks to proselytize to my family.”