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123 years of election coverage: What the vote means to American Jews

This is the first installment of a special series exploring The Forward’s election coverage since 1897. To get next week’s edition delivered to your inbox, click here to subscribe to The Forward’s free newsletter.

For American Jews, the vote has always been a potent symbol. Many of our families came as immigrants from countries where we were subject to the brutal whims of the state, but denied any say in its governance. Here, we could vote as soon as we achieved citizenship. And how many elections there were to vote in! Not just for president, congress, mayor and city council, but also for union leadership, the heads of student bodies, the people on our co-op boards.

America was the land of opportunity. And the emblem of that opportunity was the vote.

In this fraught election year, with its unusually high stakes and difficult circumstances, including the coronavirus pandemic, we at The Forward are looking back at the rich history of how American Jews have understood the role of the vote in their lives. What we’ve learned is that over time, voting came to be more than an individual act of civic engagement or responsibility. It was one of the most significant performances of the American Jewish communal experience.

An example: In 1944, as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt sought reelection, 50,000 New Yorkers congregated to stand in front of The Forward’s old building on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. They looked up at the busts of Marx, Engels and their socialist compatriots as they watched the results come in on a giant screen. It was a big production, with cartoons playing to distract the kids. And it was not the first time: readers had packed shoulder-to-shoulder to watch the returns outside The Forward for nearly half a century.

War ballot application

In 1944, he Forward published the war ballot application needed ensure that soldiers received mail-in ballots. Image by Forward Archive

Like the 2020 campaign, 1944 was a momentous election. As the Nazis advanced across Europe, the United States was combatting a wave of white nationalist and antisemitic sentiment, and The Forward’s editors saw Roosevelt as the only hope for driving it back. And like our forthcoming election, the balloting back then was also hampered by worries over voting access: In July, the Forward published an article warning that soldiers fighting overseas were at risk of being stripped of their franchise, and giving families instructions to ensure that soldiers received mail-in ballots on time.

“PERFORM YOUR HOLY DUTY,” Ab Cahan, The Forward’s founding editor, wrote in an editorial before the election. “It’s the most important election in America since Lincoln’s fight against slavery. Roosevelt is the most progressive President this country has seen since then. Dewey represents a dark opposition.”

Imagine the feelings that rippled through the crowd as Roosevelt’s victory was announced. Relief, maybe, or joy; almost certainly grief and exhaustion, as thoughts returned to the war and the continuing destruction of European Jewry. But beneath it all was the force that had brought them there: Kinship in their shared understanding of what it meant to be an American Jew: Voting, and then, as a community, preparing for what might come next.

Over the coming weeks, as we approach this equally formative presidential election, we’ll be sharing other gems from our archives of how The Forward has covered elections since its founding in 1897. We’ll show you the ballots our predecessors printed with instructions on how to vote for the Socialist Party, the ads for the first Jewish candidates to run for office, the way we explained the process of voting to immigrants, and much more.

Most importantly, as we careen toward Nov. 3, we’ll reflect on what that history means today. We’ll be distributing each installment by email, but also as an article on our website, so you can share easily with your social networks.

We hope you’ll join us on the journey.

Chana Pollack, the Forward’s archivist, contributed reporting.

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