In Texas, Republican state officials have recently gone to the U.S. Supreme Court to defend their plan to break up a heavily minority state Senate district. At the same time, in New York, state Republicans are reportedly pushing a plan to consolidate another minority — Brooklyn Orthodox Jews — in just such a district.
It’s the season of political redistricting, and nationwide, Republican and Democratic leaders are deep into their once-in-a-decade jockeying over the drawing of political maps. In this process, ethnic neighborhoods are often jigsaw puzzle pieces, liable to be broken up and reassembled in myriad ways, depending on their political leanings, and on which party controls the state legislature that, in many cases, controls the redistricting process.
But in New York, the prominence of Jews in this process is striking.
This time around, Republican leaders see a chance to bolster their slim majority in the state’s Senate by pushing for a Jewish majority Senate district in South Brooklyn.
No less noteworthy, Orthodox Jewish leaders themselves are advocating for the creation of such a district, which would encompass the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Boro Park in addition to other areas.
In recent months, Orthodox leaders in New York have been vociferously asking for majority Jewish districts in the state legislature and in Congress. Fed up with splintered representation, they say they want fewer elected officials who will be more responsive to their highly particular needs: namely, support for private schools and financial grants to not-for-profits groups serving the Orthodox community.
“We are not saying it has to be one district or two districts or three districts,” said Shmuel Lefkowitz, vice president for community services at Agudath Israel of America, an Orthodox umbrella group. “We are saying that six Senate seats and five congressional seats is too much. Our influence is diluted.”
Lefkowitz was one of several individuals who made the case for Jewish majority districts at a September 20 public hearing of the New York legislative redistricting task force, which will likely release a draft of a redistricting map before the end of December. In an interview with the Forward, Lefkowitz said that his organization is looking to elect to office not Republicans per se, but officials who would “serve our needs best.”
Yet according to an October 3 editorial in the Orthodox newspaper Hamodia, it is not just their perceived economic needs as a group that the Orthodox want addressed. Politicians from both parties have shown themselves able to address those kinds of demands. It is their social views, too, that need representation, the editorial stated. And those views tend to break down based on party lines.
The successful campaign to legalize same-sex marriage in New York this year appears to have been a catalyst. Agudath Israel lobbied strongly to stop the bill. But five of the six state senators representing South Brooklyn’s Orthodox community voted in favor of it. The only one to vote against it — Martin Golden — is a Republican.
“The result of this fragmentation is that Congress and the state Senate may be sensitive to the larger Jewish electorate in these districts, giving wholehearted support to Israel, for instance, but less so to the issues that are important to religious Jews,” the Hamodia editorial stated. “The assault on family values that we witnessed this summer sailed through the state legislature with hardly a whimper of protest from the state senators who represent the Orthodox Jews in South Brooklyn.”
Meir Wikler, a Boro Park native and a self-described “squeaky wheel” for Jewish redistricting, also spoke at the task force meeting, in favor of the idea. In an interview with the Forward, Wikler said that an Orthodox district would “not necessarily” go Republican. But he added: “By and large, politically our community could be categorized as conservative, and many of the elected officials that represent our community are more of the liberal bent. And this certainly doesn’t reflect our views.”
Republican interest in a Jewish district was first reported by the New York Daily News in late November. The paper revealed that Republican Senate Majority leader Dean Skelos had sought out New York City Deputy Comptroller Simcha Felder to run as a Republican in a “super ‘Jewish district.’” Felder, a Democrat, reportedly told Skelos that he would consider changing parties to run for the seat. Felder declined an interview with the Forward.
The Orthodox push for a Jewish district appears to mimic the efforts of other ethnic minorities, which lobby for political districts that keep their neighborhoods intact. “I think what we are seeing here is the rise of more identity politics in this country,” said Samuel Abrams, a political scientist at Sarah Lawrence College. “We are seeing time and time again, not just in New York, that every group, regardless of how you cut it, whether it is a racial group or a religious group or an ethnic group, has called for increased identity representation.”
But in the case of Orthodox Jews, the push for an explicitly Jewish district actually puts them at odds with most of their fellow Jews. According to Steven M. Cohen, a sociologist at the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at New York University’s Wagner School, Orthodox Jews are unique in wanting to have Jewish majority districts.
“Generally, Orthodox Jews like to have their political muscle concentrated, because they have high solidarity amongst themselves but are numerically a minority not just of America, but of Jews,” he said. “They have a political agenda, which is a specialized agenda, that doesn’t lend itself to coalition building.”
Non-Orthodox Jews, on the other hand, tend to join with likeminded individuals — but not necessarily other Jews — to get their voices heard in their state legislatures and in Congress, said Cohen.
Despite the reported Republican maneuvering, a South Brooklyn Jewish Senate district is far from a foregone conclusion. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has vowed to veto any maps that come out of the legislative redistricting task force, which he sees as beholden to partisan interests. Senate Democrats have their own reservations about a Jewish district, warning that it could come at the expense of other ethnically compact districts in Brooklyn.
“While it might be a laudable goal to create a southern Brooklyn district to heavily favor Jewish and Russian communities of interest, we would have to see what that map would look like,” said Jeffrey Wice, special counsel to the Senate Democrats. “If you create a gem in the middle of thorns, the gem might look nice but the thorns will look sloppy.”
Naomi Zeveloff is the former Middle East correspondent of the Forward, primarily covering Israel and the Palestinian Territories.