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Steven Windmueller
Where Jews and Judaism Meet the Political Road!

Abortion and More: The Supreme Court and America’s Jews

These are challenging times for America and its citizens. The depth of the divisions are significant. There has emerged a contest over what America represents. This is as much a cultural contest as it is political one. The basis of these contemporary tensions are not framed in the moment but in fact take this nation back to its founding. Whether we focus on the question of race, the relationship of the state to its religious moorings, or the issue of how the founders understand liberty and equality, the nation’s very identity and character are being reframed by the Supreme Court’s most recent decisions.

This June, the Court passed along six decisions, covering a broad spectrum of issues, all however challenging the sensibilities and political instincts of Americans. Beyond its recent abortion ruling (Dobbs v. Jackson), the Court’s roll back on church-state considerations (Carson v. Makin), environmental concerns (West Virginia v. EPA), or gun legislation(NY Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen), all add to the broader discussion on the nature of the American democratic enterprise.

These decisions accentuate the idea of two competing American political perspectives. One camp places specific attention on personal conduct. Here, a particular type of American morality is reflected in how one is to read and interpret the Constitution. Its adherents hold to a distinctive view of how this society was envisioned and ought to perform. The strict Constitutional constructionists employ a belief in the special and essential role of religion within the social construct of this nation, supporting the values and conduct of this nation’s citizens. Underlying this political framework is a coalition of evangelical and Constitutional activists, who are committed to reigning in the liberal norms that undergird much of the American mindset and have dominated this nation’s stage over the past half century.

This group seeks to reclaim the original intent assigned to this nation’s legal construct, while reaffirming the cultural motifs of Americanism. By contrast, its opponents are committed to framing the Constitution as a living, transformative document, allowing for the individual to exercise greater control over particular personal choices impacting their lives and for the state to have the right to exercise greater authority toward enhancing the general quality and welfare of the society.

This latter position would expand the capacity of government to manage and control access to guns as an example, while expanding the rights of the individual to determine their personal behaviors concerning their body, whom they wish to love and more.

Upon reflection, America has moved over the past fifty years into a liberal activist phase, empowered in part by civil rights legislation and such Court rulings as Roe v Wade, to embrace the rights of the individual while giving license to other personal conduct expressions.

We now are encountering a powerful countercultural response on several fronts to reassert an Evangelical and constructionist perspectives about this society. The current Supreme Court, reflecting this political mindset, appears to be determined to limit the authority of the state to impose its policies on its citizens with the primary exception involving moral and personal conduct issues. With this current construct of the Court, the war over American identity has most certainly intensified. These six decisions, rendered at the end of this term, have served to expand the debate on the future direction of our society and the specific role of the courts in this conversation.

Jewish Implications and the Court:

For Jewish Americans, many of whom gravitate to these core liberal social principles, such recent court renderings are particularly challenging, even depressing.[1]  These recent actions are seen as rolling back hard-won choices, achieved over decades, that had involved a significant level of Jewish activism, in consort with others, focused on achieving women’s rights, working on restricting the availability of guns, and among other considerations, seeking to advance environmental policies. One can assume that these recent decisions will energize voters, including America’s Jews to again reengage with these causes.

As we would expect, the majority of the Jewish institutional world publicly criticized Dobbs v. Jackson. By contrast, the community’s more traditional religious constituencies seem to embrace a number of these decisions, affirming their religiously held views on abortion while upholding their traditional values about the alignment of our society with religious principles.

While it should be noted that the OU (Orthodox Union) neither endorsed or opposed the decision on abortion, it applauded the Court’s actions in the Maine religious tuition case. Alternatively, Agudath Israel, clearly embraced the Court’s abortion ruling:[2]

While Agudath does not “seek to impose our religious beliefs on the broader American society”, it did note: “society, through its laws, should promote a social ethic that affirms the supreme value of life. Allowing abortion on demand, in contrast, promotes a social ethic that devalues life.”

Based on polling data, among mainstream Jewish Republicans and Independents, there remains a strong inclination to support abortions, with 60 percent of LA Republicans and 80% of LA Independent Jewish voters, affirming such perspectives.  90% of Jewish Democrats affirm the right of a woman to determine her choices.[3] While the data here is extracted from a specific community sample, other population studies, as well as the Pew Report, reflect similar conclusions.

One can possibly argue that the divide around some if not all of these social, economic and policy questions does not neatly divide by party affiliation, at least in the case of Jewish voters, it does point to the presence of religious divisions within our community and the broader society.

Partisanship within the Jewish communal world is more pronounced around candidates, foreign policy considerations, and overarching domestic policies, being less evident on social and personal conduct matters. These policy matters are likely  to further divide American Jewry, at least along religious boundary lines.  These rulings will no doubt impact the political playing field as we move into the fall 2022 mid-term campaigns.

Clearly issues such as abortion and gun control become central political considerations for liberal Jews, likely to influence their voting behaviors, while more conservative Jewish voters have a greater tendency to identify with economic and foreign policy issues ahead of such domestic and personal conduct matters.

The forthcoming mid-term elections will likely see the same intensity of Jewish political engagement, as we experienced in the 2018 mid-term contests and the 2020 Presidential campaigns. Such activism will be demonstrated by high levels of financial investment in candidates that share the donors’ perspectives, heighten voter turnout initiatives, and strong participation in election rallies.

The Court rulings add to the already messy and uncertain political climate one finds more generally within this society and points to some of the tensions and divisions within the Jewish communal space, as well.

[1] https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/wake-roe-reversal-american-jews-see-attack-religious-liberty-rcna35473

[2] https://www.israelhayom.com/2022/06/26/us-jewish-groups-divided-over-supreme-courts-abortion-ruling/

[3] https://calstatela.patbrowninstitute.org/pbi-in-the-news/surveying-jewish-los-angeles-a-portrait-of-engagement/

About the Author
Steven Windmueller, Ph.D. is an Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. Prior to coming to HUC, Dr.Windmueller served for ten years as the JCRC Director of the LA Jewish Federation. Between 1973-1985, he was the director of the Greater Albany Jewish Federation (now the Federation of Northeastern New York). He began his career on the staff of the American Jewish Committtee. The author of four books and numerous articles, Steven Windmueller focuses his research and writings on Jewish political behavior, communal trends, and contemporary anti-Semitism.
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