Steven Windmueller
Is it Good for the Jews?

Building an American Jewish political typography

We are all creatures of our environment. Our respective political cultures reflect our particular social orbits, belief systems and particular loyalties. Our respective political identities are shaped and influenced by our broader general beliefs about our society and our place within it. Certainly, our cultural experiences, personal values, and historical encounters inform and help to frame how we see and engage with politics.

Politics is an extension of who we are.  All of the social forces acting upon us help to define our political outlook. I hold that the quest to assimilate drives all of these forms of political engagement for Jewish Americans. Fundamentally, we operate in the secular environment either conscious or unconsciously with a particular desire to blend in, to be “American”! This is an abiding behavioral characteristic for humans, and most certainly for minority cultures

Within the Jewish political context, we know that religious affiliation, ethnic orientation, generational status, and their urban-suburban status are all key influencers in shaping voting patterns. In this essay, however, we want to look at a different paradigm in identifying voter-types.

In this work, we want to examine the questions that different voters might ask when making political choices and thinking about their political options. These questions often arise from one’s cultural orientation and social identity.

For some of us, our self-interests politics, our nationalism involves an alignment of our Judaism with our Americanism.  Patriotism encompasses an abiding belief that being a “loyal American” is joined with one’s Jewish identity. For these political actors, a central question: “Is it good for the Jews?” These actors are often defined as “identity voters” and articulate their politics through their self-interests as Jewish Americans. Their political identity begins with who they are; it represents an extension of themselves.  In turn, they translate their love of Israel as an extension of their American patriotism. Their political identity is reflected in the interplay of this dual connection.

Israel is best served by an American understanding of the Jewish State’s historical and political uniqueness and its “special relationship” to the United States. For these activists, Israel is an extension of their American story.  For some within this political orbit, Judaism reinforces their political identity and supports their behavior and beliefs. For others, Israel has specifically replaced their religious affiliation, but the Jewish State nonetheless serves to reinforce their political orientation and most certainly their specific and unique passion to support Israel as part of their Americanism.

For these “Jewish patriots” they see the left as more dangerous to the interests of the United States and Israel than extremists on the right.  Criticism of Israel, for example, as expressed by political adversaries on the left, be they Jews or non-Jews, is clearly seen as potentially problematic, undermining the case for Israel and ultimately, the security and viability of the Jewish State. They view certain forms of dissent as not only anti-Semitic but in some cases identify such political assertions as “unpatriotic”.

A second cohort of Jewish Americans draws its political identity from a different relationship and reading of how they connect their Judaism in relationship with their Americanism. While they generally hold to the notion that support for Israel reinforces their overall conservative political orientation. Their politics begin with a defined political philosophy involving small government, a heightened regard for Constitutionalism, and an abiding belief in capitalism, among other political principles. In some cases, these “Jewish Conservatives” critique Democrats as misreading the principles of liberalism, and more directly, the roles and responsibilities of government. Along with their fellow Conservatives, they hold personal liberties and religious freedoms to be profoundly important to their understanding of American values.

A third body of Jewish voters might best be identified as “universal” Jewish voters. This group’s liberal instincts, supported by their connection with and belief in the prophetic tradition, inform and nurture their activism as well as their political orientation. Similar to their counterparts, their center-left liberalism is uniquely aligned with their understanding of Judaism. Their abiding question: “Is it good for America, for my community?” These voters frame their political agenda from the outside-in. In turn, the case for Israel is framed in association with their broader American view of the world. Whereas “identity” Jewish voters begin with the particular, these activists operate from a broader or universal perspective.

By contrast with their opponents, this cohort sees the Jewish right as seeking to close off or at least narrow the debate around Israel. While they may view critics of Israel on the left as problematic, they view the threats emanating from the political right as the existential danger point to Jews and to this nation.

“Radicalized” Jewish voters comprise the fourth sector. This group has actually deep roots within the American political story. Their political left perspectives are in part borne out of an earlier generation of new Americans who brought their ideas about Socialism and Communism when first arriving in this country from Eastern Europe. These current “Jewish Lefties”, sometimes referenced as “red-diaper babies,” generally dismiss the more parochial questions introduced by other Jews in favor of a more global agenda, “Is their politics good for humanity and the world?” Today, these activists can be found among the Progressive wing within the Democratic Party. In line with their own world view, their politics in connection with the State of Israel are generally more critical.

A fifth sector involves the “Independent” Jewish voter, who may hold no formal party affiliation or tend to move among the policy options and candidate choices available to them. Their independence maybe tied to any number of factors, their Libertarian inclinations, their distrust of political parties and ideological certainties, or their belief that the political environment may best be served by a condition of disruptive politics, where candidates have to constantly “prove” their value and worthiness to serve. Interestingly, young voters tend to embrace this particular label in greater numbers than previous generations. As one of their initial questions, this sector may probe: “How are we doing, and can we do better?

These different political camps all begin by framing questions that begin outside of themselves. Whereas a sixth group of voters operates from a fundamentally different paradigm. These folks, Jewish or otherwise, begin their political focus from a purely economic perspective. They pose the question, “What’s good for me?” They disregard traditional political labels, hold a minimal party or ideological loyalties, and in place of such definitions operate from a place of individual advantage or choice. This sector is described by some political analysts as “Gilded Voters”.  Taken from the earlier 19th Century Gilded Age, this class of voters defines its political interests from a particularly narrow, self-serving base-line.  Their abiding question most likely would be “Will this or that political administration serve me better?”.

Capturing Jewish political behavior at times maybe compared to “herding cats!” as Jews are so deeply embedded in the American political environment, where their individual values and personal stories weigh deeply in defining and shaping their particular inclinations and passions.

About the Author
Steven Windmueller, Ph.D. is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk 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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