It is a cliché to observe that, outside the Orthodox community, American Jews lean politically left. As one political scientist put it, “American Jews are disproportionately clustered on the liberal/Democratic side of the political spectrum.”
Many factors explain this pattern. Several draw from the hardships of historical experience.
Most American Jews are of Ashkenazi descent – largely from Central and Eastern Europe – where the politics of their forebears was dominated by imperial and explicitly Christian elites. In those former homelands, Jews were the quintessential outsiders, often forcibly constrained to live and work in crowded and resource-poor ghettos. Across the “Pale of Settlement” they also faced recurring pogroms – rampaging mobs come to rape and slaughter, which the authorities rarely acted to prevent or punish.
Once settled in America, the vast majority of Jewish immigrants experienced opportunities unlike anything remotely available in their former lands. Yet as their offspring climbed the American achievement ladder, they too encountered roadblocks. While less harsh than the “old country” barriers, aspiring Jewish professionals faced exclusion from leading American businesses, universities, and organizations, all dominated by a Protestant and largely conservative elite.
Amid such barriers, the Democratic party’s multi-ethnic and pro-labor machine politics offered Jewish Americans a far more welcoming home – as well as unprecedented access to the citadels of power. America’s first Jewish Supreme Court Justice, Louis Brandeis, was appointed by Democratic President Woodrow Wilson.
Additionally, two massive historical earthquakes further cemented the predominant American Jewish attachment to liberal-left politics. First and foremost was the Holocaust, perpetrated by a horrifically fascist, radically nationalist “blood-and-soil” regime hell-bent on the complete extermination of the Jewish people.
While the full story is more complex – including the Nazis’ all-too-rarely noticed National Socialist brand name – the collective trauma of the Holocaust focused the “survival radar” of most American Jews almost exclusively towards threats from the radical right. Democratic President Harry Truman’s near instantaneous recognition of the new State of Israel in 1948 – against much State Dept. resistance – reinforced this trend.
Second, and of particular significance to Jews in the shadow of the Holocaust, was the subsequent struggle and triumph of the American Civil Rights Movement – an extraordinary and enormously inspiring modern Exodus story. Again, while the full story is more complex – including civil rights Republicans battling racist southern Democrats – the one-sentence message from the mid-1960s was that Kennedy-Johnson Democrats were the great opponents of American racism.
Over half a century later, this conceptual framework still largely governs American Jewish politics. But the tectonic plates that shaped this framework have shifted. Like generals who fight today’s wars with yesterday’s tactics, the American Jewish engagement in national politics rests on foundations that have largely vanished.
Among several vanished foundations are these two: That the democratic left is good for American Jews; and that the democratic left is good for Israel’s survival and flourishing.
Thanks to the foot soldiers of the democratic left – often supported by sympathetic college professors – Israel is now regularly denounced across American campuses as an illegitimate, racist, and White supremacist entity that should be destroyed and replaced with a Palestinian state “from the river to the sea.” Jewish students who challenge these characterizations frequently experience harassment, threats, and ostracism.
An exhaustive list assembled by the Anti-Defamation League clearly demonstrates that such denunciations go far beyond mere criticism of Israeli government policy. The rhetoric is extreme, false, and annihilationist, namely: “calling for the end of Israel’s existence as a Jewish state; accusing Israel of committing genocide or ethnic cleansing; labelling Israel an ‘apartheid state;’ . . . [and] supporting violence or a military confrontation with Israel.”
The campus rhetoric specifically involves denouncing Zionism – the belief in Israel’s right to exist as a national home for the Jewish people – as wholly racist and politically illegitimate (but while still endorsing nationalism for the Palestinian people). It also results in Jewish candidates for student government positions being falsely libeled as “‘white supremacists’ or otherwise unfit for participation in the campus community.”
Most U.S. campuses now feature an annual “Israel Apartheid Week.” No other country on the planet faces anything like these rageful weeks of targeted campus hatred – not China amid its ongoing Uygher genocide; not Russia despite its litany of brutal Ukraine war crimes; and not Cuba with its prisons full of democracy advocates and observant Christians.
Typical of these hatefests was last April’s Israel Apartheid Week at Duke. After Palestinian poet Mohammed el-Kurd declared, “We want our land back from the [Jordan] river to the [Mediterranean] sea,” he was asked “what would happen to 7 million Israelis who live on most of this land.” El-Kurd replied, ‘I don’t care. I truly, sincerely, don’t give a f**k’ – [followed by] [h]ooting, laughter and thunderous applause.”
The pervasiveness of this genocidal, intersectional bullying is indicated in a fall 2021 campus survey by ADL and Hillel, which disclosed that “32 percent of Jewish students were targeted in anti-Semitic incidents,” among which “79 percent said that it happened to them more than once.”
And far from being limited to campuses, this bigoted ideology of the left is now metastasizing throughout American political discourse, to include leading influencers within the Democratic party.
Women’s March co-chairs Linda Sarsour and Tamika Mallory, both of whom adoringly praise the rabid anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan, nonetheless were invited to speak at the 2020 Democratic Convention that nominated Joe Biden for President.
The New York Times – the nation’s most prestigious liberal newspaper – now routinely publishes biased editorials and cartoons against Israel. In 2019 it published a vividly anti-Semitic cartoon of a blind, kippah-clad President Trump being leash-led by a dachshund sporting a Magen David and bearing the face of Benjamin Netanyahu.
And in the U.S. Congress, both the membership and the radicalism of the so-called “Squad” – a team of Congressmen/women who consistently denounce Israel – keep growing, while centrist Democrats hunker down in silence, apparently fearful of the Woke backlash that criticism of the Squad’s anti-Semitic rhetoric would elicit.
In 2019, Rep. Ilhan Omar lashed out at critics of her prior anti-Israel statements by tweeting, “It’s all about the Benjamins baby,” invoking a classic anti-Semitic trope of Jewish money wielding undue influence. Efforts at censure failed, with the Democrats instead issuing a milquetoast condemnation of “all hate,” listing a catch-all bucket list of minority groups – and which failed even to mention Omar or her noxious statement.
In May 2021, when Hamas launched another terror war against Israel by firing over 4,000 rockets targeting civilian locations, the Squad denounced Israel – and only Israel – for its necessary acts of self-defense. Ilhan Omar scolded Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu an “ethno-nationalist,” while Ayanna Pressley compared the Israel Defense Forces “to the nooses used to terrorize black Americans.” Then Rashida Tlaib denounced “bullying by pro-Israel lobbyists,” calling their efforts “apartheid, plain and simple.”
In sum, one anti-Semitic trope after another: comparing Netanyahu’s politics to Hitler’s, Israel to the Ku Klux Klan, and American supporters of Israel to apartheid-supporting bullies. This is the face of the modern progressive left – and not just from some remote street protest, but front and center in the United States Congress.
Some claim that this rhetoric is just anti-Zionist, not anti-Semitic, and hence no big deal – as if advocating the destruction of the world’s only Jewish state, located in the ancestral homeland, has little to do with Jewish identity and peoplehood – or that such an explicitly genocidal goal is therefore rendered legitimate. In any event, such hair-splitting defies the facts on the ground. The narratives that support anti-Zionism virtually all involve either anti-Semitic caricatures or distortions of history that falsely demonize Jews.
Which was plentifully exemplified last week, with the Boston BDS movement’s unveiling of their Jewish mapping project. Overlaid on a Massachusetts state map, and overflowing with multi-color dots and interconnecting lines, the “project” claims to expose the several “ways in which institutional support for the colonization of Palestine [i.e., Israel’s existence] is structurally tied to policing and systemic white supremacy here where we live, and to US imperialist projects in other countries.”
In classic anti-Semitic fashion, the project locates Zionism at the conceptual and causal center of a globe-spanning range of alleged crimes. With exquisite conspiratorial phrasing, the project purports to unmask the hidden links between “Zionism, Policing and Empire,” which it does by “[e]xamin[ing] the networking of police agencies across Massachusetts as highly militarized forces that . . . enforce the intersecting systems of white supremacy and capitalism, . . . often using Israel as a point of reference for ideology, policy, technology and organization.”
And it places Jews and Jewish institutions at the heart of this evil network of oppressions. Again, in the project’s own words: “Boston’s Zionist leaders and powerhouse NGOs . . . buy legitimacy and support from universities, [and] use their influence to enable a range of oppressive agendas,” which it says extend from Israel, to college campuses, into U.S. policing, across Puerto Rico, and even in the school choice/charter school movement.
And the project makes clear its explicitly destructive agenda, in explaining why it chose to list specific names and addresses of Jewish people and groups (and their affiliated networks): “Our goal in pursuing this collective mapping was to reveal the local entities and networks that enact devastation, so we can dismantle them. Every entity has an address, every network can be disrupted.” At a time when political violence is becoming normalized, such language should trigger alarms.
Jew-hatred comes in several flavors and from a multiplicity of sources. For understandable reasons, the American Jewish community has long focused principally on the threat from the politically extreme right. But nearly 80 years after the Holocaust, it is well past time to wake up and recognize this unwelcome reality: The far right is neither the only nor the greatest threat to contemporary Jewish flourishing. The intersectional left – which unlike the far right, has gained immense influence within America’s leading political, educational, and corporate institutions – has placed targets on the backs of Jews, Jewish organizations, and Israel. We ignore this gathering storm at our peril.