Have Republicans Ushered in a New Era in American Jewish Political Behavior?

Samuel G. Freedman, whose work I strongly admire, suggests in a recent piece in Forward (July 10, 2016) that we should see in Donald Trump and his positive reception at AIPAC in March 2016 something like a prefigured outcome of the long term GOP-inspired political process aimed at splitting the Jewish vote between the Republican and Democratic parties.

Not a short term result of the Obama-Netanyahu conflict nor of squabbling over the Iran deal, the electoral situation shows elements of a new era in American Jewish political behavior, Freedman says, highlighting some major differences today from when American Jews initially shifted their political identity to the Democrats in the 1920s and 1930s, supporting Al Smith and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

American Jews held fast to their Democratic political loyalties for two generations after the New Deal; but the rise of a cohort of politically conservative, Republican-aligned Jewish intellectuals, along with a slight increase in the Jewish vote for Reagan in 1980 and 1984, helped feed a GOP belief that many Jews could be permanently or momentarily won over to conservatism and the Republican Party. Trump, Freedman says despite outspoken opposition from many of these same conservative intellectuals, is the logical outcome of their effort.

The growing divide among Jews did not happen based on domestic issues like affirmative action or expanded health care.  Freedman writes that the post-1967 Zionism rooted in Israeli religious nationalism, as opposed to the original socialist labor Zionism, has been the cause of the expanding GOP opportunity.  This, together with demographic changes in American Jewry itself, namely growth in the Orthodox population, who are more amenable than secular or Conservative or Reform Jews to a Greater Israel orientation, indicate something new is happening.

“In that alignment, America’s centrist and Modern Orthodox are the brethren of Israel’s religious nationalists. This attachment of American Jews to Israel in this very selective way has had tremendous — and, by my lights, catastrophic — consequences for Jewish unity in both America and Israel.”  Freedman describes a yawning divide in American Jewry opened since Oslo and the death of Yitzhak Rabin, together with a parallel process occurring alongside, in which the American partisan divide has mapped itself on the Jewish one.  Deep fissures developing for decades were papered over by Camp David and the second Palestinian intifada, he reasons, but, more recently under Obama and Netanyahu, “the long-present fault lines reasserted themselves more widely and more deeply than ever before.”

In the context of growing friction between the United States and Israel, Freedman thinks, Prime Minister Netanyahu made a strategic decision to align Israel with the Republican Party and particularly to look at evangelical Christians as a replacement for liberal and moderate American Jews in terms of being reliable allies. These so-called Christian Zionists, unlike most American Jews, could be counted on to support an expansive Israel and the settlement enterprise.  This has had strategic consequences.


Now, little is deeply wrong with what Freedman writes or claims: indeed, I share his distaste for what transpired when AIPAC gave its podium to Donald Trump, thereby helping a racist, misogynist, and unqualified candidate to briefly appear presidential, and I suspect Netanyahu made the calculation that Freedman asserts that he did.  But Freedman’s general assessment seems to me also too pat, a little too certain of itself, and is accompanied by questionable judgments.  Basically, Freedman’s view appears somewhat off in an election year in which the American Jewish vote for the Democratic Party candidate is increasingly likely to expand rather than contract, easily matching, perhaps topping, earlier Jewish support for President Obama in 2008 (78%) and 2012 (69%).  Indeed, Republican conservatives have been wringing their hands since March, observing that Trump is driving away Jews they thought finally ripe for their strategy. Noam Neusner, former Bush White House liaison with American Jewry, says “I don’t think the opportunity exists anymore, largely because Trump is just anathema to many Jews, including Jewish conservatives.”

Freedman’s additional assessments also will raise eyebrows – to wit, that the two state solution has reached its end, that Israel’s fundamental direction is represented by the reigning leadership in what is actually a deeply divided, fragmented society, and that Israel evinces little interest in peace-making amidst the remarkable shifting realities in the region.  Newly visible approaches by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, however, and Israeli responses, suggest that diplomacy is not at all dead, and there are important constituencies for the two state solution, in and outside Israel.

It is also a bit difficult to see Trump as the straight line outcome of GOP strategies – Trump acts by his own dynamic and flim-flam, far surpassing in rancor and stupidity what GOP leaders have ever avowed.  Wasn’t it a GOP leadership strategy paper after 2000 that spoke about the need for a Hispanic-oriented demographic strategy?  Why do so many leading Republicans and Republican intellectuals stand apart from Trump and say they will not support him?  Freedman also overreaches in looking at rising French Jewish support for the party of Le Pen as a useful analogy.  France, in which thousands of soldiers and police guard Jewish institutions,represents an example radically different from the United States.  A shift of 4% to 13% in support for Le Pen also tells us little about the 87% core of French Jewry and their politics, who continue to support the moderate parties of the Fifth Republic rather than the right wing parties.

Another concern: Freedman’s exploration begins from and views all in terms of what the Republican Party and Netanyahu have done in recent years and not equally what the Democratic Party and Obama have done nor what the American left has done in the same period.  Many American Jews have followed with rising concern the neo-isolationist policy change under Democratic leadership since 2008 and the accompanying withdrawal of American  power from the Middle East.  Determined not to intervene again in the region, Obama has embraced strategies that have arguably actually expanded conflict to Syria and Lebanon as well as produced failures in Iraq and Libya. Reasonable people debate the benefits of Obama “realism” about the role of American leadership in the region.  American Jews have also followed with expanding concern the rise of an anti-semitic anti-Zionism on the American hard left which has actively sought to increase its influence in the churches, on American campuses, and among the cultural elite.  Many liberal American Jews, secular or Conservative and Reform in orientation, are currently enlisting in efforts to fight back against these troublesome developments.

On such matters, American Jewry is indeed divided on what Israel should be or will represent but they are not to a similar extent split about what should be in America.  Efforts recently in the Democratic Party to fight back against such influences in the party platform and by its leading candidate to disavow the boycott movement and affirm muscular American support for Israel indicate that the election’s outcome will likely be similar to past elections, producing not Jewish realignment or partial realignment but ongoing significant support for the Democrats.  Racist, misogynist, anti-science, anti-rational, and ill-informed statements by the leading Republican candidate make this a near certainty.

About the Author
Kenneth Waltzer is former director of Jewish Studies at Michigan State University and a progressive opponent of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. He a historian of the Holocaust completing a book on the rescue of children and youths at Buchenwald. He directed the Academic Engagement Network 2015-2019.