Shlomo Fischer
Shlomo Fischer

Jews: Minority or Mainstream?

The recent Pew survey, Jewish Americans in 2020, suggests both a substantial divergence between various sectors of the American Jewish community and a deep change in Jewish identity among the Orthodox and their perception of the position of the Jews in the world. Formerly, the Orthodox and even Ultra-Orthodox communities, along with other Jewish groups, viewed the Jewish people and the Orthodox sector as a minority that needed protection and whose rights had to be ensured. Today, Orthodox groups see their task as defending traditional conservative values, and in so doing are aligning with traditional and conservative groups, some of whom see themselves as the rightful majority and mainstream of their society. Some of the new-found allies of the Orthodox had been traditionally considered hostile or inimical to Jews and Jewish interests and are considered as such by many non-Orthodox Jews today. The Orthodox seem to have gained a large measure of self-confidence in their alignment with these “mainstream” or “majority” populations. Their new perception of their position in the world – as endorsing traditional values and aligned with conservative “majoritarian” populations – likely contributes to the divergence between the sectors of the Jewish people.

This divergence can be seen in the finding that 60% of Reform Jews and 74% of Jews of no denomination (Jews who do not identify as Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox) say that they have “nothing” or “not much” in common with Orthodox Jews. Only 9% of Reform Jews say that they have “a lot” in common with the Orthodox. Similarly, about half of Orthodox Jews say they that they have nothing or not much in common with Reform Jews and only 9% say that they have a lot in common.

While we cannot draw direct comparisons with surveys from previous years, this situation seems to be new in American Jewish life. Concerning this, the Pew report itself writes:

“There were some signs of this divergence in Pew Research Center’s previous survey of Jewish Americans, conducted in 2013. But it is especially evident in the 2020 survey, conducted during a polarizing election campaign.”

This mutual alienation among the different sectors of Jewish Americans may, in fact, represent a tectonic shift in Jewish identity. Throughout the modern era, for the past 250 years, intra-Jewish differences, while significant, paled in comparison to the threats and opportunities the outside world presented which affected all Jews alike – Emancipation and antisemitism, Holocaust, and the birth of Israel. As Pew points out, until recently most Jews felt that they had a lot or at least some things in common with other Jews, even those who differed from them in level of religious observance or lifestyle. The current Pew report seems to hint that some fundamental aspect of Jewish identity has shifted. What might it be?

The Pew report’s comment highlights the importance of politics in the mutual alienation and disassociation of the various Jewish sectors. Indeed, the divergence in political views is far reaching. Among the Orthodox, 75% identify or lean Republican; among everyone else between 70% to 80% identify or lean Democratic. Fifty percent of US Jews identify as liberal, and among Reform and non-denominational Jews, it is 55% and 60% respectively. Among the Orthodox though, 60% identify as conservatives. Similarly, 75% of all US Jews disapproved of President Trump  but 81% of the Orthodox  approved of him.

These differences extend to Israel. Over half of American Jews say that Netanyahu’s leadership was “fair” or “poor.” Among the Reform and the non-denominational the relatively negative ratings are around 60%. Among the Orthodox though, 77% rated Netanyahu’s leadership as “good” or “excellent.” Among Republicans (the vast majority of whom are Orthodox) 80% gave Netanyahu a positive rating. This degree of political polarization is also new. In the 2013 survey “only” 57% of Orthodox identified as Republican. As political polarization increased, apparently did the mutual alienation among the sectors.

Political differences between Republicans and Democrats today carry the character of identity and do not only represent policy divergence. Especially under Donald Trump, the Republican Party has become the party of white Christians, led by males. Many of the supporters of the Republican Party and again especially Trump supporters, view this population as the “real America,” as the “legitimate” majority who in a deep sense owns the country. The Democratic Party, in contrast, has become identified with minorities, with Blacks and Hispanics and with women, who because of their relative lack of resources, power and prestige are sometimes referred to as a “sociological minority”, and with the LGBT community.  One of the central ironies in American politics, is that the minorities together seem to be becoming a numerical majority, thus threatening the dominance of the white Christian “majority.”

Just as politics represents “identity” in the general national framework, so in the Jewish framework, political views represent something more than “just” political views. Political polarization expresses a shift in Jewish identity and in perceptions of the Jewish position in the world.

Traditionally, since the destruction of the Second Commonwealth, Jews have understood themselves to be a minority. During the long Exile in whatever country they resided, Jews constituted and thought of themselves, as a minority. That is, they were almost always a numerical minority but beyond that, they were a minority in terms of consciousness. They always knew they did not set the rules, that they existed upon the sufferance of the majority and were always liable to be persecuted. This fact of minority existence did not change with modernity and their entrance into modern democracies, but its meaning shifted. It required Jews to acquire and fight for the human and civil rights that democracy promised. Only those rights protected them from persecution and discrimination. Thus, they tended to form alliances with other minorities and downtrodden groups.

The liberalism of the non-Orthodox majority of American Jews is very much rooted in Jewish historical experience, that is, in hundreds of years of minority existence. In that sense, liberal values are indeed “Jewish values.”

The Orthodox, too, participated in this trend. The strictly Orthodox political party Agudath Israel in interwar Poland continuously struggled for internationally recognized minority rights for Jews and they even joined (along with Germans, Ukrainians, and non-Orthodox Jews) the National Minorities Bloc in the 1922 Polish parliamentary elections. Until the current century, Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods voted Democratic along with other Jewish neighborhoods.

I suggest that the recent Orthodox adoption of a right-wing Republican identity represents not only a shift of political orientation, but a shift in the substance of Jewish identity. Orthodox Jews see their place in the world not as part of a broad coalition of minorities whose rights (including occasionally physical safety) must be defended, but as part of a coalition of traditional and conservative groups who represent, to their minds, the given and legitimate order of society, and in many cases the majority or mainstream population.

The Orthodox in America identified deeply with the Netanyahu right-wing-Haredi Israeli government, which saw itself as representing the “people” and pursued a nationalist conservative and religious agenda. They also aligned themselves with the white, traditional, Christian population of America, which had historically been the majority population and still thinks of itself as the rightful majority and the American “mainstream (even if today they may numerically be in the minority).

The expressions of this trend are worth looking at. Orthodox and conservative religious Jewish pundits such as Dennis Prager often align themselves with the national conservative movements and especially with conservative Christian groups such as the Evangelicals and conservative Catholics. They speak of them as sharing “traditional” mainstream values, especially in regard to gender and sexuality, and in the “Judeo-Christian” heritage and identity of America. The Ultra-Orthodox spokesman of Agudath Israel of America, R. Avi Shafran, even speaks, in regard to Evangelicals and Catholics, of “our Christian sisters and brothers,” rhetoric that would have been unthinkable a generation or two ago. (Remember Torquemada and the Inquisition? Catholic priests and Evangelicals were to be feared and loathed.) They are happy to ally with Evangelicals in unequivocal support for Israel and its policies.

Such an alliance could be interpreted in instrumental terms, however, the emotional intensity of at least some of Trump’s Orthodox supporters seems to belie this. The anti-lockdown demonstrations in Brooklyn together with the mask burnings and the Trump flags and MAGA caps seem to indicate an identification with the base of Trump support. Such identification was also evident in the eight busloads of Trump supporters from the Orthodox strongholds of Boro Park, Monsey, and Lakewood who participated in the January 6 rally in support of Trump in front of the White House (but did not participate in the storming of the Capitol). Such support and identification seem to have continued even after Trump’s defeat.

While liberal Jews see an existential threat in any attempt to crack the “wall” between church and state and the implication that America is a Christian country, the Orthodox are a lot less bothered. They see themselves on the “same side.” Both the Orthodox and conservative Christians invoke God and  adhere to traditional social norms. The alliance of the Netanyahu government with the Republican Party and its white Christian constituents further cemented this conservative “mainstream” orientation and created a triangle of mutual support and alliance : White Christian Republican America – American Orthodox Jews – Israeli right wing and Orthodox parties and government.

Thus, we have two basic forms of Jewish identity, which on some level are mutually exclusive or at least in tension with one another: Jews as a minority that has often sought protection against the majority or mainstream conservative or traditional population and, in contrast, Jews as possessing a traditional or conservative orientation in alignment with the majority or mainstream. With such a deep difference, of course the two groups carrying the respective identities don’t have much in common; their identities are practically antithetical. The significance of this polarization is increasing insofar as the Orthodox population is growing, both absolutely and as a percentage of the Jewish population, and is becoming increasingly influential.

This situation not only raises questions of ideology or consciousness, it could have serious policy implications. For example, it is desirable that the Jewish community unite to confront and combat antisemitism in a concerted fashion. Nevertheless, each of the two sectors tends to identify a different threat and source of antisemitism – the Orthodox tend to point at the Left and the Muslims, while the liberal non-Orthodox primarily blame the white supremacists. Such divergence could seriously impede the struggle against anti-Semitism.

Orthodoxy has once again proved that it is a dynamic and even surprising actor in modern Jewish life. Its new affinity for conservative and traditional “mainstream” groups – even formerly hostile Christian ones – has changed the social, political, and cultural dynamics of Jewish life in America and in Israel.

About the Author
Dr. Shlomo Fischer is a sociologist and a senior staff member of the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) in Jerusalem. He taught in the Department of Education at Hebrew University. He is also a founder of Yesodot- Center for Torah and Democracy which works to advance education for democracy in the State-Religious school sector in Israel. His research interests include religious groups, class and politics in Israel and the sociology of the Jewish People in the Diaspora.
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