We Jews are a complicated people, not easy to categorize, pigeon hole, and characterize with one broad brush stroke.
How we identify as Jews in America, in Israel, and around the world; our different ethnic and national backgrounds; our understanding of Jewish history and experience; our relationship with Jewish law and ritual; our faith, theologies, and experience of the holy; our interpretations of Jewish tradition and values; our tribal loyalties and commitment to universal humanitarian values and ethics; our relationship with authority and government; our individual and group socioeconomic status and consequent policy positions – all shape how we understand who we are as Jews and for whom we vote in elections.
In the days following the 2020 election, I was reminded of a meeting a number of years ago of the Central Conference of American Rabbis in Jerusalem. Yossi Klein Halevi (senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem) spoke to 200 Reform rabbis from around the world and characterized two broad psychological, emotional, moral, and political orientations of Jews based on the Purim and Exodus narratives. He acknowledged that most of us embrace and reflect both attitudes to a lesser and greater degree, but from time to time emphasize one over the other depending upon circumstances.
Purim Jews, he suggested, understand that the world is often a hostile place filled with Jew-haters intending to do us harm as Haman did in the story of Esther and Mordecai. Purim Jews learned through history’s hard knocks not to be naïve concerning the cynical and cruel intentions of others. They know Jew-haters when they see them and understand that the best protection from antisemitism has been for Jews to attain national sovereignty and/or political power.
Purim Jews tend to be more tribal in their orientation. They are more mistrusting and suspicious of the outsider, and politically conservative. Security comes before everything else. In Israel today, it’s said that there are three over-riding concerns for most Israelis in elections: Security – Security – Security.
Pesach Jews, he said, tend to care most about the pain and disadvantages of the underdog, the outsider, and the oppressed “other” because we “know the heart of the stranger because [we] were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9). Pesach Jews learned not to be hard hearted; rather, to remain compassionate despite cruelty around them, and never to become oppressors themselves.
Hillel taught, “In a place where there are no human beings, strive to be a mensch – a caring compassionate person.” (Pirkei Avot 2:4). “You shall not stand idly by while others bleed” (Leviticus 19:16) is essential to the moral spirit of Judaism itself. Ethical responsibility is among Jewish tradition’s first principles. Pesach Jews tend to embrace universal humanitarian moral values and are politically moderate and liberal.
As I note above, there are many concrete forces influencing how Jews think, behave, interact vis a vis the outside world, and vote. I suggest that the Purim-Pesach tension is also an important factor.
In the 2020 election, American Jews voted overwhelmingly for Joe Biden over Donald Trump. See this article in the Times of Israel for an analysis and comparison of different polls – https://www.timesofisrael.com/how-did-us-jews-vote-polls-offer-imperfect-take-though-big-picture-is-clear/
Historically, Jews have voted consistently for Democratic presidential candidates – between 60% and 90% – since the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932. Why?
As a minority community comprising only 2% of the general population, American Jews have understood that our security in America is dependent upon the maintenance of civility, tolerance, inclusion, strong democratic institutions, constitutional norms, and an economy that serves the middle class, which is why the majority of American Jews vote for moderate or liberal candidates in the Democratic Party that they believe embrace the above conditions and values.
Trump was rejected this time by many moderate and conservative Republican Jews for his attacks on science, facts, and truth, his failure to lead in confronting the Covid pandemic and resulting economic crises, his sidling up to world authoritarian leaders and spurning of traditional western democratic American alliances, his ongoing assault on democratic principles, institutions, laws, and norms, his shameless appeal to racism, misogyny, homophobia, Islamophobia, and white supremacy, and his administration being the most corrupt in modern times.
Joe Biden attracted the vast majority of American Jewry because he is the ‘anti-Trump’ in virtually every way. Independents, “Never Trump” Republicans, former Republicans, and Jews who normally voted Republican joined a broad coalition of moderate and progressive Democrats and voted for Joe Biden. Biden won by more than 7 million votes with the most votes ever tabulated in an American presidential election – 81,255,933 votes.
The Israel Democracy Institute released a poll a day before the US election and asked Israeli Jews whether Trump or Biden is the preferred candidate “from the standpoint of Israel’s interests.” 70% said Trump is the preferred candidate, 13% said Biden, and 17% don’t know. (See Times of Israel – By 70% to 13%, Israeli Jews say Trump is better candidate than Biden for Israel)
Why did Israeli Jews diverge in their support of Trump so dramatically from the American Jewish community that supported Biden? Trump’s actions in moving the American embassy to Jerusalem, supporting the annexation of the Golan Heights and settlement expansion beyond the security fence, his walking away from the Iran nuclear deal, and his supporting the Abraham Accords, and his spurning the interests of the Palestinians appealed to Israeli Jews as it did to American Republican Jewish supporters of Trump. Though Joe Biden has a decades-long record of support for Israel’s security and for the two state solution as the only way Israel’s security and democracy can be preserved, it remains to be seen whether Israeli Jews accept that a President Biden and the Democratic Party are, in fact, strongly pro-Israel.
In this election, the negatives that drove American Jewish opposition to Trump didn’t matter to Israeli Jews. As long as Trump did right by Israel in their minds, they supported him.
It’s my hope that the Republican Party of pre-Trump years is restored and rejects Trump’s autocracy, anti-democratic character, bigotry, and corruption. The United States needs two viable political parties committed to the health of American democracy and democratic norms, to the rule of law, to support for inclusion and diversity as a nation of immigrants, to respect for and protection of the rights of minorities, to the security and well-being of Israel, and to the United States as a leader of democracy and human rights around the world.
As a minority community in the United States, the Purim-Pesach continuum plus the other factors that influence American Jewish party affiliation will continue to affect who we are and why we vote as we do, just as the Purim-Pesach continuum plays out differently in Israel where the Jewish population is in the overwhelming majority.