The surprising story of American Jewish politics

Most American Jews didn't always lean Democratic, and that's only for starters. Photo: Western Wall / Golassso - Wikipedia

OCALA, Fla., January 2, 2014 — Politics have gone hand in hand with American Jewish life from the start.

Immigrants of Jewish religion found unparalleled freedom across what we now call the United States, even while it was ruled by Great Britain. Jewish participation on the American scene evolved from economic success to civic involvement to, finally, holding public office. 

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Such a story is difficult to find elsewhere. While inquisitions and pogroms ravaged Europe, along with some of its colonies, Americans were enjoying religious liberty.

Until the twentieth century, our nation was a promised land bar none for oppressed religious groups.

This allowed a distinct sort of Jewish community to form; one that functioned due to the help of its neighbors, not in spite of them.

“I think that a majority of American Jews–an overwhelming majority–-believe in our American constitutional system, as do Americans of other faiths,” political columnist Allan C. Brownfeld, who is the American Council for Judaism’s publications editor, tells The Washington Times Communities.

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He continues: “They believe in free speech, a free press and, because of their historical experience, are particularly committed to separation of church of state.  Their religious philosophy of concern for those who are less fortunate make them sympathetic to programs which assist the poor and provide equal opportunity for all.  

“In this sense, their religious motivation in the political arena is not different from mainline Protestant groups and most Catholics.   It is difficult to discover a uniquely ‘Jewish’ political philosophy.”

Nonetheless, a large majority of American Jews consistently support the Democratic Party. While that has lessened in recent years, the trend remains. Things were not always this way, however.

Since the Civil War era, Democrats have represented folks who harbor politically-relevant grievances. The GOP, meanwhile, stood for and still champions the preservation of socioeconomic norms.

That does not mean the Democrats were progressives, and the Republicans reactionaries. Far from it.

Many Northern Democrats, who were either of Scots-Irish, Irish Catholic, or some other ethnic European heritage, had fiercely conservative ideas on social policy. Because of their relative material poverty, however, most were sympathetic to fiscal leftism. 

As for almost everyone from the Civil War-torn South, they despised the GOP establishment more than anything else. Therefore, alliances were formed with Northern Democrats under the guise of making friends the enemy of one’s enemy.

Republicans, on the other hand, were mainly capitalistic Anglo-Saxon Protestants and, though they were small in number, Reform Jews.

Both WASPs and Reform Jews tended to be on the wealthier side, and valued intellectual inquiry.  Secularism came with the territory, as did libertarian ideas regarding social issues. The society which they created in places like New York City, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and San Francisco, among others, was a continuation of the high European tradition.

That’s the past. What about the present?

“There is no doubt that, in recent years, a majority of Jewish voters have favored the Democratic Party,” Brownfeld says. “In 2012, 69% of Jewish voters supported President Obama and 30% voted for Mitt Romney.  In 1992, 80% of Jewish voters supported Bill Clinton, with only 11% voting for George Bush.  In 1984, Walter Mondale received 67 per cent of Jewish votes, with 31% for Ronald Reagan.

“It seems unlikely that those casting these votes were voting as Jews rather than as American voters who happened to be Jewish.  Jews, in fact, do not vote differently from other Americans who share similar characteristics.  For example, 59% of American Jews have college or postgraduate education, compared to 27% of Americans as a whole.  

“Such people, studies have shown, are typically more liberal than average.  Also, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in the urban areas to which European Jews emigrated, the Republican Party  was less welcoming to newcomers than the Democrats.  A lingering memory of those days may influence some perceptions today.

“Considering where most Jewish voters live, their educational background, and other demographic considerations, their voting pattern appears similar  to others who are similarly situated.”


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Joseph Cotto

Joseph F. Cotto is a social journalist by trade and student of history by lifestyle choice. He hails from central Florida, writing about political, economic, and social issues of the day. In the past, he was a contributor to Blogcritics Magazine, among other publications. He is currently at work on a book about American society.

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