What do American Jewish voters want?

This question might raise more queries than answers. Photo: Looking for the Jewish vote/ AP

OCALA, Fla., January 6, 2014 — For decades, both of our country’s major political parties have tried to curry favor with Jewish voters.

Democrats have had more success than Republicans, but times are changing. With each presidential election, the GOP gains more Jewish support.

Why might this be? Is there some political issue which reigns supreme for a majority of American Jews?

“The only issue which seems to resonate, in particular, with most American Jews is a commitment to religious freedom and to separation of church and state,” explains political columnist Allan C. Brownfeld, publications editor for the American Council for Judaism. 

“But even here, Orthodox Jews seem to embrace collaboration between religion and government and have urged, for example, forms of government aid to religious schools. The Orthodox, however, represent only about 10 percent of American Jews.

“In my view, there is an element of hypocrisy in American Jewish organizations taking legal action against even non-sectarian, voluntary prayer in our public schools while supporting a theocracy in Israel. In Israel, Orthodox Judaism is, in effect, the state religion. Jews and non-Jews cannot marry, since there is no such thing as civil marriage.  Reform rabbis cannot perform weddings or funerals. There is less freedom for non-Orthodox Jews in Israel than anyplace in the Western world.  

“This leads to the inevitable question: Do Jewish organizations promote separation of church and state in the United States as a matter of principle, or because it serves their own narrow interests?”

Immigration policy tends to divide the public in an extreme way. Despite this, the American Jewish establishment solidly stands behind amnesty for illegal aliens. Is this reflective of most American Jews’ ideas?

“The answer is ‘no,’” says Dr. Stephen Steinlight of the Center for Immigration Studies. “Solid data supports this conclusion, including findings from recent editions of the ‘Annual State of American-Jewish Opinion,’ a survey published by a prominent Establishment agency, the American Jewish Committee (AJC).” Most indicative of the divide is the finding in the 2010 poll that a clear majority of Jewish Americans supports Arizona’s controversial SB1070, the toughest and most wide-ranging anti-illegal immigration statute in recent American history.   

The bill is anathema to the Establishment. In an article by Doug Chandler, “Curve Ball for Jewish Leadership on Immigration,” New York Jewish Week underscored the historic importance of the finding: A majority of Jewish Americans has shocked the Establishment by soundly rejecting the public policy position that most unifies the agencies that comprise it.

“A harbinger of that explosive finding was the disastrous outcome of a nationwide Establishment campaign on behalf of amnesty the previous year,” writes Chandler. “Launched by 13 national organizations (including the main religious denominations) it was to culminate in the presentation of a monster petition to President Obama urging him to prioritize ‘comprehensive immigration reform.’ Ads and editorials appeared in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA), Jewish weeklies, and the house organs of all 13 national organizations.  

“The risible climax of a campaign by organizations claiming to represent 2.5 million American Jews was the publication of a petition signed by “more than 3,000 people.”  Based on well-researched numerical estimates, that number represents .38 percent of affiliated “politically correct Jews.” As a percentage of the adult American Jewish population as a whole it represents .085 percent.     

“The Jewish Establishment’s domestic policy priority is ‘comprehensive immigration reform,’ but that isn’t remotely the case for ordinary Jewish Americans.  In the [2012] ‘Annual State of American-Jewish Opinion,’ respondents were asked, ‘Among the following list of choices [there were 11], what is the most important issue to you in deciding how you will vote in the 2012 presidential election?[’] Only 1.1 percent named immigration; only ‘Energy Security’ ranked lower.”

Beyond immigration, today’s American Jewish political establishment is fixated on Israel. Does this reflect the priorities of most American Jews?

“In many respects,” Brownfeld claims, “the American Jewish establishment is engaged in a form of idolatry, having substituted the state of Israel for God and Judaism’s moral and ethical teachings as the object of worship and the focus of attention.  

“Israeli flags can be found in many American synagogues and all three major branches of Judaism — Orthodox, Conservative and Reform — have adopted the Zionist philosophy which believes that Israel is the ‘homeland’ of all Jews and that Jews living outside of Israel are in ‘exile,’ and should make ‘aliyah,’ emigrate to Israel.

“The American Council for Judaism believes that Judaism is a religion of universal values, not a nationality and that Americans of Jewish faith are American by nationality and Jews by religion, just as other Americans are Protestant, Catholic or Muslim. We believe that we represent a silent majority of American Jews who are not represented by those who speak in their name. 

“The first major study of American Jews in more than ten years shows that 48 percent of those polled don’t think Israel is making a sincere attempt to make peace. The survey, by the Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project, found that a quarter of all Jews ages 18-29 believe that the U.S. is too supportive of Israel.  Among Jews younger than 30, only 32 percent said that “caring about Israel” was an essential part of their Jewish identity.  

“Steven M. Cohen, a professor of Jewish social policy at Hebrew Union College and a consultant to the Pew study, says, ‘Younger Jews are considerably less supportive of Israel and the differences are very large. I think we’re seeing a shift, not just a gap,’” concluded Brownfeld.

If Israel is not what most American Jews concentrate on, then what does this say about establishmentarian politics? The debate over immigration law provides some answers.

“Immigration has been termed the ‘perfect policy storm’ because no other issue so clearly divides the nation’s leadership elites from ordinary Americans,” Dr. Steinlight remarks. “A survey by the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) and Zogby International, released on December 30, 2010, titled ‘Religious Leaders Versus Members: An Examination of Contrasting Views on Immigration,’ explores the chasm between the pulpit and the pew over immigration policy across the religious spectrum. 

“The findings provide additional compelling evidence the Jewish Establishment doesn’t speak for Jewish Americans on this issue. The predominant attitude among Jews, as it is among the great majority of other Americans, is support for increased enforcement of immigration law, not illegal immigration.  

“The great divide between religious leadership and congregants is encapsulated in one across-the-board finding: a huge majority of Americans of faith reject amnesty (the near-unanimous choice of their religious leaders) and choose attrition as the best policy to address illegal immigration.  

“‘Attrition’ combines strict border control and tough internal enforcement of immigration law to create an inhospitable environment to encourage illegal aliens to take themselves home. This choice, which most pollsters avoid offering respondents, receives 94% support from Born Again Christians; 90 percent support from Mainline Protestants; 89% support from Roman Catholics; and fully 79 percent of Jews.

“Other significant findings for Jewish respondents are predictive of strong hostility to amnesty and illegal immigration. Sixty percent of Jews oppose immigration by foreign workers who take jobs from Americans; 60 percent believe illegal immigration doesn’t result from too little legal immigration but the government’s failure to make a serious effort to curtail it; and 65 percent believe if there were a general amnesty the government cannot be trusted to weed out terrorists and criminals from those who would be granted legal status.”  

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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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