If certain analysts are to be believed, American Jews are in the process of becoming heretics, though of course not the religious variety since that form of heresy began more than a century ago and the majority of our flock has already attained this status. The primary orthodoxy – in terms of numbers – in our religious life is anti-religion, something that most American Jews are comfortable about.
The new heresy is more temporal, as it is in the political domain. It is said that as a consequence of President Bush’s strong support of Israel and the powerful survey data showing that Republicans are far more favorable to Israel than Democrats, Jews are or will be shifting away in droves from the Democrats and liberalism and become Republicans. Can this fairy tale or nightmare – depending on one’s ideological perspective – be true?
The question is too self-important. For all of our obvious ethnocentricity or, for that matter, the importance attributed to us by others, we are not much more than a drop in the political bucket. We may vote in higher proportions than most Americans, but our overall numbers are small and getting smaller as America’s population grows and the Jewish population remains static or declines. A Latino shift to Republican ranks, which seems to be occurring in some places, would be big news. A Jewish shift is a curiosity, something that is odd in view of our historic allegiance to the Democrats.
It’s true that President Bush is good to Israel, but his record is far from complete. Much more will happen and some of it unhappy before he leaves office. More critically, it’s doubtful that Israel alone can have so strong a pull on the American Jewish imagination and voting behavior as to generate a marked change in political identity.
Orthodox Jews have been edging toward the Republicans for some time, mainly because of a shared conservative outlook, rather than out of concern for Israel. As we are reminded often enough, the Orthodox constitute about 10% of American Jewry, a statistic that is insufficient to generate a seismic political shift. Also, the Orthodox voter turnout is relatively low and their interest in politics tends to be practical as support is given to candidates who have the best chance of winning and offer the best deals.
There has been for a while a fascinating neo-conservative clique within American Jewish life – Commentary, published by the American Jewish Committee, is one of its strongholds - but this is at most a mini-movement whose greatest impact is intellectual and not on the Jewish rank and file. For all of the prominence of the neo-cons, surveys show continued overwhelming Jewish support for liberal positions.
The most formidable barrier to Jewish political change is the changed character of Jewish commitment, a circumstance that is usually ignored when the subject is Jewish attitudes toward contemporary matters. There is a powerful disconnect between what we know about the inner structure of Jewish life and how we view Jewish interaction in the world around us. We know that we have lost half or more of American Jews, that a tremendous number of Americans who were born Jewish scarcely regard themselves as such. They are not especially concerned about Israel, except perhaps as critics, and they do not view politics in terms of Jewish self-interest or from any other ethnic perspective. Somehow, we manage to disregard this powerful development when we consider how Jews act politically.
If the contemporary Jewish story would be the persistence of diversity among American Jews who nonetheless continue to identify themselves clearly as Jews and regard Israel as central to their happiness, it would be possible to regard an administration’s support of Israel as having a strong pull on political affiliation. The reality of advanced assimilation and wholesale Judaic abandonment sharply reduces the prospect of Israel being a barometer of American Jewish political identity.
Since more losses are in the offing, there is no reason to believe that a greater number of American Jews will make their political choices on the basis of Israel or ordinary Jewish self-interest. It is more likely that a liberal social and political agenda will remain an orthodoxy for most American Jews. In the way of a surrogate religion, they will regard policies that come with the liberal or social justice hechsher as the right ideological and political position and the legitimate articulation of what Judaism ought to stand for.
Mr. Bush’s pro-Israel and pro-Sharon stance is not going to trigger a Jewish political make-over. For one thing, the President’s conservatism does not suit the large majority of American Jews. Besides, far more than we tend to acknowledge, there is in our community much unease about Mr. Sharon and his policies. A good deal of American Jewish criticism of Israeli politics is now muted because of the suicide bombers and the assumed obligation to demonstrate loyalty to Israel in a period of severe danger.
Change is inherent in all social settings. It is risky to suggest that the liberal and Democratic commitment will not be interrupted. Down the road, the question may be rendered moot if, as may be expected, the majority of American Jews go the way of the Ten Lost Tribes. Right now we have a community that we continue to label as Jewish that is willing, even eager, to discard beliefs and practices that have endured for generations and yet which is determined to maintain fidelity to liberalism and the Democratic Party. This loyalty has withstood the well-advertised contradictions and failures of liberalism, primarily its foolish faith in the notion that government spending leads to social improvement.
In a way, what keeps American Jews linked to liberalism and the Democratic Party is nothing more than the strong aversion to a conservative agenda which too often seems to be heartless and caring overly much about protecting the privileged.