Tuesday, October 05, 2004

The Politics of Orthodox Jews

Like bees to honey, the media are attracted to Orthodox Jews, paying more attention to them than to the ninety percent of American Jews who aren't Orthodox. Where the media tread, politicians who are always on the prowl for support are sure to follow. Thus, we have had a spate of stories reporting on how the Orthodox are being wooed this election season.

Some of this attention is the inevitable consequence of Orthodox distinctiveness, notably the charedim with their particular look and dress. Other Jews are mainly faces in the crowd of nearly 300 million Americans. The Orthodox tend to cluster in neighborhoods which makes it easier to send messages to them. This characteristic plus other clannish features add to the feeling that they vote in a bloc and therefore efforts to garner their support can bring a significant pay-off.

It is the case as well that the Orthodox - again, especially charedim - actively seek political attention and involvement, not so much because they care about who gets elected as they care about what benefits they can get from those who are in office. This isn't a new phenomenon, as there are critical antecedents in the Jewish experience in pre-Holocaust Europe. Little heed is apparently paid to the admonition in Ethics of Our Fathers: "Do not become overly familiar with the government." (Chapter 1, 10)

Whatever the motives of the Orthodox who eagerly enter the political thicket, it is hard to figure out the calculation of those in politics who eagerly covet their support. The Bush campaign has sent high level Republicans to meet with the Orthodox and the Kerry people have reciprocated, albeit with less fire power. The obvious inference is that this is a group whose votes may be crucial to the election, an inference that is scarcely supported by experience or an understanding of Jewish demographics. In Williamsburg and Crown Heights, two chassidic strongholds, the locals cannot get anybody elected and they have to hope, at times in vain, that those who are elected will not be hostile to their interests. I would imagine that the clout of these religious Jews is not greater when the stakes are presidential.

The way to make sense of what is occurring is to understand that in electoral politics the importance of prospective voters - whether they materialize or not is another matter - who can be visualized in group terms is invariably exaggerated. What is true of labor unions or other ethnics is true of the political approach to Orthodox Jews. Their group nature enhances the attention they get irrespective of whether they can deliver votes.

Even if the demographers are wrong and the Orthodox comprise more than ten percent of American Jews, as I believe they do, their proportion of the American Jewish electorate is clearly below ten percent, if only because a great number are not yet eighteen and cannot vote. Among those who are of voting age, for a variety of reasons there is a heightened tendency for chassidic and other very Orthodox Jews not to register.

Orthodox Jews are overwhelmingly concentrated in New York and this is another factor that vitiates their importance in presidential elections, at least in the one that is about to be held. Most analysts assume that New York will go for Kerry, in which case inroads Republicans may make among the Orthodox will not affect the outcome. Admittedly, there is evidence that New York is still up for grabs and if Mr. Bush prevails here, the state's electoral votes will not be of much consequence because he will win in a landslide.

Doubtlessly, some of my Orthodox buddies will not be thrilled that one of their own is saying that the Orthodox political role is substantially exaggerated. I would hope that a dose of reality does not hurt. Perhaps it might even result in scarce communal resources, including leadership resources, being devoted to communal needs and not to political pursuits.

What is more important these days than illusions about Orthodox political clout is the movement of this sector toward political conservatism. A good case, based on his support for Israel, can be made for American Jewish support of President Bush. Even his harshest critics concede this point. For the Orthodox - or at least most of them - there is congruence between Orthodox traditionalism and Republican conservatism that is evident in an array of social issues, including gay rights and marriage and abortion.

While most American Jews have an intense dislike of social conservatism, they should be able to recognize that for the Orthodox social conservatism is a powerful magnet. Liberal Jews should not expect the Orthodox to vote liberal and Democratic because, after all, that has been the "Jewish" thing to do.

What troubles me about the embrace of conservatism is that it comes with an enthusiastic identification with right-wing ideology. Shouldn't there be some red lights, some caution signals? Shouldn't Orthodox Jews be deeply concerned about the fascisti of the National Rifle Association and the many clusters of anti-Semites who for decades have nested comfortably in the Republican right-wing? Shouldn't heed be paid to history's lessons that the right-wing is no friend of Jews?

I am not asking for an embrace of liberal ideology. There are question marks there as well. My point is that we religious Jews should spurn political ideologies, that we should be wary of both the left and the right. There is a powerful need to take stock about what the right-wing stands for. It is terrifying that there are Orthodox who believe that right-wing positions are a code word for Judaism. I cannot find this in any Code of Jewish Law. I would rather stick with Rabbi Samson R. Hirsch's great admonition uttered 150 years ago and doubtlessly not reproduced here with full accuracy, "Juden haben nicht kein rechts." Translated this means both that Jews have no rights and they have no right-wing.