Myth Busters

Jewish Light Editorial

For decades the conventional wisdom was that there was an almost monolithic “Jewish vote,” representing all streams of Judaism as well as secular and non-observant Jews. Politicians of both major parties would court the Jewish vote by citing support for the State of Israel as “the only democracy in the Middle East,” and for many candidates that was all that needed to be said to reassure Jewish voters. 

This approach for many decades resulted in major Jewish support for Democratic candidates, as voters did not see any conflict in the party supporting both Israel and for American and international social justice issues so often of concern to Jews. 

But the Republican Party has made significant inroads in attracting Jewish voters over the last several national election cycles. Several reasons have been offered — splintering of the left on issues relating to Israel, including support for Palestinian causes and the BDS movement; a better and more assertive political strategy by Republicans; and perhaps the Jewish community in this country evolving over time to look more diverse and reflect different political views and interests. 

Then in this election, the sands have appeared to shift again, and this time, even those on the right side of the aisle appear to have split rather dramatically in their presidential candidate selection. For just as the bitter 2016 presidential election has exposed deep fault lines among the total American electorate, so have this election shown a more pronounced split of Jews not only between parties, but even between factions of each party.

On one end of the spectrum sat Jewish voters attracted to the Democratic-Socialist Bernie Sanders and his aggressively leftist views on many issues (and even to the left of Sanders, the Green Party candidate Jill Stein). A variety of factions supporting these candidates were more sympathetic to views and positions seen by many as notably anti-Zionist and beyond commonplace criticism of Israeli policies. 

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The Hillary Clinton coalition has certainly received support in the aftermath of the Democratic primaries, with Sanders supporters in large part finding far more common cause with Clinton than with other options. And both Clinton’s fervent support for Israel, along with the Democratic platform’s continued emphatic support for a two-state solution, allowed a majority of Jews to remain in her camp without feeling the need to split their political preferences or loyalties.

 

But almost the opposite occurred on the right, as a number of Jewish voters (in polls, at least) diverted from the prospect of Donald Trump as president as the primary election morphed into the general. While Trump certainly asserted his bona fides with promises of moving the American embassy to Jerusalem, strong statements of Israeli support and a Jewish son-in-law, political weaknesses ensued. Concerns of a lack of depth and strength on foreign affairs and policy, coupled with a number of alt-right groups expressing support for the candidate and incurring the scorn of groups like the Anti-Defamation League, caused some fractures that didn’t exist so much in 2012.

Moreover, there has been dissension among the Jewish conservative political columnist ranks. Politically conservative Jewish columnists and commentators, such as Charles Krauthammer, Bret Stephens, William Kristol and Jennifer Rubin, none of whom found Clinton particularly palatable, also found the Republican nominee unacceptable as a presidential candidate. And the Republican Jewish Coalition seemed lukewarm at best in its nominal support of Trump.  

Despite these tensions, there have remained more sharply supportive Republican blocs among those in the Orthodox and haredi communities. In the 2012 presidential election, Barack Obama received 69 percent of the Jewish vote, based on exit polls, while Mitt Romney received most of the remainder. But among Orthodox Jews, Romney beat Obama handily, especially in certain enclaves in New York, such as Brooklyn’s Borough Park and Williamsburg and Queens’ Kew Gardens. According to an article by Ari Goldman in the New York Jewish Week, Romney received a whopping 97 percent of voters in a four-square-block slice of Gravesend, Brooklyn.

The upshot of all this? Jewish voters can no longer be regarded as “single issue” voters, or predictably aligned, based solely or principally on all things Israel. The type of candidate, his or her overall political views, and a changing and splintering electorate, all play a role in making the Jewish vote less predictable and unified.

While the Jewish community’s votes for president in this particular election may divide differently than they did last time or in the more distant past, the lesson seems to be that Jews do not represent just one stereotypical bloc anymore in American politics. And that may portend a continuing evolution that unfolds based on the candidates, issues and elections of the future. 

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