Trivial Pursuits (A Drosh on the Jewish vote)
As Latke Gravas once observed, senseless and meaningless rituals are all that separate us from the animals. And though sometimes resembling a zoo more than a salon, the Gatemouth Family has a few senseless rituals of our own.
We break Passover over Liberty Ale at the Waterfront Alehouse; on the Sabbath, Domestic Partner doesn’t eat pork or shellfish, or commit adultery; and every two years I write a piece analyzing the votes of the 2% of Americans who consider themselves Jews.My 2008 analysis focused upon the peculiar dynamics of Presidential elections, where the battle for Jewish votes took place only in the few states where that vote might have made a difference, and was otherwise of concern only to journalists working for Jewish publications.
While initially it appeared that Obama might receive the lowest percentage of Jewish votes of any Democrat since Jimmy Carter, the collapse of the economy and the culturally alienating figure of Sarah Palin eventually led to something of a landslide (although not without its interesting footnotes, like the fact that Obama’s unimpressive 55% in NY-9 (Anthony Weiner) represents the only district in the New York state where the Democratic percentage of the Presidential vote dropped from its 2004 level).
More pertinent is my analysis of the 2006 midterm Congressional races. Despite what appeared to be, among Jews, a Democratic landslide of monumental proportions (which confirmed that Milton Himmelfarb‘s old joke about Jews living like Episcopalians and voting like Puerto Ricans was still accurate).I, counter-intuitively argued that the long-term trends among Jewish voters seemed to auger a gradual elevation of Republican strength.
Now I will explain why this year’s results bear out almost everything I argued at that time.
In 2006, the National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) claimed that exit polls showed that Jews voted for Democratic congressional candidates by a margin of 87% to 12%. The Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) disagreed, saying their polls showed the Jews broke for the Democrats by a still overwhelming 74% to 26%.According to .J. J. Goldberg in the Forward, Barack Obama won 78% of the Jewish vote in 2008.
By contrast, according to a poll conducted by Jim Gerstein and authorized by the inarguably liberal and arguably Zionist group J Street, Jewish voters voted for Democrats for Congress over Republicans on November 2 by a margin of 66% to 31%. According to Goldberg, exit polls conducted by the Republican Jewish Coalition in local races in five states seem to underscore that survey‘s accuracy.
Now let’s put my hypotheses to the test.
Four years ago I said the biggest factors underlying the gradual elevation in Republican strength were “Orthodoxy, assimilation (ironic, given the right wing’s strength amongst the Orthodox), and Israel.”
I think all these factors came to play this year.
ORTHODOXY: Four years ago I observed:
“Jews are hailed by liberals for voting their values as opposed to their interests (something they fail to salute when done by church-going blue collars workers who like to hunt). Orthodox Jews have different values. Once there was rough consensus in the Jewish community on certain issues which served to hold it together politically. Now, that consensus exists less and less. Even among Jews who proudly call themselves pro-Israel, the disagreements concerning which policies would best advance that cause are often so grave as to be insurmountable. ”
According To J Street, Democrats took the votes of Reform Jews 72% to 24%, Conservative Jews by 58% to 39%, and unaffiliated Jews 70% to 25%. The vote among all non-Orthodox Jews was 68% to 22% in favor of the Democrats.
But Democrats lost the Orthodox community 44% to 53%.
And in the thisclose race for US Senate in Pennsylvania, Democrars won the Jewish vote 71% to 23%, but lost the Orthodox vote by a margin of 36% to 54%.
In the RJC’s survey of selected local races, we find that Long Island Democratic Congresswoman Carolyn McCarthy beat her Republican opponent by about two to one amongst Jewish voters, but lost the Orthodox vote by a margin of 15% to 64% (most of the others did not admit to a preference). According to Goldberg, similar ratios emerged in races surveyed in Illinois, Pennsylvania and Connecticut.
Closer to home, Congressman Anthony Weiner, whose district includes a high Jewish population, an increasing percentage of which are Orthodox, in 2010 got 59% of the vote; the last time Weiner had a Republican opponent, in the not particularly Democratic year of 2004 (when John Kerry got only 56% in his district), Weiner got 71%. In Brooklyn’s overwhelmingly Jewish and increasingly Orthodox or Russian 45th Assembly District, incumbent Steven Cymbrowitz, was held to 57% by Joseph Hayon, a Sephardic Jew active in the Brooklyn Tea Party who spent $615 on his campaign.
The spectacular failure of Carl Paladino showed that targeting Orthodox Jews by emphasizing social conservatism was not necessarily a vote getter. In fact, too much loud and public talk about homosexuality and masturbation is probably a turnoff among many Orthodox voters. However, it cannot be gainsaid that while social conservatism is often a deal breaker among non-Orthodox Jews who might otherwise consider voting for a Republican, such positions do not disqualify a candidate among the Orthodox,
Why is any of this important?
Orthodox Jews have larger families than others in the Jewish community. Further, they are far less subject to the attrition of assimilation and intermarriage. Aggressive recruitment of other Jews by Chabad has not hurt their numbers either. These factors are contributing to what Goldberg calls a “slow but steady rise of Orthodox Jews as a proportion of American Jewry.” Also rising over the years has been an increasing militancy in Orthodox religious practice, which has contributed to a concomitant increase in political conservatism.
Meanwhile, the end of the consensus among Jews over what is “good for Israel,“ and indeed a rising number of Jews who no longer even care much about what is “good for Israel,” has made the communal divide in Jewish politics more and more significant with each passing year, and the community less and less liberal as a whole.
One further observation.
As I noted in 2006, in at least some cases “the best friend the Democrats have among the Orthodox is self interest. When rich Reform Jews from Scarsdale vote for the Democrats, they are voting their values instead of their interests. When poor Orthodox Jews from Brooklyn vote for the Democrats, they are doing exactly the opposite.”
But the sometimes transactional nature of Orthodox politics has its pitfalls, as I noted “… when the Village of Kyrias Joel delivers the winning margin to John Hall for Congress, then champagne is not the only liquid likely to be flowing” --this was a snarky reference to a controversial water pipeline for the Village which Hall had agreed to support; as I said then, “it should be remembered that, in such transactions, the mohel's knife is capable of slicing both ways.”
This year, the knife cut the other way, slicing John Hall in the place it hurt most, as Kyrias Joel went for Hall's opponent, Nan Haworth.
ASSIMILATION: In 2006, I wrote:
As long as Jews labor under the delusion that they are “white people”, they are going to act like them, or at least those “white people” with whom they have the greatest cultural commonality, which, for most Jews, would seem to be non-“born again”, non-evangelical, mainstream white Protestants. Teddy Roosevelt once called Episcopalians "The Republican Party assembled for Prayer"; but these days things have changed; according to exit polls, non-“born again”, non-evangelical white Protestants cast the majority of their votes for Democrats, but by margins far smaller than those amongst Jewish voters. However, as time goes on, it is likely that the number of Jews who embrace what we think of as "Jewish Cultural Values" is going to decrease with each passing year…when one is no longer an outsider, and one’s values are replicated in society at large, then one is more likely to vote their interests.”
One need only look to Florida to see how that works. South Florida’s 22nd Congressional District in Broward and Palm Beach counties was drawn as the areas’ Republican seat, running along the Gold Coast and carefully snaking through what used to be the WASPY enclaves in places like Palm Beach, Delray and Fort Lauderdale to avoid blacks and Jews to the largest extent possible, consigning them instead to he Districts of Alcee Hastings, Ted Deutsch, and Debbie Wasserman Schultz. But the demographics of change eventually won out, and in 2006, the district elected a Democrat, Ron Klein.
This year, Klein was opposed by Allen West, a Tea Party psycho of the most militant sort, who happened to be African-American. West challenged Klein’s pro-Israel credential by supporting positions to the right of Benjamin Netanyahu and made headway among the Orthodox and other right Zionist types.
But there was another element as well.
The Democratic Party’s greatest attrition in support this year came from senior citizens, the only element of the population currently benefiting from socialized medicine and scared to death by the Republican Party into believing that someone might actually try to ensure their care is provided in a rational, cost-effective manner.
The Republicans, who seek draconian cuts in all Domestic spending affecting those who vote at lower rates than those over 65, are so opposed to looking at Medicare--the single greatest hole in the deficit, that they oppose diverting any possible recoverable wasted Medicare funds to either deficit reduction or other programs. They don‘t even want to use them to cuts taxes for the rich!
And they rail about death panels and other manner of obscenities.
As Jews assimilate, “ they are going to act like [other white people], or at least those “white people” with whom they have the greatest cultural commonality,”… in Palm Beach and Broward counties, that meant acting like other senior citizens to a greater extent than in years past.Did this have an impact? According to the Forward, West got an estimated 30% of the Jewish vote.
“As you take slivers of the core Democratic strength, those matter” said Palm Beach County Republican Chair Sid Dinnerstein, “We need one-third of the Jewish vote and 20% of the black vote, and the Democrats don’t win anything”
Thanks to Allen West’s skin color, Orthodox alienation, and the assimilation into Limbaugh-Beck land of some Jewish seniors, Ron Klein is out of a job.
ISRAEL: In 2006, I said:
“While most Democratic politicians have pro-Israel records, many Democratic voters are trending in a different direction, and it has already resulted in the election of some not very pro-Israel legislators. John Dingell, hardly a left-liberal, is just voting the sentiments of his district, which has a sizable Arab minority, but others are just going along with a common and growing strain of left-of-center opinion.…
But, while definitions of “pro-Israel” may differ, definitions of anti-Israel are pretty clear, and voices like Chuck Barron no longer qualify as anomalies within our party (although Barron himself is probably sui generis). Moreover, an even larger and growing group are those who, although not anti-Israel, do not qualify as pro-Israel in any meaningful manner… In most races where Jews can make a difference, candidates holding these views are not a factor, but they do contribute to pushing many Jews into the swing category, and not just the Orthodox. ”[Although, just for the record, let me note the GOP does have their own anti-Israel fringe, which inflicts some Republicans of every ideological stripe, including Ron Paul and newly empowered Committee Chair Darryl Issa, amongst others, and though they are not a large and growing strain amongst their party, the anti-internationalism, aggressive isolationist stance of many tea-partiers should not comfort friends of Israel, and is already leading to such stupidity as Eric Cantor’s bizarre and dangerous proposals to separate aid to Israel from the rest of the foreign aid budget.].
When I first commented on the effect of Israel on the Jewish vote in a “Daily Gotham" thread in 2006, I took some heat, but my protestations had been misunderstood; as I said in my 2006 piece:
“The answer among some Democrats is to say this should not be the case; that Jews should not cast their votes on this basis. But, American voters have let their foreign ties influence their voting since our democracy began. Just ask the Irish. When Carolyn Maloney ran for Congress in a district which included Astoria, she practically promised to ride in on the first tank should the Greeks ever feel the need to invade Macedonia for their crime of calling themselves Macedonia.
But, in the end, it doesn't matter whether objections to Jews voting on the basis of Israel are valid or not. The fact is that many of them do, and this will not change. When the question is whether the Republicans may be able to make future inroads amongst Jewish voters, the answer is Israel might help them. For the purposes of this discussion, that answer is value neutral, my personal bias notwithstanding.
If it was 1965, and I noted that the recent passage of the Civil Rights Acts might help the Republicans in the South, it would not necessarily be taken as evidence of my position on Civil Rights. In fact, history notes that the person who made this observation was the author of the Civil Rights Acts, one Lyndon Baines Johnson.”
Since 2006, something has changed, and that something is Barack Obama.
Every administration has given lip service to the idea that Israel should not further expand its West Bank Settlements, but none, not even the fairly Arabist George H.W. Bush, nor Bill Clinton, who negotiated the return of nearly the entire West Bank, ever actually took any concrete step to see America’s position implemented.
And I do not see this as a bad thing. Israel cannot continue as a state both Jewish and democratic if it continues to hold these territories. The settlements are not the cause of the conflict; other issue must be resolved first before there is peace. But once there is a resolution, the settlement are an impediment to implementation of any workable solution. Further expansion makes resolution of a solution even more difficult, and at some point, it may make it impossible.
And that would be the death of Israel.
I find Obama perhaps overoptimistic about the prospects for a solution, I sometimes cringe at some of his rhetoric, and I don’t necessarily agree with each and every detail of what he’s done, but in the broad sense, it is hard to argue that he is wrong.
And most American Jews would appear to agree; according to Goldberg:
“Obama, despite all the thunder and lightning around him, didn’t ring many bells. Israelis might not like the president’s hard-nosed stand on settlements, but American Jews don’t agree. Both of the post-election surveys actually gave him high marks for his performance in Israel and Middle East affairs. J Street found solid Jewish support for a two-state solution and for vigorous American leadership to bring the parties together — even if it means pressuring the two sides or openly criticizing Israel.”
The problem is multi-dimensional.
The first is that a significant minority of the Jewish community does not agree.
The second is that those who do agree don’t care as much.
Some of this is just lack of enthusiasm for their own position. Like me, they don’t like all the Obama bells and whistles. Or they know Obama’s right, but prefer the Alan Dershowitz position of opposing the settlements, but not actually wanting to do anything about it. Or they oppose the settlements, but still want to bomb Iran.
More importantly, they don’t care enough to vote on that basis.
Jews who are support liberal Zionist positions are often unwilling to punish candidates who hold anti-Israel positions. Further, they are often unwilling to punish candidates who hold right-wing Zionist positions as well.
Many just care more about other issues.
The upshot is that Obama’s position on Israel may be the more popular one in the Jewish community, but it won’t get him any votes.
It only loses him votes, and it loses them for other Democrats as well. The J Street poll says that Democrats won the votes of Jews who consider Israel the most important tissue by a margin of only 53% to 42%. Those who discuss Israel every week supported Democrats by a margin of 50% to 48%.
And this is not exclusively an Orthodox phenomenon.
Even with the Orthodox excluded, the J Street poll showed Jews who considered Israel the most important issue supported Democrats by lackadaisical margins; among Non-Orthodox Jews who discuss Israel every week, Democrats won by a margin of 54% to 44%.
CONCLUSION: Goldberg, analyzing returns from several election years notes:
“What’s often overlooked is the existence of a Jewish swing vote that’s up for grabs in every election. Between the 40% that Republicans can win in a good year and their 10% in a bad year, there’s a Jewish voting bloc of about 30% that can be moved.”
This pretty much tracks my comments in 2006, when I noted:
“In the end, Jewish support for Democrats is not an automatic given; if it was, there would be no need for an NJDC. I don’t think there are many Jewish Republicans, but there are plenty of Jewish swing voters, and their numbers are growing. This year, like other swing voters, they swung Democratic, but Democrats cannot rest on our laurels.”
This year, they swung Republican. Like the business cycle, these things go back and forth.
But some things are like real estate prices in Brownstone Brooklyn.
In Brownstone Brooklyn, the bubble might burst, but prices are still high, and in the end, prices will continue to rise in the long term.
In this year’s Jewish vote, the Democratic bubble busted, but Democrats still had an overwhelming victory among Jews (for all the good it did them), but in the end, the Jewish Republican vote will continue to rise in the long term.
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