Skip to content

What Does Obama Have To Do To Lose Jewish Democrats?

Obama at AIPAC

On the Ricochet podcast yesterday, Peter Robinson asked me a provocative question that I didn’t manage to answer fully before we’d moved on. I’d like to give the question the answer it deserves.

Peter wanted to know why, even after President Obama’s gift to the Palestinians of the 1967 lines as a precondition for peace negotiations (with no reciprocal obligations from them whatsoever), his approval rating among Jewish Democrats remains dizzyingly high. How, Peter wondered, could they possibly give him a warm reception at AIPAC a few days after that speech? What’s it going to take for them to leave his corner?

There’s a lot going on here.

On a shallow level, there’s an element of family tradition involved — Bubbie and Zaydie voted Democrat and they’d turn over in their graves if I voted Republican, etcetera — but the issue can’t be written off as a joke. The “Democrat, right or wrong” attitude bespeaks a fundamental discomfort among American Jews about their place in American society. For all their — our — apparently seamless integration, there’s a thread of anxiety remaining: we have to be more American than the Americans, more of the people than the people themselves. And the Democratic Party, justly or otherwise, is perceived — certainly within the educated, successful milieus where most American Jews are to be found — as more of the people than the Republican.

To make matters worse, the Republican Party represents many of the characteristics reflexively applied to Jews. They’re positive qualities, but they’ve been used against us for so long that many American Jews feel more comfortable aligned politically against them. They include a belief in the fundamental virtue of capitalism, a concern with fiscal responsibility, with keeping the government out of your pocket and out of your decision-making, with taking primary responsibility for your own success rather than expecting it to be bestowed from on high, with ensuring that your children’s future is brighter than your own (and its corollary that you don’t feed off a public trough and expect your children to pay for it). When applied to Jews, these positives have been twisted to impute greed, miserliness, selfishness (a disinclination to redistribute income or to spread the public wealth), callous disregard for the less fortunate, clannishness, and so on. Jews have been tainted with these slurs from time immemorial. It is perhaps little wonder that they flock to the party that purports to be all about inclusiveness and social rather than fiscal responsibility.

I’m generalizing here, but I think it’s safe to say that as a group, American Jews have never felt absolutely certain of their acceptance as Americans. They don’t just want to blend in; they want to be part of the family. Hence the high rate of intermarriage and flight from religious observance. Jewish Democrats lean heavily on their party affiliation as a means of expressing their attachment to the glorious melting pot: to the frontier of tolerance and freedom where at long last they can finally relax.

Consider the relationship between American Jews and black Americans. The Jews, particularly those who themselves or whose parents were directly involved, still strongly feel their affiliation with their black countrymen and take just pride in the Jewish role in the civil rights movement (even though the black population has largely written them off, causing them lasting, if rarely expressed, grief). That most noble of social ventures is inextricably bound up in Jewish minds with the Democratic Party. It’s profoundly important for Jewish Democrats to feel — again, not just be perceived to be, but to feel — on the side of the downtrodden, the afflicted, the disenfranchised. This is all the more true in view of the fact that they are for the most part the polar opposite of that demographic.

Now, Israel throws a monkey wrench into all of this. First of all, a defense of Israel creates the profoundly threatening fear in Jewish minds of suggesting possible grounds for an accusation of dual loyalties. And if that weren’t enough, it amounts to a celebration of all that which should be censured by the proper-thinking person: a plucky, weirdly successful little upstart that takes its own initiative to defend itself and is not sufficiently inclined to listen to the advice of its elders and betters.

Remember that American Jews for the most part don’t seriously think of Israel as a place to live, in part because of its assumed relative discomforts and in part because it defines exactly the kind of quotidian, existential uncertainty they want never to experience. It’s important in a general way that Israel exist, for vague, uncomfortable religious reasons that don’t really apply (or don’t seem to apply) to Heather and Shel Abromowitz in Shaker Heights and their Ivy-league kids, or to Clover and Shep Rosenthal who are just getting their organic barley bar off the ground out of their garage in Marin. Israel is for different kinds of Jews, Jews who are all about archaic ideas like turf and labels and carrying a gun. Fourth-generation Jewish Democrats want no part of any of that, not even by association. So until Israel really is under imminent mortal threat, or until an American president goes so far as to send US troops to force Israel’s surrender or to sell F-15s to Hamas, the bulk of American Jews will almost certainly remain in the Democratic camp.