Sean Last has an essay, Jewish Influence on American Politics, that is quite lengthy and heavy on the data. I say that with admiration, as I love it when someone goes to such immense effort in making an evidence-based argument. The data alone collected in one place is an achievement, no matter what one thinks of the analysis and conclusion. Let’s use this as an opportunity to explore the social and political history of the liberal faith.
Last’s argument is that Jewish Americans have become one of the most influential minorities, by way of a Jewish elite that formed because of favorable circumstances. That would be hard to argue against, although the interesting part is explaining why it happened. It probably helped that their identity was conflated with a global narrative of Nazi persecution, the United States defeat of the Nazis and rise of the Israeli state. It helped that the Israeli state, by way of Zionism, allowed Israel to become the single most important ally of the most dominant global superpower in all of world history. Most minorities, in the Western world, don’t receive anywhere near the same level of automatic familiarity and sympathy across the political spectrum and within mainstream thought, not to mention within the halls of power.
We have a conundrum. It is precisely right-wing politics that has allowed the rise of the Jewish elite. Zionism came to power in concert with neoconservatism, as most of the original neoconservatives were Jews. But there is a complex development. Many of these early Jewish neocons began their political careers as New Deal Progressives. They didn’t lose faith in Progressivism, as neither did Ronald Reagan when he switched parties, but they came to believe that Progressivism could only be implemented, enacted and enforced through military might and violence, through authoritarian laws and measures, and in practice this meant supporting the United States as a global military empire with Israel as one of its battering rams. American greatness would be Israeli greatness and there was a moral vision in this, inspired by a response to Nazi War crimes — never again, was the rallying cry. This wasn’t cynical realpolitik, at least not initially. Many American Jews were extremely idealistic in the post-war period in looking to Israel to demonstrate to the world a different kind of society, as seen in the kibbutz movement.
Even to this day, Jews maintain a reputation of being liberal (Daniel Greenberg, Jewish Partisanship and Ideology Unchanged Despite Political Controversies). “In terms of ideology, 44% of American Jews are liberal, much higher than the overall 25% among the total population, making Jews the most liberal of any major religious group we identify” (Ron Faucheux, Lunchtime Politics: New Polling Puts Biden First – America’s Jewish Voters; interestingly, this is from the D.C.-based PR firm Qorvis with Saudi Arabia as their principal client and with ties to Donald Trump), although probably no where near as liberal as Unitarian Universalists and maybe not as liberal as Quakers. The crux of Last’s argument is that Jews pushed American politics left. Well, they may have in certain ways. This is not in conflict with their pushing American politics far right in other ways. This requires an understanding of liberalism, in the United States and around the world. From the revolutionary era on, liberalism has always had a dark reactionary undercurrent.
This is far from limited to Jews, of course. Even the great historical and symbolic enemy of the Jews, the Nazis, came to power through liberals who feared the left-wing more than the right-wing. We must understand that liberalism is not the same as leftism, since the two often can be polar opposites. It’s easy to forget that the Nazis too were progressive for their time. It was the Nazi use of progressive rhetoric that appealed to the liberal persuasion. In light of this, note that many American neocons are socially liberal and can even be economically liberal, as neoconservatism is essentially a modernization of old school Whiggish progressivism that envisioned saving undesirable populations through some combination of genocide, forced assimilation, and eugenics. It was part of a grand and idealistic civilizing project and this old vision still inspires a certain kind of mind that isn’t easily categorized as left or right, even as it is very much ‘liberal’. This is why it’s useful to hold up Jews as an exemplar of American liberalism, so as to understand the broader tendency of liberalism itself.
The supposed liberalism of American Jews is not so straightforward in that liberalism in general follows strange paths. Some would argue that American Jews aren’t the liberal stronghold they are portrayed as or else that we need to think more carefully about what is liberalism. Yossie Hollander looks beyond the typical Jewish demographics and makes a counter-argument that American Jews more broadly aren’t necessarily liberal, much less leftist (Contrary to popular belief, most US Jews support Trump). Looking beyond the old Jewish populations, he sees an exclusion in the polls of other American Jews: Israeli Americans, ultra-Orthodox, first and second generation immigrants from the former Soviet Union, and internal immigrants to the Southwest Belt. Hollander sees Zionism as trumping all else:
“As we can see, most of the polls actually survey less than 50% of the Jewish population that is located in the old Jewish centers and who are largely democratic voters. If we consider all four populations described above where the percentage of support for Trump is high, it is likely that most Jews actually voted for Trump. Adding that to the fact that many voters are afraid to admit that they voted for Trump (especially to their Democrat friends), the obvious conclusion is that the real situation on the ground is the opposite of the common media theme about Hilary. Actually – most Jews voted for Trump. I cannot predict what will happen in 2020, but this trend is likely to continue and may even be strengthened, especially if the Democratic Party chooses an anti-Israeli candidate.”
More evidence would be needed to make a case for a pro-Trump majority among American Jews. It doesn’t sound plausible, but it might be possible if one specifically focuses on potential voters who are of the older generations. Anti-Zionism is strongest among young American Jews. Even if we accept that most Jewish voters do vote Democratic and that most Jewish non-voters lean Democratic, it doesn’t necessarily indicate their politics. “There is a common misconception that American Jews are very much on the left of the political spectrum, and it’s not really true,” Rabbi Mitchell Rocklin, of Yeshiva University said (Jon Levine, Why Jewish voters are turning on Bernie Sanders). “The Democratic Party’s most reliable voters are also some of their most moderate voters.”
Then again, it could be asserted that American Jews really are much further to the left. Joel Rubin, who was the Jewish outreach director of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, “insists that Sanders represents the interests of the majority of American Jews, not just on Israel but on a wide variety of issues. “American Jews support civil liberties at home, oppose gun violence, support women’s equality, oppose putting kids in cages, and are actively leading efforts to combat climate change and income equality,” he says. Indeed, a 2019 poll shows that healthcare and gun violence are top issues for Jewish voters, while Israel comes in at the bottom. But when it comes to Israel, Sanders, like most American Jews, supports a negotiated two-state solution. “Poll after poll shows that American Jews want the U.S. to be engaged in making peace abroad and pursuing social justice at home – positions aggressively embraced by Bernie Sanders,” Rubin says” (Mairav Zonszein, Sanders and the Jewish Vote).
Here is the rub, as explained in the same above piece: “That has not stopped AIPAC or the Democratic Majority for Israel—a year-old Super PAC with ties to AIPAC—from going after Sanders, And as his chances of becoming the nominee appear to be rapidly increasing, so too are the attacks. DMFI, whose mission is to apparently keep the Democratic Party hawkish on Israel, spent $800,000 in attack ads in Iowa questioning Sanders’s electability, all without mentioning Israel once. They are already running ads in Nevada, which is significant because it presents one of the only times that a Democratic Super-PAC is throwing its weight against a Democratic candidate. It is also noteworthy considering that Sanders remains a firm supporter of a negotiated two-state solution, which is no different than the policies DMFI and other American Jewish organizations claim to support. The only difference is Sanders’s willingness to actually force Israel to get there.”
The elite that styles itself as liberal are often out of alignment with the average person — they are far to right of most Jews, most Democrats, and most Americans in general. That complicates Sean Last’s argument that it was a Jewish elite who helped push American politics further to the left. When one looks at the actual positions of Bernie Sanders’ campaign platform and voting history, it is not politically left-wing. In fact, one would have to honestly admit that Sanders is rather moderate and centrist. This is shown in decades of public polling that demonstrates the American public is to the left of the elite of both parties and moving further left over time (US Demographics & Increasing Progressivism). So, it’s not only a Jewish elite that is out of touch with the general public for the same pattern is seen across the elite in general (Political Elites Disconnected From General Public). What makes the focus on Jewish Americans so important is that they represent the supposedly most liberal component of a supposedly liberal elite.
That leads us to the hardest question. Why do American Jews and other Americans vote against their interests? That is to ask the reason for why most people are so easily manipulated by the elite. How is it the elite so dominate politics, control media, and manipulate the narrative? Well, they do so in the way elites always have, though wealth and ownership, power and cronyism. But how long can this disconnect last, specifically among American Jews. Zionism was the one strong link that kept Jews in the neocon fold, forced them to accept what they otherwise would not. Yet most American Jews, like Sanders, support a two-state solution. This majority has been silenced. Younger Jews, however, are more vocal in their anti-Zionism (Batya Ungar-Sargon, Young Jews Are Actually Winning The Generational War Over Israel). Being anti-Zionists isn’t necessarily to be anti-Israeli and being pro-Israel isn’t necessarily to be anti-Palestine, distinctions that most younger Jews in the US are able and willing to make.
Yet, as young American Jews swing left, the older American Jewish elite becomes more entrenched in an increasingly conservative attitude. As a backlash, the powerful interests that have dominated Jewish thought will become ever more reactionary and right-wing. The very forces that created a progressive force out of the Jewish experience will further force that progressivism into the neocon form. Will the new generation resist the old guard that has come to represent all of Judaism on the public stage? That is yet to be seen. Some, in still holding up the progressive ideal, don’t see hope in the rise of neoconservatism these past decades. The Jewish self-appointed leadership is certainly not moving left.
If as Sean Last argues it was ethnocentrism of American Jews as an oppressed minority that pushed them left, it is now ethnocentrism among an established elite that pushes them further right. A progressive movement among American Jews may have at one time gained victories on certain social issues and gained them a reputation of liberalism. But the neocons took the battlefield and won the war. It’s yet to be seen if, among American Jews, the tide will turn in a new era of ideological conflict and struggle in defining what Judaism means as a social identity and political force. It’s uncertain what will become of liberalism far beyond this one demographic. Will liberalism continue on the path down reactionary right-wing complicity? Or will liberals come to terms with their moral failures and regain the radical vision that once inspired so many Americans, minorities and otherwise?
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When I was a kid, Jews were firmly on the left. They were outsiders in American culture—my dad faced antisemitic discrimination in his professional life (science)—and Jews were associated in the 60s with the civil-rights movement and the antiwar movement. And the great leap forward of the meritocracy, of which Jews were the prime beneficiaries (then), meant sharing the wealth of a progressive Jewish tradition, of valuing education and knowledge (as Yuri Slezkine has written) with the rest of society.
In my generation, the prominent Jewish presence in American life is no longer progressive. The meritocracy generated wealth and status, and wealth and status will make any group more conservative. Look around at the political landscape, and Jews can be seen very prominently in very conservative posts. In Commentary (a magazine my liberal Democrat family used to get, it was against the Vietnam War), Gabriel Schoenfeld has argued that the New York Times should be prosecuted for its publication of the illegal wiretap story. The New York Sun, a rightwing pro-Israel newspaper, argued in 2003 that people like myself who demonstrated against the war were guilty of treason. The Sun is funded by Bruce Kovner, the chairman of the American Enterprise Institute, which gave more brains to this administration, Bush once crowed, than anyone (he probably regrets it now!), and by Roger Hertog, who nearly wept at a Manhattan Institute gala a year ago when he described the pro-Israel roots of his thinking. Manhattan Institute brags about turning “ideas into influence.” It has done so.
It is not just the rightwing extremists. This is my point. Kovner gives money to Schumer, a good liberal Democrat who is a leading supporter of the Iraq War. Alan Dershowitz calls himself a Kennedy liberal, even as he justifies torture in the war on terror. Dershowitz’s argument is echoed by Sam Harris, in The End of Faith, an anti-Islam book that NPR finds potable (as the neocons’ ideas are not, for NPR). Joseph Lieberman symbolizes the Jewish establishment, and he is Bush’s lieutenant on Iraq. There are 14 Jewish congressmen from New York and California (as I count them in the Almanac of American Politics). Twelve of them supported the Iraq war in 2002. Including good old Vietnam doves like Henry Waxman and Howard Berman of Los Angeles. As did that other converted dove of the Jewish intelligentsia: The New Yorker magazine.
The argument is made that Jews still vote Democratic, and don’t support the Iraq war, in polls. Walt and Mearsheimer say so in their famous (realist) paper. Bush may have gotten 100 percent of the neocon vote, but only 24 percent of the Jewish vote. We’re liberals.
I would argue that while mainstream Jews are very liberal on abortion and school prayer and Hollywood sex and violence—social issues—they have allowed neocons to represent them—that is to say, Jewish public opinion is a conservative force in foreign policy. Ask erstwhile liberals Waxman (who represents Hollywood) and Lieberman, and watch from whom Ned Lamont’s insurgent antiwar candidacy against Lieberman in Connecticut draws its strength. The antiwar movement is so far a populist movement. Not very Jewish. Though, yes, Hilda Silverman and Dan Ellsberg are there.
I’m not saying the progressive Jewish tradition is dead. But we no longer characterize the force of the Jewish presence in American life. When I demonstrated against the war in the treasonous cold in February 2003, my favorite speaker was Tony Kushner, who’s a lot more Jewish than I am. Kushner is one of the exceptions that proves the rule. There are many of us, including California Congressman Bob Filner, a freedom rider in the 60s who led opposition to the war. But we are the outliers. I’m sure that there are evangelical Christians who depart from the mainstream evangelical Christian view that gays shouldn’t get married. But they’re not working the polls in Ohio. The body of Jewish opinion now licenses the neocons politically. The press routinely characterizes the evangelical Christians as rightwing; and I think the press should characterize the Jewish presence as centrist.
Why? One thing Kushner understands is that being a progressive in American life, and opposing the war, both these things necessitate a separation from Israel—a slight separation, inasmuch as he’s merely calling for a more evenhanded U.S. policy in the Middle East. The bulk of American Jewry cannot take that step. And so they have been swept to the right.