A voter casts his ballot with his child at the East Midwood Jewish Center polling station in Brooklyn on November 6, 2018. ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images.
In his 1973 Commentary article “The Jewish Vote (Again),” Milton Himmelfarb famously quipped: “The Jews earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans.” But history would come to mock Himmelfarb’s wit. For, by 2020, Episcopalians (along with most of the Protestant mainline) have come to vote like Jews. And where does that leave the Jews of 2020? The answer is subtle, enlightening, and very Jewish: it depends.
Let’s start with a thought experiment to illustrate the logic of representative, democratic politics. Imagine for a moment that you convene a group of your neighbors to fight for a single issue: removing automatic speed cameras from along the side of the road. You hate those cameras, and you know that most of your neighbors do, too. You want your representatives to have them removed. How do you get the politicians to take your concern seriously, and prioritize it above all the others?
You’d start by inhabiting the politicians’ point of view. Their immediate, practical interest is to stay in office. And that suggests a pretty straightforward argument. You’d tell your representatives that if they have the cameras removed, your neighbors will reward them with their votes. That’s the logic of interest groups. Voting matters. Elected representatives will care about issues that energize voters. That’s not cynical; it’s democratic accountability at its best.
But of course, in order to persuade the politicians, you’d have to have some evidence that voters really do care about the speed cameras; and not only care about them in an abstract way, but intensely enough to vote on that issue. It doesn’t do a politician much good if the voters in her district merely care about something. They have to care enough about it to manifest that care politically—in the voting booth. So your next step would be to demonstrate to the politician—through polling, for example—that your neighbors care enough about those speed cameras for the issue to affect their voting decisions.
The purpose of this thought experiment is to illustrate political relevance, which is not the same as voter preferences or attitudes or feelings, however widely shared. It doesn’t matter if all your neighbors want the street cameras removed if the intensity of that desire isn’t sufficient to change their votes. Thinking politically in a democracy requires demonstrating the electoral advantages that come from removing the speed cameras, and the electoral costs that voters will extract if you don’t.
That seems like an elemental insight, but it’s one that is conspicuously absent from most political analyses of the Jews of America.
In fact, prominent interest groups claiming to represent Jewish political views proclaim proudly that their members do not prioritize the group’s preferences when it comes to voting. Take the self-described “pro-Israel, pro-peace” interest group J Street, whose agenda is to move American foreign policy on Israel to the left. Much like our hypothetical anti-speed-camera activist, J Street surveys American Jews (ostensibly) to convince politicians that voters will reward or punish them according to their support for its agenda. You’d expect J Street to try to demonstrate that American Jews care quite a lot about Israel, and that they are prepared to bring those intense views with them into the voting booth. But J Street makes no such claim.
For the last decade, on each election night, J Street has asked American Jews about their views of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Their own polls show that American Jews by a large margin believe in J Street’s core priorities: the establishment of a Palestinian state, support for the 2015 Iran deal, the Democrats’ superiority over the Republicans, and so on. While the poll offers some evidence that respondents support J Street’s positions, these data are belied by the low intensity of support.
To wit: J Street’s polling indicates that 90 percent of American Jews—regardless of what they think about Israel—do not determine their votes because of Israel. And that was back in 2012, when the number of American Jews who rated Israel as one of their top-two voting priorities was at a high of 10 percent. In 2018, the most recent poll date, Israel was a top-two voting issue for only 4 percent of American Jews; 96 percent of American Jews said that they prioritized other matters of public concern, usually healthcare or the economy.
Now, why would an interest group publish, for all the world to see, evidence of how few of its members will vote against the politicians who oppose the group’s defining issue? Don’t those data suggest that politicians can safely ignore J Street’s Israel policies so long as they cater to the other concerns that actually determine the votes of their members? J Street has depicted itself as an Israel-focused, Jewish political organization whose members don’t vote on Israel. Has any non-Jewish political-advocacy group ever advertised that the people it claims to represent don’t vote on its flagship issue?
No savvy political operation would ever make such a seemingly counterproductive argument. But what if the true purpose of J Street and other progressive Jewish organizations is not to encourage politicians to serve the interests of their Jewish constituents, but instead to make progressive ideas palatable to their Jewish constituents? The message that J Street’s poll conveys to politicians is that it is electorally safe to disregard the Jews because they don’t vote on Jewish issues like Israel. Its message to Jewish voters is that they can call themselves pro-Israel even if they support candidates who wish to pursue policies that undermine both the security of the Jewish state and the U.S.-Israel relationship.
Far from conceding its own irrelevance, J Street capitalizes on progressive Jewish apathy concerning Israel, exploiting the muted but crucial difference between its members’ inclinations and their priorities. And they do so in order to promulgate a narrative according to which Jewish progressives declare as “pro-Israel” whatever positions progressive politicians might take.
Far too many analysts contemplating the Jewish vote have swallowed the false narrative. Seeing clearly requires looking at Jewish political preferences in a new way. The 2004 re-election campaign for George W. Bush was the first to acknowledge that it no longer made sense to speak of a single Jewish vote. From the perspective of a political consultant or a campaign, it was instead necessary to consider two distinct Jewish demographics. The first and larger one is urban or suburban, highly educated in secular terms, affluent, professional, and politically and socially progressive. In short, this is the conventional picture of the liberal, American Jewish demographic. They both earn and vote like college-educated secular Gentiles.
The second group is smaller. Like the first, it is also urban and highly educated. But it is educated in Jewish history and law, separated culturally from mainstream America, and imbued with a high level of religious observance. “Traditionalist” is the term we give to this second, rapidly growing, Jewish American identity.
Analysts of American voting behavior who repeat conventional wisdom about the Democrats’ lock on the Jewish vote are either confused themselves or intentionally misleading their readers and clients. Because its members are indistinguishable from non-Jews who fall into the same demographic in terms of education, income, and geography, and moreover because in our partisan times they’re unlikely to consider voting for non-Democratic candidates, the Jewish mainstream has become politically irrelevant. Democrats don’t have to court them.
By contrast, the minority of Jewish Americans who fall into the traditionalist camp are politically salient, as Jews, in American elections.
And here is where the question of political priorities comes into play. Every Jewish voter must consider three set of issues. First are issues whose primary effects have little effect on them as Jews—taxation, the environment, trade, immigration. Second are issues whose effects are felt more intensely by members of certain Jewish communities, including religious freedom and school choice. Finally, there are issues that most Jews (including those who do not prioritize them) see as “Jewish issues,” of direct concern to the Jewish community. The two most prominent such issues are the U.S.-Israel relationship and anti-Semitism.
Now, let’s see how these categories of political preference map onto America’s two Jewish demographics, the progressives and the traditionalists. According to the aforementioned J Street poll following the 2018 elections—“Jews identify with Democrats on culture, values, and policy both in the domestic and international realms.” Similarly, a 2012 Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) poll of Jewish voters showed an overwhelming emphasis on social justice and economic distribution; only 4 percent prioritized Israel. From these two surveys, which are indicative of other data sources we’ve studied, mainstream American Jews care most about issues of broad effect and concern. Their priorities mirror those of their non-Jewish neighbors, and their politics skew heavily to the left.
Explicitly Democratic Jewish organizations, like the Jewish Democratic Council of America or the now-defunct National Jewish Democratic Council, point to this majority in order to argue that the overriding Jewish value of tikkun olam, social justice, simply amounts to progressive politics. And it is why the Jewish Currents editor-at-large Peter Beinart could recently write these remarkable lines: “What makes someone a Jew—not just a Jew in name, but a Jew in good standing—today? In ḥaredi circles, being a real Jew means adhering to religious law. In leftist Jewish spaces, it means championing progressive causes.”
We do not dispute this cohort’s sincere commitment to ecumenical progressivism, or their belief that it is the ideal expression of Jewish values. But in response to the evidence of the mainstream Jewish community’s widely shared progressive beliefs we ask if there is anything specifically “Jewish” about progressive Jewish politics. This question has nothing to do with their ethnic or religious status as Jews, or the authenticity of their understanding of Judaism. It is rather a statistical question. For a category that does not alter political behavior is not worth polling. In a poll—as in any statistical model—every variable is supposed to add valuable information. In the mathematical back end behind the questions, useful answers divide the data into multiple streams. If the data stream marked “Jewish” differs from the data stream marked “non-Jewish,” the Jewish variable is relevant; knowing it can change predictions. If the two data streams are statistically indistinguishable, the “Jewish” variable is statistically irrelevant. To make the Jews an interesting subject of political analysis, the model must introduce a new variable to split the Jewish data stream: progressive vs. traditionalist. Only Jewish traditionalists exhibit political behavior that is distinct—and thus politically meaningful.
Jewish traditionalists differ from their non-Jewish demographic counterparts because they elevate Jewish issues and identity to the forefront of their political decision-making. Such traditionalist thinking is especially manifest in two Jewish American groups: the Orthodox and recent immigrants (particularly from Israel and the former Soviet Union) and their children. Together, they and others from among the Jewish MENA (Middle East and North Africa) communities, account for (at least) hundreds of thousands of right-leaning voters who are systematically undercounted in polls of American Jews—hardly an insignificant oversight. They all tend to prioritize Jewish security and continuity above universal issues.
Voting data tracked at the precinct level show that heavily Jewish neighborhoods stand out only if their residents are primarily Orthodox or are immigrants. Every Orthodox precinct whose voting behavior has been tracked has swung appreciably towards the Republicans since 2004.
Those Republican leanings have proven to be robust. During the summer of 2018, Ami Magazine surveyed 263 Orthodox Jews in the tristate area surrounding New York City. Republicans outnumbered Democrats 91 to 76 (others were independent or declined to state their party affiliation). Over 90 percent (241 of the 263) rated President Trump’s approval satisfactory or better, and 215 said they would vote for him in 2020. In late 2019, Ami conducted a broader, more methodologically sound poll of 723 Orthodox respondents in fifteen states; about 40 percent were registered Republicans versus about 26 percent registered Democrats. President Trump again enjoyed a job-approval rating around 90 percent; only about 5 percent disapproved (the remainder were undecided). Perhaps even more telling, however, were a pair of questions about the core Jewish issues: “When it comes to fighting anti-Semitism, who[m] do you trust more?” A stunning 92.5 percent chose “Donald Trump and the Republicans”; only 1.4 percent chose “Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats.” When asked which of the past six presidents “accomplished most for the security of Israel,” 82.7 percent chose Trump. (Reagan ranked second at 9.5 percent.)
Traditionalist Jews are statistically interesting because their behavior defies expectations of income and zip code—and because their votes are genuinely in play. Many of the same traditionalist voters who vote for Republicans in the White House support down-ticket Democrats who promise and deliver financial assistance to their communities. Jewish progressives, on the other hand, have followed the path of other assimilated immigrant groups such as the Irish and Italians: their politics are no longer distinguishable from those who share their zip code, age, education, and income bracket. They have rendered themselves statistically and politically uninteresting.
Traditionalist Jewish voters, however, remain interesting in the same way that Catholic voters remain interesting; they elevate a set of particular priorities that are unique. Presidential campaigns once had dedicated outreach to Irish and Italians. That ended decades ago, but Catholic outreach persists.
Dismissing the political relevance of so many American Jews may raise hackles, but their leading organizations already acknowledge every part of the argument other than the conclusion. Even groups hewing closer to the center-left than towards hardcore progressivism concur, though more subtly. For decades, AIPAC’s ironclad commitment to bipartisanship implicitly argued that Jews need not consider Israel’s security when determining how to vote, with the organization literally describing presidential elections as “win-win” contests and—unlike every other issue lobby—resolutely refusing to acknowledge any advantage based on which party controls Congress. According to AIPAC then, the quintessential “Jewish issue” of Israel’s security should not be a material contributor to political decision-making. Political donations by AIPAC-affiliated PACs and bundlers famously reflect that logic.
That is not to say that Israel isn’t important to non-traditionalist Jews. In 2012, the PRRI reported that “when asked which qualities are most important to their Jewish identity, nearly half (46 percent) of American Jews cite a commitment to social equality, twice as many as cite support for Israel (20 percent) or religious observance (17 percent).” Likely many more, however, would identify as caring about or supporting Israel, but for few is it a priority at the voting booth.
And priorities set policy. If progressive Jewish voters list healthcare, gun control, immigration, and climate change as their top priorities—the issues that actually decide their votes—why should anyone defer to their views on Israel and anti-Semitism? How voters who cite healthcare and climate change as their top concerns feel about the Jewish state may be of interest to sociologists and activists, but it is entirely moot to political calculations.
Jewish progressive organizations spend far more time and effort trying to persuade Jews—and America at large—that progressive positions are “good for the Jews” than they do convincing progressives to embrace particular Jewish concerns. In spending their energy and resources making the progressive argument to the Jewish community rather than bringing Jewish issues to their fellow progressives, they have effectively become reverse lobbying groups. A recent investigation of the progressive political organization Bend the Arc, for example, noted that it was “not working to advance American Jewish life, but rather to obtain and cement Jewish-branded support for progressive political causes. . . . The specificity and particularism of one’s Jewishness would be tempered and made subservient to the greater cause of a universally acceptable, humanistic society.”
Bend the Arc does not equivocate. The organization does not speak for Jews who happen to agree with progressive positions; it speaks for progressives who happen to be Jewish.
And they are not alone. There is a flourishing ecosystem of progressive political operatives leading Jewish, or nominally Jewish groups, perhaps none less forthrightly than the “Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect” whose board chair has admitted that it is “neither a Jewish organization nor a Holocaust organization.”
Needless to say, America’s traditionalist Jews do not make their Jewishness “subservient” to “the greater cause of a universally acceptable, humanistic society.” To them, the functioning of America’s Jewish community and the security of Jewish communities around the world (including Israel) are paramount; there are no “greater” causes. The minority of traditionalists who happen to agree with progressive positions on unrelated issues may find it uncomfortable to support conservative politicians, but given the choice between a conservative whose policies will strengthen the Jewish community and a progressive whose policies will harm the Jewish community, the overwhelming majority of them will either vote for the conservative or stay at home. America’s progressive and traditionalist Jews elevate different political priorities. Only the traditionalist priorities are sufficiently distinct to mark them as a politically salient voting bloc.
In 2020, Jewish progressives remain the larger group, but their numbers are in decline, and they have little political power because they are not, as such, politically distinctive. Jewish traditionalists comprise a highly engaged “Jewish vote” that is worth tracking and engaging. Perhaps more importantly, it is growing. If current trends continue, Jewish traditionalists will define the American Jewish future, and it’s time pundits, politicians, and pollsters paid attention.