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FP: And how does the support for Israel play into this?
Byron: Since the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, American Jews have advocated strongly for its security and its support. A growing hostility to Israel on the American political left has been matched by an expanding support for Israel on the American political right, especially among Evangelicals. Yet, it would seem that the majority of American Jews, who refuse to abandon their liberal principles even where their own self-interests are concerned, prefer the anti-Israel proclivities of the left to the pro-Israel position of the right. The stated commitment against prejudice by liberal Jews, does not seem to extend to those whose conservative political views they do not share. Among liberal American Jews, one strong prejudice, rooted in the immigrant experience, continues to manifest itself: fear, mistrust and prejudice against many Christian institutions and their spokespersons.
Liberal American Jews’ fear of religion, including their own, so poignantly described by Elliot Abrams in his book “Faith or Fear,” is at the roots of the liberal Jewish advocacy of an absolute separation of church and state, and of the confinement of religion to the private personal sphere rather than to the “public square.” It is ironic that on issues of public policy, liberals preclude religious intrusion, except where it endorses their own agenda, such as was the case with the civil rights movement. Liberal Jews would probably have considered the views of George Washington as un-American when he said: “And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. . . reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
Studies have shown that Jewish religious and ethnic identity is immeasurably strengthened among students who attend Jewish “Day Schools.” But, the dogma of church-state separation, as interpreted by liberal Jews, has led to persistent opposition to tuition voucher programs and other forms of aid for Jewish and non-Jewish private schools. With the current economic downturn, many such schools are on the verge of closing or already have closed for economic reasons. Though liberal synagogues today quietly accept funds from Homeland Security, these same congregations oppose any governmental funds going toward Jewish education.
In short, Jamie, to return to your original question: despite what one might reasonably expect, the enormous changes in American Jewish life of the past few decades, have basically left Jewish political affiliations and activities unaffected.
FP: For 40 years or more pundits have predicted a shift to conservativism and away from the Democratic Party by American Jews. You have helped us understand why it hasn’t occurred.
Now, do you think it will?
Sherwin: More than 40 years ago, Chales Liebman described the future of Jewish liberalism in America as “bleak.” Liebman believed that once American Jews realized that liberalism rejected “intrinsic Jewish values” and threatened the continuity of the Jewish people as Jews, they would reject liberalism. Liebman further opined that once American Jews perceived anti-Semitism as coming from the left, sometimes in more virulent forms than from the right; once American Jews began to see themselves as part of the “in-group” and no longer as an “out-group,” Jews would abandon liberalism. However, Liebman was wrong.
In the early 1970s, a growing number of observers of American Jewry predicted a gradual but inevitable shift toward conservatism and away from the Democratic Party by American Jews. They believed that positive changes in American Jewish life that escalated after World War II, such as a decline in anti-Semitism and discrimination, greater social acceptance of Jews, enhanced educational and professional opportunity, greater economic prosperity, and the transition of American Jews from an “out-group” to an “in-group,” would precipitate a shift of perception in American Jewish self-interest from a liberal perspective identified with the realities of the pre-war immigrant population to a conservative perspective more in line with the current interests and socio-economic conditions of American Jewry. But, they, too, were wrong.
There were those who interpreted the occasional dips in Jewish voting patterns from the 90 percent received by Roosevelt during his last two terms to the 60 percent received by Stevenson in 1952 and 1956, as the initiation of a new trend toward conservatism and an easing of the Democratic hold upon Jews. But, the 80 percent of the Jewish vote received by Kennedy and the 90 percent received by Johnson allayed those expectations. The dip below 50 percent received by Carter in 1980 and the 40 percent received by Reagan in 1980, was also perceived as the beginning of a trend. But, when the Democratic presidential candidate in the five elections between 1992 and 2008 garnered at least 75 percent of the Jewish vote with Bush 41 in 1992 receiving only 11 percent and Bush 43 in 2000 receiving only 19 percent, such predictions again waned.
After the 2008 presidential election, where the liberal policies of Obama and the Democratic Party received a higher percentage of Jewish votes than it did from any other white ethnic group, the expectation for a surge in Jewish conservatism seemed a moot point. Nonetheless, in recent months, disaffection with many of the policies and of the performance of liberal democratic policies, and especially of the Obama’s administration’s Middle East policies, have led to a “buyers remorse” among many American Jews. As a result, pundits are once more predicting a seismic shift in American Jewry toward conservatism and the Republican Party. However, about this I have strong doubts.
FP: Why the doubts?
Sherwin: Though Jews may eventually abandon Obama, they cannot be expected to abandon either liberalism or the Democratic Party. Though some shift may be discernible in the 2010 and 2012 elections, I do not expect any substantial change—though I would be delighted were one to finally occur.
The indoctrination of American Jews to believe that both Judaism and Jewish identity are socially and politically linked in nature and essence, is a stranglehold that remains too formidable to break at present. I therefore believe that like those of earlier decades, those who now predict an imminent massive shift of American Jews toward conservatism and toward the Republican Party will be disappointed.
Nonetheless, all hope is not lost. Members of a new and upcoming generation of American Jews, who see the experiences and ideologies of an immigrant generation only as distant memory, who see themselves as being very much part of the in-group, who perceive liberal policies as mortgaging their future, may eventually turn toward a more conservative political agenda.
Finally, any movement of Jews toward conservatism or toward the Republican Party in the coming elections will be influenced by how conservatives and Republicans present their message. Though past obstacles to why Jews should affiliate with conservatism may have been removed, compelling reasons as to why they should have not yet been clearly articulated. Throughout modern history, Jews have endorsed political movements aimed at furthering individual liberty and opportunity, committed to ending discrimination, enhancing Jewish security, and both protecting and furthering Jewish interests. Only if the conservative and Republican message can clearly reflect these concerns, is there a chance for increasing numbers of American Jews, especially young American Jews, to drift away from liberalism and from their overwhelming Jewish allegiance to the Democratic Party.
FP: Rabbi Sherwin, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.
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