Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Byron L. Sherwin, an accomplished theologian, ethicist, scholar and teacher. Ordained a Rabbi by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, he received his PHD in Cultural History from the University of Chicago. Sherwin is the author or editor of 28 books and over 150 articles and monographs, most recently Faith Finding Meaning: A Theology of Judaism (Oxford, 2009). For 40 years, he has served at Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies at Chicago, where he currently is Distinguished Service Professor and Vice-President for Academic Affairs Emeritus.
FP: Rabbi Sherwin, welcome back to Frontpage Interview.
In our recent interview, we discussed why the vast majority of American Jews identify themselves as political liberals and what the self-destructive consequences are of them doing so.
I would like to continue today by discussing why a shift to conservatism has not yet occurred among American Jews and if you think that such a shift might soon occur.
Let me first begin with this question: What have been some changing realities of American Jewish life? And how have they influenced Jewish political views and behaviors?
Sherwin: Thanks Jamie.
These are the kinds of questions that would really take at least a book each to answer completely. But, simply put, there have been enormous changes in American Jewish life, especially in the last century, particularly in the decades since World War II. Nonetheless, I suggest that even though it seems surprising, illogical, ironic and counter-intuitive, these major changes have not had a real influence on American Jewish political views and behaviors.
Widespread social and economic discrimination, rampant anti-Semitism, poverty, lack of employment opportunities, political marginalization, a feeling of vulnerability, and a perception that conservatives considered Jews as personas non grata in America—along with other conservative attitudes and policies that were reminiscent of those experienced by Jews in Europe—propelled Jewish immigrants and their children into the liberal and radical camps, including the American Communist and Socialists parties. The outset of the Great Depression, and the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt, solidified the overwhelming allegiance of Jews to the Democratic Party. Jews voted more heavily for Roosevelt than any other group of Americans, increasing the percentage of their vote to 90 percent for his last two terms. This led one Jewish observer to say that “Jews believe in three veltn (“worlds”): die velt (the natural world), yene velt (the supernatural world), and Roose-velt.
FP: Let me interrupt for a second. Why this support for Roosevelt and what were the consequences?
Byron: The overwhelming majority of American Jews perceived the Roosevelt administration–its advocacy of government activism in support of economic growth; its support of unions, the poor and middle-class workers; and, the opportunities of government service afforded to Jews and others–to be in their best interests.
Now, the almost unanimous alignment of American Jews with Roosevelt’s Democratic Party led to the decline of Jewish affiliation both with the Republican Party on the right and the Socialist Party on the left. Jews embraced the Democratic Party’s program of using government initiative to address poverty, economic issues and discrimination. Jews who came to America as immigrants and their children, saw the Democratic Party as a powerful and dominant force in American political life committed to the social, economic and political advancement of a liberal agenda and of social programs that resonated with Jewish convictions, needs and aspirations, and which affirmed many of the political impulses they had carried with them from Europe. Jews perceived the Democratic coalition as a source, not only of opportunity but also of protection and safety from the attitudes and actions of hostile American institutions, which they identified with the oppression by conservatives that they had experienced in Europe.
Given the socio-economic conditions of American Jewry back then, and given the attraction of the ideology and activities of liberal politics to a generation of Jewish immigrants and their immediate progeny who sought amelioration from the disabilities of those conditions, the Jewish allegiance to liberal values and to the Democratic Party, seemed to make perfect sense. Jewish interests, as most Jews saw them, were best represented by the liberal politics of Roosevelt’s New Deal Democrats.
FP: Contemporary American Jews?
Byron: American Jews today are far removed from the immigrant generation, and the conditions that characterized it. The self-image and correlative political strategies of past generations were rooted in the conviction that in America, as in Europe, the Jews were an out-group, perhaps the paradigmatic out-group. But, this is no longer the case. In recent decades, Jews have become an in-group in American cultural life, the professions, higher education, science, business, politics, etc.
For example, no longer is Jewish access to our elite academic institutions either precluded or restricted by quotas, as it was not so long ago. Rather, Jews now serve as presidents, deans, faculty and students at our premier academic institutions in numbers far exceeding their percentage of the American population. Socio-economic-based discrimination is largely a distant memory. The pervasive poverty of the immigrant population is long gone. American Jewry has achieved extraordinary socio-economic upward mobility and social acceptance, perhaps unparalleled in the past two millennia of Jewish historical experience.
Yet, despite vast changes in American Jewish life historically, socially and economically, Jewish political affiliations and behaviors largely fail to reflect those changes. Rather, it has been other phenomena in American Jewish life, especially the growing secularization of American Jewry, their progressive detachment from traditional Jewish teachings, and their increasing liberalization of the form of Judaism they do affirm, that has kept them squarely in the liberal camp. Though the Jewish theologian Emil Fackenheim considered “liberal Judaism” as an oxymoron, the vast majority of American Jews who continue to maintain synagogue affiliation, affiliate with liberal forms of Judaism. The largest synagogue movement is Reform Judaism, and in the words of one observer, “the only difference between the left wing of the Democratic Party and Reform Judaism are the Jewish holidays.”
Liberalism’s economic program is oriented primarily toward the poor. When American Jews were struggling to establish themselves economically, liberal policies made sense, as a matter of self-interest. But today, when American Jews have achieved a position of unparalleled affluence and influence, such policies seem to conflict with Jewish self-interest. Yet, studies consistently show that Jews largely endorse the programs for “income distribution,” increased government spending on domestic programs and less on defense, and higher taxes, characteristic of liberal Democrats. For instance, though the current generation of baby-boomers is on the verge of inheriting an unprecedented amount of wealth from their aging parents, Jews supported Democrats in 2008, who made no secret of their intention to reinstitute the “death tax” and to tax inheritances up to a rate of 55 percent, as well as raising other taxes across the board. Unlike other groups of Americans who became more conservative on economic issues once they achieve some modicum of economic success, American Jews continue to endorse policies and programs that are clearly not in their economic self-interest.
Anti-Semitism, which Jews– based upon their experiences in Europe and upon the immigrant experience in the United States—readily identify with the political right, has actually declined on the right while it has escalated on the left, especially among those who form the coalition that currently comprises the left wing of the Democratic Party. Yet, liberal Jews seem either to ignore or to rationalize this currently expanding phenomenon of anti-Semitism among liberals.