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.
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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